"To be or not to be" Hamlet asked.  And that indeed is the question!  Hamlet’s soliloquy is helpful in expressing a concern for social action or change.  Hamlet could easily have said, "To conform or not conform.”  He goes on with comparisons, ''tis  nobler in the mind to suffer the  and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arcs  against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them'


Throughout history we have witnessed many non-conformists.  Those who, by opposing the  social condition, were able to affect a change.  As an example: Dr. Martin Luther King and his passive resistance.  The same effect was achieved in India by Gandhi.  Jesus is probably the most recognized non-conformist of all time.  But not all charismatic leaders work for the positive.  Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, Hitler and the rape of Europe.  The individual non-conformist will, for the most part, only support those causes that seem to show quick benefit.  The majority of humans are not active in the long term.  If this is not the case why does Japan continue to hunt whales?  Why does the public expect more car for the buck and back to the shelf with alternate energy?  This question applies to the use of all petrochemical fuels.  It is sad fact but the over all majorities simply do not care.


The major problem of conformity or individualism then breaks down into the social structure of law.  There are many laws the public has asked for only to ignore, e.g. the speed limit.  How often did you drive 55 mph?  The true basis of human law is supposed to be protection of the common public.  The crowding of the penal system shows that it simply does not work.  The criminal minded person is going to offend regardless of public law.  They don't expect to be caught, or, even more alarming, simply do not care.  "If you do the crime you do the time.”   Law is not a deterrent to this behavior type, at best; public law only keeps honest people honest.  This is conformity in its most common practice.  The offender is a nonconformist extraordinary and the threat of law does not deter him.  As a culture we will sometimes use the public law to remove a nonconformist, how many times was Dr. King imprisoned?  He was non-conforming for his environment and they locked him up.  There was world wide support for Martin Luther King.  Yet, when Mohammed Ali was chastised for not going into the military, where was his support?  Very little if any at all, yet Ali was willing, “To take arms against a sea of troubles." 

This action occurs in the political arena all the time.  'Watergate, Colonel North, Panama and General Noriega to name a few.  All of these events are non-conforming to social mores if not outright illegal!  Yet where is public opinion?  We made President Nixon resign.  We put Ollie North forever in the hearts of Americans, right next to mom and apple pie.  What we did in Panama will be argued in world courts for generations, Most Americans want the general, at best, shot!  Where is the difference in conformity?  Where is the public being led by the media?

Consider too, the homosexual, In the forties this was not talked about.  The fifties saw the start of a gay witch hunt in many big cities.  There was persecution and prosecution.  Then came the sixties and "new age" thinking.  Laws were repealed and through the seventies gay was good.  The public was tolerant, equal rights were stressed.  The eighties saw the awareness of AIDS end now the public is swinging beck to the attitude of 1955.  This shows that the public tolerance of non-conformity is, at best, arbitrary and at worst capricious.  Right and wrong have indeed become relative based most strongly on media representation.  That this attitude is arbitrary can be seen in racial issues.  A white man sticks up a 7-11 store with a gun.  He is caught and gets 5 years.  A black man or Hispanic sticks up a 7-11 store using a gun he will get half again more time or even double!  Where is justice when the laws that are supported are not consistent?


  If you would determine the value of non-conforming you must look at the immediate results for value.  It would be good to look for long term effects but that must be weighed against the evolution of the culture.  This country had a gas crisis.  The Federal Government lowered the speed limit, nation wide to 55 Mph.  The States were forced into this change by the threat of with holding federal funds.  So we dropped the speed to 55.  Most of us, by far, ignored the law and drive as we always have.  There were enough, however, that did slow down that there was a large saving in the cost of fuel.  More importantly, the traffic deaths were cut almost in half!  Fifty-five Mph was a good thing, but what did we do as soon as we adjusted to the higher price of gas?  We pushed the speed limit back up.  What happened to the greater good for all?  We would not conform to the slower speed and the law was changed. 

Many years ago most of the states passed a law forbidding the death penalty.  This went on for several years.  Then a Few people, non-conformists, working through the media, had the law reinstated.  Where is the long term good?  It is a provable fact that it is less expensive to keep a prisoner confined For the rest of their natural life than to execute them.  This is because of all the legal bureaucracy that must happen before you can execute.  It has also been proven that the death penalty is not any kind of a deterrent.  Most murders are crimes of passion and there is no thought of consequences.  The murderer who plans his hit is also planning on not being caught.  There are no deterrents in the penal system except for the ex-convict who will do all he can to stay out of that system.  Statistics say he won’t make it.  He will re-offend and go down once more.


So then, what do the majority do about non-conformist Vs, conformist?  As I said before, by and large they are ignored.  There is a knock on your door and someone is looking for donations to "save the whales.”  What's your response?  Suppose it is the Goodwill or Salvation Army?  If a member of Green Peace stops you on the street will you listen?  Will you help?  These are questions you must ask yourself daily to decide if you are, and just where you are going to conform.  To stand for an unpopular cause, to be a non-conformist, is fraught with danger including everything from ostracized to imprisonment?  Most of us will pay lip service to a cause, but unless we benefit directly we tend to ignore the whole thing.  Our culture may care about tomorrow but does not plan for next week.  For many it becomes too involved to, “take up arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them."  Perhaps evolution is non-conforming, and then it would follow that by conforming we are frustrating natural selection.



Written by R.M. Livingston in Sept. 1990  McNeil Island Correctional Center


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An essay on conforming goes with the poem "TO BE."