Comprehending conformity

The Discovery Channel’s Head Games had an episode on “Conformity,” with weird instances of people’s conforming to rules and social pressure. For instance, a sign was placed in a museum instructing people to walk on an arbitrary line, and everyone shown did, even following it in a loop. I suspect they edited out anything that didn’t fit the script. Didn’t anyone ask questions? Did the people ever stop walking in a loop, or are they still there today?

Still, it’s undeniable that most people are heavily conformist. As the narrator points out, for most of human existence being cast out of the group was a death sentence. Today we have more options, but evolutionary pressures don’t go away quickly.

I thought about how that characterization applies to me. There’s little question that I’m an outlier. If everyone else in an audience rises to give a standing ovation, I only join them if I think the performance was worth it — and if I do, I’m one of the first ones up. It looks strange to me when others rise a few at a time, as if they’re belatedly realizing it was an extraordinary performance. If everybody’s singing a song because it’s popular and there’s a tradition of joining in, and I know the song well but don’t like it, I won’t sing, even though I like singing along in general. (I’m thinking especially of “Stars in Their Eyes.”) If MBTA snoops are checking personal items at a subway entrance, I’ll turn around and leave while everyone else is passively accepting the intrusion. It’s a short walk to the next stop.

But I’m not a complete non-conformist. My appearance is ordinary, I use grammatical English, and I write with the lines on ruled paper. There’s a difference between group conformity and rule conformity, and between blindly conforming to out-of-context rules and adhering to principles. If group conformity can be measured on a scale, I’m probably in the bottom percentile; but if a set of principles makes sense to me, I’ll apply it and stick with it. I’m not claiming to be immune to manipulation, but crowd pressure isn’t the way to do it.

It’s sometimes difficult for me to understand the conformist mindset. When lots of people agree to some piece of nonsense, I start wondering what bizarre premise and twisted reasoning led them there. Actually it’s often no reasoning at all, and no premise except acceptance of what the group accepts.

Conformists seem to have just as much trouble understanding independent thought. They try to put any position they hear into some familiar category, so it’s just conformity to a different group. Doing this makes disagreements degenerate into conflicts between groups and local customs escalate into competing collectivist political doctrines. It’s hard for a really new way of thinking to get heard and understood. Still, someone who holds new and independent ideas can seriously shake conformist foundations. When everyone’s expected to align with some group dogma, a position that doesn’t is disturbing and can lead to a shift in the paradigm.

It’s not so bad living outside the herd.

Dred Scott’s Revenge

Andrew Napolitano’s Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America is the first book of his that I’ve read. He’s clearly a libertarian, but not one who fits into any standard category. His writing about slavery is passionate, and he spares no one who contributed in any way to the continued existence of slavery—not even Locke, Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. He favors judicial activism, in the sense that he places natural rights above adherence to the letter of the Constitution. But in some ways he’s more like a conservative. He regards religion as the foundation of natural rights, and he stresses this point so much that he doesn’t leave much room for a rational foundation for rights. He regards the “rights” of an unborn “baby” as equal to the rights of a black (or white) person. One thing I’m sure of is that his convictions, whether they make sense or not, are his own and not a convenience to please some group.

His scathing critique of Lincoln (whose Emancipation Proclamation, he correctly notes, “freed” only those slaves who were beyond the Union government’s reach) has a superficial resemblance to what comes from the Lew Rockwell crowd. However, the Rockwellians are working from a thinly veiled sympathy for the Confederacy; there’s no hint of this in Napolitano.

He makes a stunning claim:

Lincoln strategically used the United States Constitution as a tool to resist interference with the institution of slavery. Before he was elected president, he proposed an amendment which stated in part:
No Amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of the State.

“Persons held to labor or service” was a legal term for slaves. A Wikipedia article (as it stands while I’m writing this) refers to the quoted amendment as the Corwin Amendment and doesn’t mention any role by Lincoln in proposing it, though he said in his First Inaugural Address, “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” He said there that he had not seen the amendment, which if true means he couldn’t have proposed it.

Much of the book is a study in how viciously people can act and how virtuous they can claim to be about it. It’s often painful reading.

