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On Social Conformism

On Social Conformism
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 / Unsplash

It’s been a while, so let me write down my thoughts. This will be a bit different because it’s an attempt at something a little more stream-of-consciousness, the sort of thing I think about driving my car. I wrote this all in one paragraph and then when back and put ‘breaks’ in it after the fact.

In the past couple of weeks, I did some in-depth research into The Kinks, a British rock band, for two Deepest Lore shows which you can view on YouTube. I had some inkling that they were reactionary but had no idea how deeply it went and can now safely conclude that Ray Davies is a straight-up British patriot with a genuine love of England, the countryside, the village green, its people, its customs, its traditions and so on. However, another obsession for Ray which I’ve found myself musing on since doing the shows is a consistent railing against bourgeois conformity. This he has in common with, among others, Thomas Carlyle, who called it ‘gigmanity’, and Julius Evola who was famously a lifelong bachelor. Ray, like me, loved the idea of Trumpton and the village green community, but somehow, he always, like me, viewed it from afar and was not a part of it; he was an observer and a loner. A scene I think about a lot is at the end of film version of The Lord of the Rings: the adventure is over and Sam looking forward to going home and settling down in The Shire with some fat kids and loving wife. Frodo feels differently and, instead, gets on the ship to Rivendell. I think about that scene a lot because I know I would have been Frodo and not Sam; I would have got on the ship. I think Ray would have got on the ship too.

I was at a wedding recently in which the overwhelming sentiment was that the couple – who already had kids and had already been together (de facto married?) for many years – were happy with everything they have. The mundane things. The little joys in life. Talks after work. School runs, cuddles watching tv, all the domestic stuff. Or to quote some Kinks songs, ‘Sittin’ on my Sofa’; perhaps they’ve reached a ‘Shangri-La’. It was moving, I was happy for them; I’m also happy for my friend who has come almost to a complete peace with his sense of self, who he is, what he wants; he aspires to nothing else since in effect he already has everything he wants. I think more people should be like that because it’s less stressful. Middle-class striving induces the ‘anxiety’ we’re always reading about. Most people in most places were at peace with who they were and aspired to nothing else. Ray mocks middle-class striving in many songs with special disdain, but at the same time one gets the impression that for all his love of ‘home’, Ray was never going to be a 2.4 family man himself. During the wedding ceremony, I had a nagging sense that I – much like Ray – was never going to happy with ‘just that’ either. My first name on the internet back in the 1990s was ‘Nomad Soul’ and there may be something to that.

In his own family life, Ray was something of a disaster, three marriages, four daughters and one of those was born to a woman he didn’t marry (Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders). In interviews, this is occasionally brought up to him and he plainly has struggled to be a regular dad to any of them; one gets the impression he saw them at Christmas and not much else. Given that he was so upset that his own sister, Rosy, moved to Australia (see the songs ‘Rosy Won’t You Please Come Home’ and ‘Australia’), ironically at least one of his daughters lives abroad. The difficult realisation perhaps is that the 2.4 life is not for everyone and certainly was never going to be for someone with an artistic soul like Ray. In one interview, he talks about shutting himself in for three weeks and watching old movies alone. Whatever that desire is, I get it. I see many other men who get it too.

However, I think there is something else here that is quite difficult to pin down. Our society, which is straightforwardly bourgeois, has at its heart a paradox. It preaches individualism – you can be whatever you want to be – but then it gives some strict guidelines and what amounts to a set of railroads for what exactly ‘whatever’ is. In the vision of Tony Blair, whatever is getting an education, a good degree, going into a corporate career of some sort and then reproducing this in your own kids. What is sold as individualism is, in fact, a kind of crushing conformity since the routes are all laid out for you. To me it is not any great mystery why these pre-planned ‘routes’ are dominated by women driven by social acceptance and why risk-taking men who ‘think differently’ end up getting thrown out of them. Despite what conservatives claim about the denigration of the family, I would say most women still see it as an aspiration from which they have been largely priced out. The layer of ‘diversity’ and ‘LGBT’ on-top of corporate individualism is simply the bland formalisation and standardisation of something that was once counter-cultural to the level of a HR poster. However much your blue-haired lesbian stood out in 1965, she does not stand out at all today. She has been consumed into the mainstream and thereby stripped of any inherent quality. Fat lesbian blue-hair girl is the same as camp gay guy is the same as soy-mouth Nintendo guy is the same as any number of other pre-made ‘off-the-shelf’ personalities that are foisted onto people. Ultimately there is only one personality on offer: ‘I belong to this’. Your Pride t-shirt, your Star Wars toy, your football shirt, whatever else, are ways of saying ‘I am a product of this regime and I am happy with that. Amen. So be it.’

