A Negative Treatment of Conformity (and a bunch of non-conforming questions)

It seems like only a few weeks ago (in fact, it was only a few weeks ago) that I was talking about a new book by Professor Cass Sunstein on the nature of “freedom.” Here is a new volume by Professor Sunstein on the perils of “conformity.” Yet some of what is in the blurb below raises questions, at least for me. What’s the difference between merely “conforming” as opposed to “suppressing” one’s own views about “what is true and what is right”? Don’t we suppress our own views about what is true and right in response to our social milieu and our sense about whether that milieu does, in fact, reflect “what is true and what is right”? And why would we think that dissent in the service of what we believe to be “true and right” would necessarily be socially beneficial? It might be, under some circumstances, I suppose. But not everyone’s sense of what is true and right might actually be socially beneficial. Under those circumstances, should’t we root for conformity? So many questions! I guess I’ll need to read the book to find out!

The book is Conformity: The Power of Social Influences (NYU Press), by Cass R. Sunstein.

“We live in an era of tribalism, polarization, and intense social division—separating people along lines of religion, political conviction, race, ethnicity, and sometimes gender.  How did this happen? In Conformity, Cass R. Sunstein argues that the key to making sense of living in this fractured world lies in understanding the idea of conformity—what it is and how it works—as well as the countervailing force of dissent.

An understanding of conformity sheds new light on many issues confronting us today: the role of social media, the rise of fake news, the growth of authoritarianism, the success of Donald Trump, the functions of free speech, debates over immigration and the Supreme Court, and much more.

Lacking information of our own and seeking the good opinion of others, we often follow the crowd, but Sunstein shows that when individuals suppress their own instincts about what is true and what is right, it can lead to significant social harm. While dissenters tend to be seen as selfish individualists, dissent is actually an important means of correcting the natural human tendency toward conformity and has enormous social benefits in reducing extremism, encouraging critical thinking, and protecting freedom itself.

Sunstein concludes that while much of the time it is in the individual’s interest to follow the crowd, it is in the social interest for individuals to say and do what they think is best.  A well-functioning democracy depends on it.”