In discussing the modern world, Napolitano has harsh things to say about both of the major parties: the Republicans for playing to racial politics even when not actually being racist, and the Democrats for fostering black dependency on government programs.

The last chapter before the short wrap-up strikes a more optimistic note than most of the book, dealing with the story of Jackie Robinson. As a Christian, Napolitano is clearly impressed by Robinson’s stoicism in the face of insults and abuse. I’m just a bit disappointed that he didn’t mention that while Robinson was the first black player in the majors, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe beat him by a year into integrated pro baseball, right here in Nashua.

Judge Napolitano is certainly an interesting and distinctive figure. I admire his passion, but his insistence that “natural” rights are supernatural in origin undermines his position. I’m planning to look at some of his other books.

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Buy local?

When I visit a town and see “Buy local” signs in the stores, I’m vaguely amused. They’re telling me, if I take them seriously, I shouldn’t shop there but should wait till I go home. “Buy local” is a zero-sum game. My local business is most people’s out-of-town shop.

Why should I make a special effort to “buy local,” anyway? Are the shops in my home town more virtuous than in yours? Not that I’ve noticed. Does buying local mean more jobs and more money coming back around to me? It’s an extremely attenuated effect at best.

“Buy Local” usually means to buy at small locally owned shops, not at local shops that are part of big chains or franchises. But both bring employment, and big chains may hire more people than a small shop on a shoestring budget. When I buy at a chain store, that doesn’t mean money is leaking out of my town. Money goes out, but it also comes in. Local stores also send money out of town, unless they’re selling strictly home-grown and homemade goods, have locally made furnishings, deposit their money in a local bank, etc. If they have to pay higher wholesale prices because they’re small (and pass the costs on to you), then they’re actually sending more money out of town.

Sometimes I’d rather deal with a particular business even if I have to pay higher prices. I might like the people who run it and the service they provide, or I might admire what they do outside their dealings with me. I might just not like the big store, if they’ve been spamming me or otherwise acting obnoxious. But this has nothing to do with whether they’re local or not. A lot of my favorite vendors are websites based in distant places.

There are cases where favoring a local shop makes sense. If there’s a business nearby which offers something that’s otherwise hard to find, then I’ll make a point of buying there even in cases where I don’t have to. For instance, decent bookstores are hard to find around Nashua (Barnes and who? The ones who sent me 300 pieces of spam email?), so I make trips to the Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, NH, fairly often. I like having a place not too far from home where I can browse through real, dead-tree books. The point isn’t that it’s local, but that it’s a unique value which I want to keep. My own purchases don’t really do a lot for them, but my recommendations and their ripple effects might. Saying “Shop there because it’s a good store to have around” is a lot more convincing than “Shop there because it’s local to you.”

Surrogate churches

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know that I’m an atheist and that I seldom make a big deal of it. In southern New Hampshire it’s not a problem to be one, and atheism isn’t a belief but the absence of one, so I don’t normally talk a lot about it.

I grant, though, that churches offer values which have nothing to do with the promotion of religious doctrines. They provide a sense of community and offer support to members encountering difficulties. They provide an occasion for members to gather regularly. For many church members, these benefits are more important than the belief system. (By “church” I mean any nominally religious organization with regular local gatherings, whether it’s called a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or whatever.)

Even without a belief system, a church-like organization can offer those benefits. The Unitarians, as a church without a doctrine, demonstrate this. Other types of organization aren’t at all church-like but provide a similar community focus. An example which I’m personally familiar with is science fiction fandom. It provides regular gatherings (club meetings and conventions), often provides encouragement and support for members with problems, and takes note of important events in members’ lives. The same is even more true, for me, of its subset, filk music fandom. (Take a look here if you haven’t heard of filk before.) Because I’m a member of the filk community, there are places all over the US, and in the UK and Germany as well, where I’m welcome as a friend and can ask for help in an emergency.

You could say that SF fandom has a belief system: a belief in the future. It’s mostly an optimistic belief, one that things can become better even if there are no guarantees. It always holds that our chances are better if we’re ready for change and think about what it may be like. It accepts cultural variety; if we’re even going to think about talking with beings from another planet, we should be able to find some common ground with people from Zambia or Thailand. (I don’t mean that all cultural practices are equally valid, but that difference alone isn’t a reason for dismissal.)

