What’s so bad about conformity?

The Socratic Society’s Philosophy Discussion Group meets again on Tuesday, September 2nd in Morven Brown 372 from midday until 2pm. Anyone with an interest in the topic is welcome, and you can come and go at any time; you don’t need to be there for the whole two hours. Light refreshments will be provided.


The topic is: “Conformity.”


In the 1953 film The Wild One, Marlon Brando plays Johnny Strabler, the leader of a gang called the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club.  There’s an iconic exchange in this film between Johnny and a local girl, Mildred: 

Mildred: What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?
Johnny: Whaddya got?


Johnny is a real outsider, a rebel who tries to reject everything that society says he should be.  The film lauds him in its presentation, drawing his character in stark contrast to a group of local vigilantes led by a businessman.  This group is presented very unsympathetically, shown to use their influence to obtain lenient treatment from the local law enforcement, brutally beating up Johnny.


While the film has many messages – about authority, leadership, relationships, identity – it clearly communicates the point that conformity is bad, non-conformity is good, a view which continues to be prevalent in the West to this day.


However, while Johnny and the Rebels clearly do not conform to the social norms of their time, they all dress and behave alike, conforming within their own group.  If even these fervently self-professed non-conformists fall so easily into patterns of conformity, this should make us at least suspicious of the claim that conformity is bad, non-conformity is good.


Nevertheless, many bad things have occurred through conformity.  Nazism is the obvious example.  Teenage drunkenness would be a second.  If we’re suspicious of the claim that conformity is bad, but aware that bad things have occurred through conformity, that leads us naturally to the question: What is bad about conformity?  Or perhaps: When conformity is bad, what has gone wrong?  A second but equally important question to look at is: Why do people conform?


9 responses to “What’s so bad about conformity?

  1. The question that occurs to me is: When is it appropriate to co-operate, to work with others?

  2. You youngish folk won’t remember the Sixties, and how boring it was to be confronted with crowds of “non-conformists”, all doing the same (victory for Ho Chi Minh, same length of long hair, it’s all about me, you name it).

    When to co-operate and be a “team player”? When the team’s doing something positive, surely. Find a team that’s doing something useful, join up, then get stuck into it.

  3. One way of choosing when to co-operate is to alway do what is respectable. That is surely the safest path.

    Maybe music can inform: Nellie McKay’s satirical ‘Respectable’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_mjAQb_2gc

    And just for the fun of it a flash back to the 80’s, Mel & Kim’s funky ‘Respectable’. The clothes may suck, but I think the dancing is amazing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLr30auVybY&feature=related

    I doubt anyone will learn a thing for these but if you do let us know with a post 😀

  4. Maybe the issue of conformity needs to be addressed at the group level. Individuals belong to a group and adhere to the norms of that group. Are we not simply acknowledging diversity within the community. There is a need to have conflicting perspectives and monitoring of the actions of groups and individuals, although that sounds a little big brotherish (the original big brother). Although it is not just those in power surveying the situation but also those with less recognised authority. So are we mislabelling some individuals when using non conformity. Should this be applied to an individual without the support of a like minded group and would we even recognise such a person as non conformist or as someone requiring the assistance of a mental health team.

  5. Pingback: Is it possible to conform to a social norm of non-conformity? « Socratic Society

  6. Andrew Moffett

    Is there ever a “what” that you should conform to?

    I’m writing a paper about conformity and I’m forcused on whether or not conformity is bad or good. I believe it could be two sided.

  7. It’s interesting, because just like nenne, Japanese shares this with Hindi. ,

  8. I can’t find yet any groups or blogs like yours on that subject. ,

  9. Still toying with this thought. I work with a guy who is the epitome of the norms. He listens to modern country music (which I think is a joke and targets the lowest common denominator…basic), watches football and a great deal of television, relates everything to mainstream culture which is television based, lives in the suburbs, and is just generally a boring person in a boring house in one of the many boring subdivisions of homes. He doesn’t seem to be unhappy so I have to ask myself…whats wrong with it? It’s not for me, but that doesn’t make it wrong does it? I think its boring, but so what? I believe many people find security in living an uninspired life where they can just follow along with what they’re supposed to do. They don’t have to think much, they earn and spend money according to trends in fashion and lifestyle. Where would capitalism be without them? They exist in that soft suburban middle where the path is well trodden and clearly marked. Conformity.

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