Why rebellion can look just like conformity

It’s absurd to me that someone would vote a certain way because their parents did; but no less that they would only vote contrary to them (extrapolate broadly).

When the impetus for decision-making is based on pushing against something for the sake of it, conformity and rebellion look remarkably alike.

This pattern works its way out differently – parents give way to friends, bosses, or even ideas but we still have:

  1. The desire to differentiate ourselves; and
  2. The desire to belong.

Although this may be in sharper focus during certain developmental phases (the famed teenage years) the process continues through life.

It goes without saying that something isn’t true just because someone tells us it is, even if we love and respect that person. This is regardless of whether it’s a fact or set of values.

Knowledge evolves. What we know at any point in time is limited by the questions we ask, the assumptions we make and the tools that are available for assessing them.

We have to look at the ideas we’ve absorbed – re-evaluate and re-accept some or reject others. This is not a one-off event because we are continually impacted by new experiences, information and evidence.

We may not be interested in challenging conventions but we sometimes we go along with them reluctantly because we want other people to approve of us (obviously I am talking about societies in which we’re free to express views). Standing out can come at a cost, including of exclusion. For some, that cost is too high (remember that ostracism is experienced in the brain as intensely as physical pain).

While on the face of it rebellion is the opposite (resisting convention) it can be driven by the same impulse for acceptance; and when one convention is exchanged unquestioningly for another it leads to the same outcome – belonging by accepting others’ rules.

‘Unquestioningly’ here is key.

However appealing another system seems (and many are genuinely better than the ones we grew up with) we can’t just take things on face value. It’s vital to maintain an open mind, to be critical. Healthy systems encourage this.

Adopting a new system holus bolus is simply rebelling into conformity

It may look different on the outside, but that’s all it is.

  1. You can wear your jeans below the hips or belted at the waist – it’s about the look.
  2. You can sound as if you’re on an obscure sub-Reddit or have swallowed an MBA textbook – it’s still about communication, a shared language.
  3. You can be an activist carping about corporates or vice versa – it’s still about drawing the circle around who’s in and out – standard in-out group behaviour.

This is not in itself problematic.

Humans have always formed tribes; networks provide support and contribute to wellbeing, we are incredibly social animals. Some scientists suggest this ability to form alliances and collaborate may even underpin our success as a species.

(Paul Bloom on why bias is natural and how to moderate it through emotion and reason.)

It becomes problematic when we assume our tribe has an inherently higher or lower worth. Excluding or punishing others because they are ‘not like us’ creates terrible damage.

So how do we manage this?

We can:

  1. Be aware of it;
  2. Challenge our existing beliefs (not because we are resisting others but because we are trying to be more conscious of our own);
  3. Consider ways to expand the in-group.

Challenging conventions in a considered way helps us individuate and maintain a sense of belonging, without having to keep others out. This can be difficult. We are largely unaware of what drives us. Once we’ve formed biases we filter out information that does not support them, even when there is evidence to the contrary.

That is why I believe it’s simultaneously important to expand our sense of in-group.

To do so we can:

  1. Deliberately engage with people who are “not like us”.
  2. Reach out. Social and digital technologies for example allow unprecedented levels of connection. Although we still coalesce around shared passions (and like any technologies they can be used destructively) hyper-connectively does away with arbitrary walls.
  3. See the value in globalization, which despite its downsides, disrupts geographical and cultural barriers and hopefully diminishes the fear of ‘otherness’.

The danger with mindless rebellion is that when there’s nothing else to push against, we rebel against ourselves.

No one (we say) will tell us what to think or do – not even ourselves.

There’s another phrase for this when it tips over the edge: self-sabotage. And it’s just as damaging as reluctantly going along.

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