I was reading Diane Vaughan's Challenger Launch Decision
this morning when this phrase grabbed me and I realized something.
I have always despised conformity as an expression of timidity, simply taking the easy way to avoid trouble. That's certainly often the case, and it is true that cowardice is at its root, as it is every time we stand against the truth. But that's by no means the whole picture.Conformity gives us a can-do attitude
. It makes us feel bold and adventurous, whether it's a lynching or a gang-rape in a bar, a whole nation joyfully attacking an unoffending weaker neighbor, or a county bureaucracy uniting to abuse little children to demonstrate that lesser mortals may not hold it to account.
When Moses said, "You shall not follow a multitude to do evil," he wasn't just telling us to be courageous and to stand against a wrong majority. He was warning us to abstain from a kind of drug abuse.
The approval of our peers through conformity is truly a drug of abuse. It soothes us in our insecurity, like a narcotic, and when we're feeling especially anxious, it's a real heroin rush, as we saw with most Americans in September 2001. It banishes depression and energizes us, like meth or cocaine. It blurs the hard edges and makes us feel loved and accepted by our companions, like a few beers in a bar.
A dog turd is known by a certain smell, and so is addiction. We're addicts when we're ready to destroy precious things or degrade ourselves to serve our addiction. The woman who smokes while she is pregnant. The husband hooked on internet pornography. The meth addict and the crackhead wrecking their lives for their drug, and the gambler who loses it all. The pathological liar thrilled by the power to cast off truth or soothed by the escape from scrutiny. The bureaucrat who trashes lives for the thrill of power and of wreaking vengeance on challengers. Yes, the white supremacist dropping everything else to teach the nigger his place. This is the dark lust that we indulge when we sell the truth to ride the wave of the crowd's approval and support. And whether it's an addicted mother abandoning her children or the American empire torturing people and trashing whole cities in Iraq, addiction leads to degrading behavior - obvious at least to other people.
Like all other addicts, we underestimate the power of the passion to conform, especially when we think we're too good to be like those other people. Like a dry drunk who quits drinking without addressing his real issues, we'll just find another way to indulge. We can give ourselves to some cultish religous group, kidding ourselves that we stand against the wrongness of the world while getting our conformity fix from our chosen in-group. And each of us at least to some degree becomes his own one-man cult.
"I hate flattery," he declares, and basks in the admiration of his hearers.
The answer to conformity is not individualism. As Viktor Frankl tells us in "The Search for Meaning," the first to crumble in the Nazi camps were the unattached individuals.
John the apostle gives us his answer: "Demetrius has received a testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself" (3 John 12). We may not get everyone's approval, but everyone should be compelled by the truth to give us their testimony, as truth itself should testify of us.
The verse reads more literally "the truth herself
." Truth is not really an it, an abstraction. Truth in biblical thought, and in reality, is a loving mom and sister, as we read in Proverbs 1-9. In truth is the real answer to the isolation we try to escape by prostituting ourselves to others at the expense of truth. We're not alone at all, even when all forsake us.
And when I get that straight, I can even learn to stop prostituting myself to my most seductive and insistent john - myself. As Jesus put it, "He who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for my sake shall find it."
Yes, in God's truth we can even be delivered from our addiction to ourselves and our own desires! God and the truth are better companions than myself, so I can learn to leave myself behind when a choice must be made. You too.
Listening to others is not conformity. I was reading The Challenger Launch Decision
this morning because my former wife lent it to me and told me I should read it - and she was right, as other people often are.