Acting Normal – The Paradox of Conformism and Individualism

The next short video of Candid Camera, is old and funny:
Funny right? But it also points to something about human nature that psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes about in the Lucifer Effect. Zimbardo is mostly known from his Stanford Prison Experiment. In the website dedicated to his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he states:

The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

Whenever I enter an office-building elevator, I automatically turn and face front, do not make eye contact with other passengers, stop talking or speak only in hush tones to a companion. Are these my personal preferences or idiosyncrasies? Hardly, since most people in most elevators behave similarly. Those actions tell you little about me but a lot about the unspoken rules of public elevators. Why do we do it? Unlike signs forbidding us to smoke or advising us what to do in case of a fire, nothing in any elevator says we should act in these strange ways. Our behavior is under the control of unwritten social rules, implicit norms, which govern appropriate elevator demeanor.

We can test if such situational rules are in silent force by violating them and seeing what our own and others’ reactions will be. The reactions will be either of distress or laughter at the apparent violation of these unwritten expectations.

The power of conformity is such that it can change people’s character: The lucifer effect. Another study Zimbardo is referring to, is Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience to authority‘ experiment in which he tested whether or not subjects would do what they are told even when they thought those actions are morally wrong and conflicting with their personal conscience.

While Milgram points to the situation that people do not question authority even when it is deemed excessive and unjust, the Stanford Prison Experiment tells us something about the danger of having not enough responsible authority needed in channelling people’s agency in particular circumstances. Both highlight the role of conformity to authority and provide an interesting comment to power in contemporary societies.

Conformism and integration
Now both experiments bring people into a particular situation they may experience as inescapable. In real life this can certainly happen. We only have to think about the Abu Ghraib atrocities or the Srebrenica massacre in recent times. But of course most people are not in such dramatic circumstances every day. Anthropologists but others as well have shown quite convincingly that people often do not just follow and obey authorities. They evade, appropriate and accommodate authority often to fit their own purposes and needs and very often they seek their own authorities with whom they feel they share some ideas or even with whom they just feel ok. Simply, because out there people are influenced by many other things as well and because they have other repertoires of authority and other authorities available as well.

Does this mean then that outside those experiments people are free and can do whatever they like? That they do not need to be influenced by any kind of authority? Of course not. Nevertheless that assumption does appear to play an important role for example in the debates about Islam. The hijab is typically taken as a sign of women’s oppression (by brutal men) or seen as something a girl wears without any pressure whatsoever making them freeling choosing individuals who are immune to the pressures of the social environment. Nevertheless people always make choices by negotiating the options they have. Girls without hijab have to legitimize their choice as well as those with hijab; both in relation to Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

At the same time people have to actively choose to belong to Dutch society since forcing would be against the idealized image of what Dutch culture is. Certainly within the Dutch islamdebates the pressure is very clear. Focusing on Muslims in the Netherlands it has become quite clear by now that the presence or absence of particular religious practices (ranging from praying to wearing a headscarf) is seen in public and policy debates (and sometimes in academic debates) as a sign of the extent to which Muslims are prepared to adapt to Dutch culture and/or as an indicator of integration. Muslims who try to find ways of being in and belonging to a global Muslim community while at the same time trying to abide by the Dutch demands for assimilation, are sometimes seen as the victims of the pressure to conform. But then to Islam or the Muslim community or ethnic community. It is certainly not the case that Dutch policy is rejecting Islam as a whole; we can only find that in Wilders’ Freedom Party. The Dutch government however is trying to ‘alter’ the development of a Muslim community towards a ‘more liberal ‘Dutch’ direction, that is, against orthodoxism. As Rath et al. (1999: 61) stated, ‘Officials and politicians wanted Muslims organized in the fashion that was viewed as acceptable and efficient in the Netherlands, i.e., with representative organizations or in coordinating bodies with approachable spokesmen, as if the Muslims in the Netherlands constitute a coherent community’ (my italics). The key issue is, of course, the notion of ‘acceptable and efficient’ according to the standards of the Dutch state. This is to large extent uncontested. Underneath that notion of being ‘acceptable and efficient’ however lie different opinions of what this actually means: among Dutch politicians but also among Dutch Muslims.

Conforming to individualism
Notwithstanding those differences in opinion there appears to be a strong current within Dutch population that aims for conformism of Muslims to Dutch ‘norms and values’. The interesting twist here of course is that Muslims within that discourse must adapt to Dutch culture that (in an ideal sense) highlights individual choice, authenticity, and freedom. Both Pim Fortuyn (former leader of the populist, killed in 2002) and Wilders emphasize the need that Muslims become liberated and submit to freedom and individualism. This is not something only populist anti-Islam politicians advocate. There is a general tendency to exclude those modes of Islamic religiosity and politics that are deemed unfit for secular society. These modes are then labelled ‘radical Islam’ and the more moderate political parties aim to exclude radical Islam from the public sphere while being more open to what they call ‘liberal Islam’ or even openly supporting it.This creates a contradiction; one HAS to conform but choose for that voluntarily:

The solution for this is ‘Acting normal’ as the rule; not meaning there is only one mode of acceptable behaviour. There is certainly a bandwith of what is acceptable what is not as long as one publicly appears to conform to a culture of authenticity and individualism. But everything outside is made to appear ridiculous at least or the consequence of individualism gone too far, whether it is some of the supporters of the Freedom Party, the people protesting at Occupy, the radical Muslims and so on.:
In this sense we probably should not look upon individualism and conformism as dichotomies but as mutually constitutive forces in social reality. In order to appear a ‘true’ individual, an authentic person, people need their lifestyles and convictions to be authenticated; the evaluated as truthfull, genuine, sincere and unique. But this is always done in a process of negotation that takes place within particular contexts wherein certain lifestyles are deemed acceptable while others are not.

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