Ambiguous nonconformity

by Possible Modernist

In a recent post, Suspended Reason laid out a set of ideas related to the function of communication and the game-like nature of human interactions. To summarize briefly, statistical regularities connecting signals with results provide a foundation upon which a legible coordination can be built, which can be to the benefit of cooperative players.1

To quote Suspended, From these premises, I believe we can assert that public life will be dominated by an inclination toward–nay, necessity of–conformity, which is to say, the self-alignment between communicative acts selected by an agent, and the reputation’ or signification so to speak of the act itself.” As an example, he points to the fact that others will predictably interpret certain facial expressions as anger, which means that you must avoid making such expressions, unless you want, or are willing, to be perceived as being angry.

There is an important corollary to this, which the post hints at, but does not fully develop, which is that there will be greater risk but also greater potential reward for deviating from a more well established norm. If your community has made it very clear that some particular behavior is unacceptable, then you know, and can fully expect, that there may be severe consequences for you if you do it. At the same time, however, the fact there is something in (many? all?) of us that abhors conformity, means that there will always be some subset of people who are seeking to differentiate themselves from the mainstream, and will be in search of a Schelling point around which to coordinate their dissensus.

Even more interesting and important than this, however, is the ambiguity inherent in nonconformity.2 When people recognize that their norms are parochial, they are likely to be very forgiving of violations. (“Oh, you’re sitting in my Dad’s chair, but of course you didn’t know that!”) As norms become more common, there is a greater expectation that everyone should be aware of them, and easier to read nonconformity as rejection, especially once an obvious subculture has taken shape (“The kids these days!”).

But once a norm becomes so widespread that violation would seem to be unimaginable to its adherents, it becomes harder and harder to make sense of someone’s deviation from it. And because the expectations of rational action and self-preservation are so widespread, any attempt to compel an explanation from a heretic only provides a more powerful game in which the iconoclast can confound the conformist. When Bartleby prefers not to, there is essentially nothing that his boss can do to change or even make sense of his purported subordinate’s behavior.

The difficulty of interpretation comes not just from an imbalance in the cost-benefit analysis (which, in extreme cases, might seem to some to be impossible to work out in a way that would be to the benefit of the dissenter), but from our reluctant recognition, at the core of being, that something about our inclinations remains incalculable. Consider Dostoevsky’s underground man:

Oh tell me, who first announced, who was the first to proclaim that man does dirty only because he doesn’t know his real interests, and that were he to be enlightened, were his eyes to be opened to his real, normal interests, man would immediately stop doing dirty, would immediately become good and noble, because, being enlightened and understanding his real profit, he would see his real profit precisely in the good, and it’s common knowledge that no man can act knowling against his own profit, consequently, out of necessity, so to speak, he would start doing good? Oh, the babe! oh, the pure, innocent child! and when was it, to begin with, in all these thousands of years, that man acted solely for his own profit? What is to be done with the millions of facts testifying to how people knowingly, that is, fully understanding their real profit, would put it in second place and throw themselves onto another path, a risk, a perchance, not compelled by anyone or anything, but precisely as if they simply did not want the designated path, and stubbornly, willfully pushed off onto another one, difficult, absurd, searching for it all but in the dark. So, then, this stubbornness and willfulness were really more agreeable to them than any profit . . . Profit! What is profit? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect exactitude precisely what man’s profit consists in? And what if it so happens that on occasion man’s profit not only may but precisely must consist in sometimes wishing what is bad for himself, and not what is profitable? And if so, if there can be such a case, then the whole rule goes up in smoke.”3

Or more simply, remember the poet’s words Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself”.4

I do think Suspended is on the right track, but I also think there is something like a singularity at the bottom of a chain of reasoning by which there is both calculable and incalculable value in refusing to conform.

  1. It’s not a long post; I recommend reading it in full!↩︎

  2. I would like to find a better word than nonconformity”, but terms like recalcitrance” and rejection” imply too much of a definite attitude toward what is being deviated from, the lack of which is exactly the point I’m trying to make.↩︎

  3. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, First Vintage Classics Edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1993), chapter VII, pp. 20–21.↩︎

  4. Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1855).↩︎