In the realm of public discourse, we often find ourselves surrendering to the orchestrated narratives of institutions. These narratives, meticulously crafted and disseminated, do not merely serve to safeguard human dignity and moral values. Instead, they are insidiously designed to advance the self-serving agendas of powerful entities—corporations, governmental bodies, and international institutions like the United Nations and its affiliated NGOs. This glaring paradox raises a question that strikes at the core of our existence: Why do individuals willingly embrace narratives imposed by the powerful, even when they starkly clash with their own moral compass?
The phenomenon at hand reveals the profound psychology of conformity, a force that assumes a dual role in our world—both reinforcing and confronting tyranny. To grasp its intricate mechanisms, one shall delve into the annals of history, decode the enigmatic landscape of psychology, and scrutinize real-life scenarios. What emerges is the formidable power of nonconformity—an often underestimated strength with the potential to dismantle the illusions of consensus that sustain oppressive systems.
Yet, the individuality that defines our lives faces an imminent threat—a daily assault on our privacy by corporations that harvest our personal data with a disturbing lack of transparency and accountability. Collecting data with nominal consent is one thing; however, the real and irrevocable peril emerges when these data are sold and exploited without our knowledge. As our world hurtles towards a dystopian reality, the traditional concept of the state and its bureaucratic institutions has given way to private corporations that control vast data centers, wielding unprecedented influence over our daily existence. Consequently, the once-formidable state and its institutions now appear as mere hollow facades.
Prof. Yuval Noah Harari has aptly termed this not just a technological crisis but a profound philosophical crisis. However, addressing the philosophical crisis of the “hackable human mind” seems futile without first confronting the political crisis perpetuated by initiatives such as the World Economic Forum, which seek to reset the global order. In this landscape, George Orwell’s satirical allegory, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” takes on a haunting resonance.
The famous Solomon Asch experiment from the 1950s starkly illustrates how individuals willingly relinquish their judgment to conform to the majority. Asch’s study exposed a disquieting truth—people often choose conformity over the pursuit of truth, even when confronted with indisputable evidence to the contrary. Renowned psychologist Todd Rose attributes this inclination to our innate desire to be part of the numerical majority, blurring the line between appearance and reality.
Governments, corporations, institutions, and their affiliates exploit this natural tendency to conform. They masterfully weave illusions of consensus through media manipulation, biased reporting, emotional appeals, misleading information, and manipulated polls. These tactics manufacture a deceptive veneer of widespread support for their agendas, leading countless individuals to silence dissenting voices. Todd Rose’s research exposes a disconcerting reality—people frequently underestimate the diversity of opinions within society, thus perpetuating these collective illusions.
These collective illusions, often termed “social lies,” arise when the majority privately disagrees with a particular viewpoint but publicly conforms, believing erroneously that others share their views. This cycle of conformity becomes self-reinforcing, making it exceedingly challenging to challenge the status quo. As individuals witness others conforming, they are more likely to follow suit, further entrenching the illusion of consensus. This phenomenon, as articulated by Rose, transforms into a self-fulfilling prophecy with profound and far-reaching consequences for society.
But collective illusions are not mere social quirks—they play a pivotal role in the rise and consolidation of authoritarianism, be it in the public or private domain. Vaclav Havel’s allegorical tale, “The Power of the Powerless,” vividly illustrates how seemingly inconsequential acts of noncompliance can disrupt the collective illusion of consensus. In totalitarian regimes, individuals may display government-endorsed slogans not out of conviction, but out of fear of the dire consequences of dissent. This perpetuates the illusion of support and bolsters the oppressive power structure.
Traditional philosophies have long celebrated the individual’s ability to shape society through words and actions. Figures like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn underline the importance of speaking the truth, even as a lone voice, to challenge tyranny. Henry Melvill’s metaphor of interconnected lives underscores how our actions send ripples through society, impacting others in ways we might never fully grasp. However, these philosophies primarily focused on the state or political leadership, overlooking the increasingly dominant role played by private entities masquerading as protectors of fundamental rights. Local regulatory bodies and democratic mechanisms find themselves relegated to the background, undermining the very essence of individual liberty.
In a world where conformity seems the path of least resistance, it is imperative to recognize the transformative potential of noncompliance. Understanding the psychology that drives our propensity to conform, as well as the strategies employed to manufacture consensus, empowers individuals to disrupt the collective illusions that benefit manipulators.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the renowned 19th-century American philosopher, advocated for nonconformity as essential for genuine personal flourishing. In a society that relentlessly pressures individuals to conform to prevailing norms and values, Emerson argued that conformity imposes a heavy cost, stifling one’s potential and subjecting well-being to external social pressures. Emerson boldly stated that to be truly human, one must be a nonconformist, highlighting how conformity often leads to a life molded by societal trends and cultural boundaries. He cautioned against the concealed expenses of conformity, such as sacrificing individual traits and values for societal preferences, particularly in favor of extroversion, obedience, and risk-aversion over introversion, disobedience, and risk-taking. Emerson also noted the wasteful consequences of conformity, where individuals engage in activities they don’t value, uphold beliefs they don’t genuinely hold, and accumulate unnecessary possessions, diverting resources from what genuinely matters in life.
The pernicious effects of conformity intensify in a society steeped in falsehoods. Contemporary times bear witness to politicians, educators, media outlets, and corporations disseminating untruths. This climate propels conformists further down misguided paths, encouraging them to amass unnecessary possessions, consume harmful products, unquestioningly obey authority figures, and seek pharmaceutical solutions that often exacerbate their problems.
Emerson’s admonition that “If you take in a lie, you must take in all that belongs to it” underscores the dangers of embracing deceitful narratives, leading to the adoption of destructive habits and values contradicting one’s true self. To be a modern nonconformist involves rejecting pervasive falsehoods in society, freeing oneself from a distorted self shaped by these untruths, and paving the way for profound personal transformation, as Emerson put it, “The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.” This liberation extends beyond self-renunciation to disengaging from institutions tainted by society’s falsehoods, necessitating independence and charting new, purpose-driven life paths, guided by Emerson’s belief that “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.” In essence, nonconformity becomes a journey of self-discovery and empowerment.
Choosing the path of nonconformity not only enhances personal well-being but also transforms individuals into forces for good in a world plagued by conformity and lies. Emerson believed that the inner state of being is reflected in external events. Conformists, by living falsehoods, perpetuate a sick society. In contrast, nonconformists, by aligning with truth and authenticity, manifest events that serve as antidotes to societal ills.
Among the profound texts in various philosophies, the Kalama Sutta in Buddhism offers principles for truth-seekers, emphasizing judgments rooted in the Dhamma. The four solaces in the sutta underscore how mental well-being, achieved by conquering greed, hate, and delusion, transcends the need for belief in rebirth or retribution. Nonconformity arises as a formidable instrument to combat the illusions that infiltrate society and those who manipulate it. It entails rejecting conformity to falsehoods and uncovering one’s authentic self, a driving force behind positive change in a world often dominated by conformity and deceit.
[Gerd Altmann / Pixabay]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a Sri Lankan-born journalist and author. He is the founder editor of Sri Lanka Guardian, Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, and Lanka Courier.