Imitation Is Suicide–In Which I Praise Non-Conformity

Dear Lily June,

Let’s start with a video (that I hope still works by the time you can watch it), posted by the blogger Chris Donner on Cee’s Photography blog.

In the video, the same advice on how to age gracefully is given by both the eight- and the seventy-two-year olds: Stay Weird. And as ironic as it is to tell you to follow those who would endorse originality (like Emerson who argued that “imitation is suicide” and “whoso would be a man [or woman, adds your mama!] must be a non-conformist”), I don’t mind being being a bit ironic.

Oh, the irony!
Oh, the irony!

Here’s the deal, though, Lily: Being unique isn’t all that easy. In fact, e.e. cummings says,

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
But the reason it’s hard to be yourself isn’t just that others are trying to get you to comply with their needs, wishes and desires for who you should be. It’s also because it can be damn hard to know how you are.

***

In high school, I was a pretty strange bird. Unwilling to commit to any particular subculture, I adopted the trinkets and trappings of any that appealed to me. For instance, I was attracted to black humor and clothing of the Goth scene.

Gothic_girl
It’s true. I owned a dog collar. But my dog collar didn’t own me.
But the black mood didn’t always suit me. They say depression is just anger without enthusiasm, but sometimes, my pissed off mood was fueled by too much caffeine, and I wanted to rail against authority. That’s when my friends and I would produce home-xeroxed zines.

UK_and_US_zines
When we got busted at school for writing these “underground newsletters,” we wrote a column about it. In our underground newsletters.

Sometimes, though, less confident in the abilities of my body and mind, I just sought to hide my frame in yards and yards of fabric. Hence, the JNCO jeans seen below. Popularized by the “druggie crowd” for their convenient hiding spots during a pat-down, the truth is, I never hid anything in their Grand Canyon-sized pockets but novels and candy.

 

Jnco175
I used to throw a math book in the back pocket of these. Some people hid their stash. I was hiding from trigonometry.

And when I really wanted to hide from the world, I turned to the same oasis of freedom teens have been turning to for centuries. Too poor to afford the new-fangled technology of mp3s, I stuck to my old cds. (Seriously, Lily. I carried an old fashioned DiscMan and everything!)

 

Once upon a time, this was cutting edge technology. Now, it looks to iPods like Gramophones looked to me.
I listened to whatever appealed to me. I could transition from Dave Matthews’ easy listening hippy tunes to the punk-reggae of Sublime to the wacky experimentation of They Might Be Giants to the grunge haze of Nirvana to the goth folk of Voltaire to the R&B stylings of Bone, Thugs & Harmony and so on and so forth, et cetera. I was loyal to no genre, and chose any and every song that fit my eclectic taste.

 [Caution: The video above is only funny to geezers like your mother. Someday, I’ll show you why I like it, and you’ll have the privilege of rolling your eyes at me.]

And then there were times when I did want to be seen. As a senior, I got my eyebrow pierced and wore a skirt made of men’s silk ties and felt like I was a one-woman statement against conformity. (Oh, the ridiculous rebellions we stake with our wardrobes, Lily!) It didn’t bother me that my friends were far more advanced in the art of standing out–my friend Elle had a snake fang, double-piercing in her tongue; my friend Wanda had the word “hardcore” tattooed upside-down on the inside of her bottom lip so that when she pouted, you could see her real personality.

EyebrowPiercingJonnyUK
Pro-tip: Piercings don’t make you different. They just add extra holes to your face.

But my own skin must have sensed I was a poseur, because it quite literally healed my piercing out of my face. That, little Lily, is the story behind the scar on my right eyebrow. Turns out, my flesh heals like Wolverine’s, and my body, mistaking the expensive piece of metal in my face for a cheap splinter in my finger, pushed it right back out of me.

So my early adventures in non-conformity were mostly just attempts to look and act like the other freaks. The times I really stood out as unique were mostly those when I didn’t notice what others were doing at all. It didn’t feel all that weird to me, in college, to drag around a beat up copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, spending every spare minute taking in everything the Bard had ever written–every play, every line of every sonnet belonged to me. Suddenly, I was the real freak.

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623
Remember, Lily: Prose before hos.

Nor did it feel revolutionary in grad school, to keep up with all the reading, down to, in texts like Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the footnotes for the footnotes. But at some point, I looked up from the pages of my books to see no one else’s noses were so deeply entrenched in their contents. While my peers and cronies were hobnobbing in pubs, tossing back ales and lagers and laughter, I had a sober brow furrowed with a passion to the marrow for taking in more words.

