Is non-conformism a virtue?
When people are non-conformists, they usually refuse to go along with some (or most) of the dominant norms of a given society.
Non-conformists often seem brave. After all, it often takes courage to buck widely accepted trends and to live differently. Doing so can often make you very visible to the world, which can open you up to mockery, censure, or rejection of various sorts.
Examples of Non-Conformists
For example, I come from a long line of Quakers on both sides of my family. Quakers believe everyone is equal in the sight of God. Therefore, they generally refuse to conform to any custom that requires them to acknowledge social hierarchy.
For example, in England during the 1700s, English society had a strong class sytem. As such, society held that people in higher classes were better than people in lower classes. And accordingly, English custom required that people in lower classes bow to people in higher classes when they met on the streets.
Picture, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Many Quakers wore plain black and white clothes to live more simply and to critique the materialism of their day.
Quakers, believing that everyone was equal in the sight of God, refused to obey this custom. They were adamant non-conformists. Some Quakers, and I love this about them, were so non-conforming that they even refused to bow to the king when they were in his presence. And this non-conformity often got them in a lot of trouble. Indeed, Quakers often faced imprisonment, fines, and other forms of persecution for their non-conformity.
In fact, William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania, was a Quaker who had to leave England because of backlash he faced over his non-conformism. Lucky for Penn, he was a friend of the king who found his non-conformism charming. The king granted Penn a tract of land in Northern America, which became Pennsylvania and was a haven for other non-conformists like Penn.
Non-Conformists and Conscientious Objectors
As another example, some non-conforming citizens refuse to fight in wars and become conscientious objectors. While not all people object to war for noble reasons, many Quakers refuse to fight because they believe it is wrong to shed another person’s blood. As such, they refuse to fight, but they will serve as medics. In this role, they can save, rather than destroy, life. And such objectors, even those who act from noble motives, often face hostility and censure for their refusal to fight.
These two examples of non-conformism suggest that non-conformism can be a virtue. Virtue is our strength to resist vice or evil influences and to hold fast to the good. Certainly Quakers showed virtue when they insisted that people were equal in the sight of God and, accordingly, refused to practice customs enforcing inequality. And conscientious objectors demonstrate virtue when they refuse to shed blood but are willing to serve as medics to save lives on both sides of the war.
A clear sign of a virtuous non-conformist is that love for others motivates their non-conformism, and they are willing to suffer persecution for the sake of their loving principles.
Quakers were consistently loving non-conformists to social pressures that required them to debase themselves and other people. I often think of Quakers as the original punk rockers.
Punk Rock and Non-Conformism
The punk music genre developed largely as as non-conformist critique.For instance, a lot of punk or alternative music rails against degrading aspects of contemporary society like materialism, consumerism, unthinking conformism, imperialistic wars, mass incarceration, stupefying working conditions, and environmental degradation. Many folks in the punk rock scene wear black as, among other things, a rebuke of consumerism and materialism. (That’s why I like to think of Quakers as early punk rockers.)
American Punk Band, the Ramones, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Non-Conformism
Recently I have been reading a collection of sermons by Martin Luther King Jr. who was pretty punk rock himself. In his sermon “Transformed Non-Conformist”, King argues that certain parts of society are diseased because they dehumanize people, crush their spirits, and destroy their ability to survive. Certainly societies that require people to bow to their “betters” or that force people to shed people’s blood practice such dehumanization.
You can find this sermon, as well as many other good ones, in King’s book The Strength to Love. You can find this book on Amazon or your local bookstore.
As such, King argues that comfortable adjustment to such societies infects us with their disease. Accordingly, it is right to be maladjusted to societies, and this maladjustment requires at least some degree of non-conformism. As critical theorist Thedor Adorno writes in his book Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”
That is, it’s impossible to live diseased customs and patterns of society in a loving, humane manner. Thus, these diseased customs and patterns require people who wish to live loving, moral lives to become non-conformists.
Martin Luther King, Jr., picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
But is non-conformism always a virtue? It seems not.
After all, some folks, including certainly some Quakers and punks and various other non-conforming folks, are non-conformists for reasons that aren’t particularly virtuous. For instance, people might be non-conformists because . . .
They crave the attention that comes from being eccentric.
Or, they don’t want to work with other people or have to play by other people’s rules.
They are impulsive and want to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it.
They are afraid of change or of “strange” people, or they are prejudiced. And so they pretend to be non-conformists to avoid having to change or to try to understand other people.
People can be non-conformists for these reasons, but such motivations hardly seem virtuous.
A good sign that someone’s non-conformism is unvirtuous is that it is motivated solely by self-benefit. In addition, the unvirtuous non-conformist delights in making other people suffer for the sake of their “principles” but is not willing to suffer themselves. On the other hand, a virtuous non-conformist is willing to pursue justice and love for others (even their enemies), even if they are the only one who suffers because of it.
Because people can be non-conformist for unvirtuous reasons, King argues that in order to be virtuous non-conformists, we must be transformed non-conformists.
And when someone is a transformed non-conformist, love is at the heart of their non-conformism rather than other motives like attention-seeking, egocentric stubbornness, impulsivity, and prejudice.
King argues that when love infuses our non-conformism, our lives become transformed by a radical love ethic. As such, King argues, we become maladjusted to diseased parts of society like those parts that treat people like things. Or we become maladjusted to parts of society that suggest that money, success, and recognition are more important than making sure everyone has enough food, basic goods, and respect to live a dignified human life.
King’s transformed non-conformist distinction is important. After all, it’s easy to be a non-conformist for ego-centric or selfish reasons. In fact, most of us at one point or another– including most toddlers and junior high students–rebel against certain societal norms and rules. It’s easy to refuse to obey these norms and rules for selfish reasons and then brand ourselves a non-conformist to put a virtuous spin on it.
A Radical Love Ethic
However, being a transformed non-conformist is much more challenging. It requires careful thought, moral reasoning, and a willingness to respect others while suffering reprisal for our non-conformism.
When we are transformed non-conformists, we refuse to go along with certain social norms, which can bring us censure and suffering. However, we act this way out of love for people (even our enemies) and for the sake of bringing them justice. In doing so, we stir people’s moral imaginations and remind them of a higher moral order.
Such an order is not only where we are treated better, but every human is treated with dignity, respect, and love.
Such transformed non-conformism has inspired most of the great movements of history, and it is what we need to solve the problems, especially the political and social ones, we find ourselves in today. We need much less egocentric non-conformism and a whole lot more transformed non-conformism.
You might also like reading this post: Teaching My Students to Be Maladjusted
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And this post: About Wokeness and Love