Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, July 3, 2017

Week 5 - Individual spontaneity and conformity


Dr. Phil, I hope you are having as much fun with this class as I am. Thank you for introducing me to JS Mill. He is a man after my own heart. I say that because I almost universally agree with his philosophy, at least when it comes to liberty. I finished reading On Liberty Tuesday and began listening to it on audio (audible.com) and went through it a second time.

  • Mill praises "individual spontaneity" and "originality," but says most of us do not sufficiently value the non-conformists in our midst. Agree? How do we correct our bias for conformity?

I’ll address the second question first: We correct our bias for conformity with critical thinking.

Critical thinking should be a property of individuality and, therefore, a deterrent to unhealthy conformity. Some things should be conformed to and some should not. The major things in life should be examined and analyzed to see if they are worthy of acceptance. Eat the fish and spit out the bones. However, determining what is fish and what is bones requires critical thinking. All too often, in today’s society, we accept what is spoon fed to us by our government, the news media, our parents, our teachers, our pastors, celebrities, and leadership in general without examining it to verify its validity. It is extremely difficult to be original while conforming to the herd. For the last two decades I have operated on the axiom of “challenge everything.”

I am not talking about challenging everything for challenge sake. I mean that it is healthy to challenge anything that doesn’t seem quite right. For example, conventional wisdom and consensus thinking are always suspect. Any time I am told that 95% of any group thinks the thing is right or wrong, my red flag goes up. How many of that 95% have actually examined the data/details and concluded an answer based on what they think, rather than on what their peers think? Group think is not critical thinking.

Speaking to the first question above, I agree with Mill…we “do not sufficiently value the non-conformists….” He did not say we should value all non-conformists. Therefore, we must also note that “non-conformists” takes in a lot of territory and all non-conformists are not worthy of value. Just as conforming to the herd (in the form of peer pressure and/or pop culture) in order to be accepted and to fit-in dampens individual spontaneity and individuality itself. Accepting non-conformists simply because they are different can be extremely problematic.  

Mill recapitulated his argument by saying, “It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself” (p 56). Both the herd and the non-conformists can have bad ideas. Lenin and Stalin were non-conformists and they imposed their individuality and by extension, their ideas and philosophy, on the masses and the end result was tens of millions of dead bodies.

1 comment:

  1. George, I'm happy we've found common ground! I'll bet if you go back to William James and reconsider him in the light of his strong attraction to Mill's "pragmatic openness of mind" etc., you'll find more to appreciate in him too. William also valued non-conformists, which is of course not the same as agreeing with them. But without them, it might never occur to us to challenge our own conventions and complacencies. And theirs.

    Millian non-conformism is continuous with Jamesian pluralism. Bear that in mind as you read Henry. "It takes all kinds," to compass all experience.

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