When I later became an English teacher who taught Shakespeare and Spenser in an Early Brit Lit class, I would wear the high school me’s combat boots to class when it was time to really crack down for an exam. And my students came to refer to those as my butt-kickin’ boots, and they learned something from me, if only how not to dress but what, and how, to really read.
Rangers_réglementaires_de_l'Armée_Française
They even made a hashtag for my tests: the word #Beat plus my last name. (Little did they know that in succeeding at learning, they weren’t beating, they were joining, me!)
And in finding that version of myself–the word nerd drunk on reading and teaching each use of the interrobang–I finally felt like I’d found me. And what the others were doing be damned, I was going to follow my own path. Move to the beat of my own drum. Avoid cliche like the plague. Damn. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t the world’s most “uniquest” human being.

***

But I’d like to think I’m the jerk who makes my decisions not based on groupthink or mob mentality, but on what my own reason is telling me. There have been famous studies on the ills of conformity, Lily, and they’ve taught me some things.

Stanley Milgram, for instance, a Yale psychologist, set up this admittedly unethical scenario: He had subjects pretending to be Teachers and confederates pretending to be Learners. The Learners–really members of his own team–were supposed to memorize a set of words. When they’d get a word incorrectly, the Teacher was supposed to hit a button that would send an electric shock to the Learner in the next room.

Milgram_experiment_v2-1
Here’s what the “Teacher” (T) presumed the setup was, with the Experimenter (E) observing them and the “Learner” (L) hooked up to a shocking device in the next room.

The experiment was to see how far people would go beyond the boundaries of their own comfort and personal morality when directed by an authority. The Learner would eventually scream and plead with the Teacher to stop the shock treatment (they were in pain! it was unsafe! etc.), even though, in actuality, they weren’t being hurt at all. The Teacher didn’t know the other person was okay, really, and the Experimenter would always urge the Teacher on. So many Teachers just blindly followed the presumed authority even “knowing” they were “harming” a fellow human being. That, little Lily, is a gross explanation of how people get roped into groups like the KKK or Nazi’s and follow their lead.

Another experiment, which was far less harmful psychologically to its participants, was the one conducted by Solomon Asch about conformity. In these studies, groups of eight were put together, but what the subjects didn’t know is that the other seven in the group were Asch’s actors. The one person actually being studied was watched for how he or she would respond to this scenario: Given an entire group giving a wrong answer, would one lone person stand up for the truth?

The groups were given two cards, the first with a standard line, and the second with three additional lines, labelled A, B, and C. They were then asked to respond with which line–of the three from card two–most resembled the original from card one. (One line was clearly right; one was too short and the other too long.)
Asch_experiment
It’s like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes come to life.

While the seven actors were in conspiracy to give the wrong answer, experimenters watched closely to see what the one real subject would do. In control groups where only one person was asked at a time, those people got the answer wrong less than one percent of the time. In the experimental group, the pressure to conform was so great that 75% of the subjects gave at least one wrong answer out the twelve repetitions of the trial.

***

Why, Lily?! Why would people hurt others just to listen to authority? And why would we go against our instincts–distrusting our own minds–not to be accurate but to feel “right” in the midst of others? It is beyond me, as I hope it will be beyond you, too, someday.

I hope you are unafraid to be you, treating each clique and subculture like a buffet from which you can pick and choose what suits your identity. I hope you don’t make your decisions based on what anyone else thinks of you. I hope your sense of what is right overrides what someone else directs you to do (unless the two align).

It doesn’t pay to try to be and do everyone else’s what and who. If you listen to no one else, listen to you. “Normal” is artificial; being weird is the only way to make the world your own and to make it new. So whatever your weird might be, I hope you find its seed. I hope you plant it deep within the soil of your personality, so its eccentric vines intertwine who you think you are with what you want to do. I hope its leaves grow through your scalp alongside your hair, and I hope you water it with the weird rain of your dreams. And I hope it grows taller than your mind and wider than your heart and from your roots to your blooms, it makes you who you want to be.


***

Picture Credits:
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11 thoughts on “Imitation Is Suicide–In Which I Praise Non-Conformity

  1. originaltitle says:

    Great thoughts! It can be scary to go against the crowd, but when you have loving and supportive parents raising you, it’s much easier to strike a new path knowing you’re never truly alone. Dear Lily will have no problem forging her own unique self with you in her life!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ally Bean says:

    “Normal” is artificial; being weird is the only way to make the world your own and to make it new.

    Best advice I’ve read in a long time. Wish someone had said it to me when I was a girl. As an adult, I’d have had much less emotional baggage to unload. Well said.

    Liked by 2 people

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