Liberal democracy drives always towards standardisation and ‘one-size-fits-all’. When I take my little one out to theme parks and things, I notice that any space designed ‘for families’ is subject to a relentless levelling whereby ‘you’ as ‘dad’ exist in a sea of faceless ‘parents’ – an ant, a pure mass man – whose sole job it is to play the allotted role. Here all differentiation dies. The internal world of the theme park is almost pure communism. There is no room to register anything else. This is also marked in corporate made-by-rote Pixar and Pixar-lite fodder where the film is punctuated by ‘references for adults’, this bit is where you laugh, this bit is where you cry, this bit is where you get the toy for your kid and so on. I’m an individual too! I laughed at that bit too! I got that reference to that other corporate film too! I like that quirky side character too! We can all be individuals individually together rejoicing at the Pixar-lite movie rejecting ‘conformity’ and telling us we can be our best selves! Yes! I too am Moana!

I know a girl from an island

She stands apart from the crowd

She loves the sea and her people

She makes her whole family proud

Sometimes the world seems against you

The journey may leave a scar

But scars can heal and reveal just

Where you are

I think the English and the British more generally have always loved an eccentric and non-conformist. In Shakespeare, we love Sir Toby, a little loud perhaps but a merry chap who like Falstaff before him brings the tavern to life and see Malvolio – recognisably middle-class – as a killjoy and a puritan. Many of the heroes of British history have been non-conformists of one sort or another: risk-taking men, difficult men, in the cases of many of our great scientists and philosophers possibly also autistic men. There’s no exam you can pass for greatness, it cannot be taught, it simply is, it is self-habituated, self-actualised. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is one of the most disturbing manuals ever written. It details and lists the ‘traits’ of ‘neuro-diverse’ personality types as defined against the ‘neuro-typical’ person. What is disturbing to me is that the ‘neuro-typical’ person, if you followed the DSM to the letter is basically an NPC drone who does exactly what they are told and questions nothing. It has been pointed out that Sir Isaac Newton would have likely been ‘cancelled’ today for saying something ‘inappropriate’. The DSM is written from the point of view of what is deemed ‘socially acceptable’ and anything that does not fit this description is pathologised and given a label. But what if we need the ‘neuro-diverse’ people for the simple fact that they are different? And in that difference, we are gifted an Isaac Newton or even a Ray Davies?

Ironically, our society is awash with a drive towards ‘mindfulness’ and ‘self-actualisation’, but the moment it touches an institution – a university course, Google, a corporate team day, a Tedtalk, a BBC documentary, a YouTube video with 12 million views and so on – everything authentic and real in it dies. The bourgeois culture of liberal democracy is sterile, it cannot foster an authentic self because mass standardisation and quantity are the opposite of distinction and quality. In the end it must level and strip out that which genuinely stands out.

A man lives at the corner of the street

And his neighbours think he's helpful and he’s sweet

‘Cause he never swears and he always shakes you by the hand

But no one knows he really is a plastic man

(Plastic man, plastic man)

He’s got plastic heart, plastic teeth and toes

(Yeah, he's plastic man)

He’s got plastic knees and a perfect plastic nose

(Yeah, he’s plastic man)

He's got plastic lips that hide his plastic teeth and gums

And plastic legs that reach up to his plastic bum

(Plastic bum, plastic bum)

Plastic man got no brain

Plastic man don’t feel no pain

Plastic people look the same

Yeah, yeah, yeah

The specifics may have changed since the 1960s, but the existential and spiritual problem remains the same: how can you be authentic and ‘real’ and like Moana understand ‘Where you are’ in an inauthentic and plastic society? This society tells you to ‘be yourself’ but then demands that ‘being yourself looks like this’; it stamps on anything that truly does standout, it sucks the life out of anything that is authentic and real, repackaging it and selling it back to you as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. And this is what I think about driving my car.


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