Filk fandom, the part of SF fandom for whom sharing music is important, also has a central belief: that people can and should make music, even if they aren’t supremely talented, rather than just listen to the professionals. The acceptance speeches of Barry and Sally Childs-Helton at the 2003 Filk Hall of Fame Banquet are excellent statements of this belief. Sally said:

In a way, we’ve been robbed. We have robbed ourselves of the joy of making music, of dancing, of doing art. This [the filk] community has taken that and pitched it out the window and said, “We are making music because we love it, we need to do it, it feeds our souls, it feeds our community, it feed us as individuals.” And we do it.

Barry’s closing remarks hint at the potential downside of any church or surrogate church, though I don’t think he intended to:

For this and for many other reasons, I consider the people of science fiction fandom to be my people, in the ancient sense that the tribesman will look at his tribe and say “These are my people”. That someone will look at his ancestors and say “These are my people” at his close friends and say “These are my people.”

The ancient tribesman who looked at his tribe and said, “These are my people,” tended to look at everyone else and say, “There aren’t my people. They may be enemies. They may not even really be people.” People tend to divide the world between “us,” friends, and “not-us,” enemies, with any difference providing an excuse. We see this in the term “mundanes” which SF fans apply to outsiders. Mostly the term is used with good humor, commenting on the puzzlement others feel when we do things that look weird to them. Too often, though, it reflects an assumption that those other people have no imagination, that they live boring lives, that they have nothing to offer except as part of the economy. This betrays the best part of fandom. IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations — includes so-called “mundanes.” There are many kinds of communities and interests.

Community organizations can either support or stifle its members as individuals. In Barry’s case, the use of “this is my tribe” was just an odd piece of rhetoric; the filk community doesn’t at all give the sense of living in a tribe. Both actual and surrogate churches, though, are capable of instilling a sense of deep obligation to the group and hostility to anyone who’s different. Each organization has to be judged by whether it encourages its members to think for themselves, accept their own uniqueness, and respect differences.

Introducing this blog

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a public-facing blog of general commentary. The name of my old one, “The Blog of M’Gath,” is a wordplay on Babylon 5 and would be obscure today, even though B5 is still my favorite science fiction TV series.

The name “Building My World” reflects a philosophical point, which I’ve previously discussed on my website. As human beings, we live by ideas, not just by things. Existing as a person requires having a worldview, even if it’s a simple one. It covers the way things are, the way they could be, and the way they ought to be. A happy, successful life is one in which you build some piece of what ought to be. You aim for a microcosm of the world you want to live in.

What sort of vision would I want to reach? A world in which people value their own lives and respect the rights of others. One where it’s possible for me to live freely, without fear of violence or arbitrary power. One where I can share my values with others and work with them to make good things happen. One where I can help others when it’s appropriate but I’m not subject to anyone’s demands for help.

What concretely am I doing to aim for this? The answers are complicated, and I’ll be working on them in my posts. A few answers for now: Living in New Hampshire, where I’m relatively left alone. Participating in science fiction fandom, which has a long record of organizing volunteer activities without getting government help and has had a strong libertarian element. (Unfortunately, much of fandom have lately been moving strongly in the direction of seeking governmental favors at other people’s expense and ignoring abuses of power for the sake of supporting the party that will give them goodies.) Avoiding situations in which I’d be prey to goon types; for instance, I no longer fly out of United States airports. Keeping myself informed from a variety of sources and checking my facts wherever possible. Reading books and writing songs that show a path to the kind of world I’d like. And now, writing this blog.

To keep myself on track, I’m setting certain ground rules for myself. I’ll write one or two essays a week, not more, and I’ll try to write something every week if I’m not overwhelmed. These will be essays on broad ideas rather than the issue of the day, and they’ll mostly focus on positive values rather than complaints.

Follow along and comment if you like.

This world under construction

I’ll have some content here soon. This is a test link for experimenting with appearance.

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