122 - On Being A Nonconformist - Moral Letters for Modern Times
By now you need little convincing of the proposition that hierarchies are an inevitable consequence of any organized system. We see them all around us, in nature and in human affairs. They are ubiquitous, despite every attempt to design around them, correct for the emergence of differences, or force equal outcomes. This calls to mind a description from psychologist Jordan Peterson:
The collective pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy (as some will be better and some worse at that pursuit no matter what it is) and it is the pursuit of goals that in large part lends life its sustaining meaning. … The inevitable creation of hierarchies of success [has] the inevitable consequence of differences in outcome. Absolute equality would therefore require the sacrifice of value itself.
If I have called more than once upon Peterson’s words, it is because he is not only a deep thinker, but uncommonly willing to go against the crowd in speaking his mind. Even when his nonconformist views bring him considerable ire in the form of personal attacks, he has concluded to speak only what he understands as the truth. After all, no matter how difficult the world becomes when you speak the truth, do you really think it will be better if you tell yourself and others lies instead?
Peterson is saying two things here. Meaning is the result of the pursuit of valued goals, which inevitably creates hierarchies of different outcomes. Thus, to eliminate differences in outcomes would eliminate the meaning of life. I will leave aside today a discussion of what drives meaning, because we have addressed this many times in our exploration of virtue. Virtue as we understand it is nothing more than our best understanding of what things are to be valued and why. I will focus rather on what it means to be a nonconformist, or to go against the conventional wisdom about what is to be valued, and why some people choose this path.
Nonconformism is a phenomenon primarily of youth. If it is a badge of honor to rail against the system in passionate youth, we call the person who carries it on into middle age a dropout, never-do-well, or malcontent. It is somehow embarrassing to be a forty-year-old hippie, never having seriously joined the fray but residing always on the frayed edges of society. A small glimmer of hope remains. If the nonconformist maintains their attitude into old age, they can regain a certain respectability if for nothing more than their dogged consistency. But at best this person is regarded as an eccentric or a curmudgeon.
Why does youth find nonconformism so attractive? For some it is a reaction to the early adulthood realization that society is attempting to mold them. What they previously never questioned or unthinkingly took for benevolence they now see as little distinguished from brainwashing. “You want me to do what for the rest of my life? And you want me to do it so I can go into debt to buy a house and a car, and continue building debt to raise children of my own and then send them into the maw of the same educational machine that molded you and me? That’s what you have on offer? No thanks! Screw your hard work and sacrifice, and loyalty to a greedy corporation that has no loyalty to me. I think I’ll travel the world instead.” There is a reason the Peter Pan story holds allure, Deuteros. How lovely to think that we can stay children forever, never having to take up the cares of the world.
Others go a bit deeper in their thinking, realizing that their childhood must come to an end one day. These individuals understand that they will assume burdens as adults, and that societies perform useful functions in curbing humankind’s worst excesses. That if we left everyone to their own unstructured devices, the result would be far from paradise. But they do not accept the system at face value, first because they were given no choice in the matter (the brainwashing almost worked!) and second because the system has such obvious flaws. They will ask, “How can any system so riddled with problems, and injustice, and unfairness be the best way to proceed?”
This latter group has come further in their thinking, but they are still reacting to the surface of things, and that is a dangerous place to stay. It is the easiest thing in the world to point out problems. This is what we must say to this group. “Sorry, my young friends, you will get no Gold Star for finding the flaws that are abundantly distributed throughout life. In jumping to the gaping cracks in the system, you have jumped over the much more important question: why was the system established the way it was? What other systems were tried, and what was the outcome of those systems?”
I understand why youth lacks humility for they also lack experience, which is a most able teacher. It takes multiple examples of the world not behaving as you confidently predict for you to begin to accept that you may not be perfect after all. So while I can forgive the confidence of youth, I do not forgive their ignorance. After all, the reason your ire is aroused is because you’ve realized you are in a system that is trying to shape you. In saying you will not be so easily duped, you have traded one set of blinders for another.
You say democracy is bad because it creates income inequality, and the rich appear to be getting richer. You say, because it seems a wonderous thought to you, that everyone would be better off if no one had more than anyone else, or at least if some wise person took wealth from those who have it and distributed it more fairly to those who lack it. All fine. Here is what we say back to you. “Before you go a step further in seeking to implement this change, do your homework. If you don’t want society to think for you, think for yourself. How has this redistribution worked out in the societies that have tried it? Did you think you were the first one to have this idea?”
This line of thinking is most helpful to a large number of people, and brings them back onto productive tracks in their lives. They realize that the collective efforts of billions of people over thousands of years have not just been random bumbling. That despite obvious flaws in what we see around us, if there were obvious fixes we would have implemented them. That sometimes a cure is worse than the disease, and it is also possible to kill the patient.
There are a small number of remaining nonconformists who are strong in their convictions. They know what they know, which is not only that the system is corrupt, but that the people running it are corrupt. The system is not just flawed but broken. And in what I find to be the most breathtaking leap of all, they believe they know how to fix it. With this group before me, I say I could forgive not just confidence but even ignorance, if only they were not consumed with arrogance. Especially when we consider that their “fix” requires first destroying our system so they can replace it with their new idea. And, finally, that they are the first humans in history to be without flaw, and hence they will not be corrupted themselves by their new system.
It seems clear to me that people calling for equality of outcomes are not looking for equality at all, but to upset the existing hierarchy. If others have power according to the current hierarchy, then let us tear this hierarchy down to the ground. We will reframe it in a picture more to our liking, in which the advantages you currently enjoy are taken away and given to us. I suppose we are still talking of nonconformism, Deuteros, but really it seems the more descriptive word is anarchism.
With this last group you can have no reasoned discussion or debate. Their purpose is not to learn, and certainly not to work within the established system. Their purpose is to uncreate, to destroy. But nor can we simply wish them away. To assume so would reflect the childlike immaturity that we dismissed at the earliest stages of our development to adulthood. No, the existence of this group of anarchists is the very reason why societies came into being. We need civilization to tame our wild and destructive natures, because our natures are dangerous if left unchecked. The anarchist beats in all our chests, and it is only through the collective surrender of certain freedoms that we retain any freedom to pursue meaningful lives.
Let us not spend time wondering “Why are humans made so? What is it that makes us so dangerous to ourselves?” We can more profitably answer the question “Discontent is a fundamental condition of the human condition. What can we do to help avoid that it becomes malcontent that leads to mass suicide?” This is where the lessons of philosophy hold their greatest promise. By teaching us humility and patience and instilling a desire to look beyond the surface of things. And ultimately, that conforming to our nature is not a mark of giving in to the bonds of slavery but opening the door to the happiness of a life well-lived.