I have always been surprised by the enthusiasm with which other parents seem to relish it when their children have the same stuff – and like the same stuff – as everyone else at school: ‘I sent him off for the first day of term with his new little Star Wars backpack and he just looked so lovely.’ I nod and agree: he probably did look lovely with his face shiny clean, excited about seeing all the people in his class again. But (I think to myself) why was the Star Wars backpack part of his loveliness? I have never understood that impulse in other parents: to enjoy it when their children seem similar to other children. The question always comes back to me when it’s time to buy new uniform and my daughter desperately wants to conform: ‘I want the same shoes Mia has’; ‘I like those, so-and-so has those.’
I notice in myself an opposite impulse: when everyone else’s child has something, or likes something, my impulse is to avoid it. I used to expect there would be other parents who shared my suspicion of the crowd, but it always appears I’m the only one at the school gate feeling that way.
By the way, I welcome comments on this from readers with different points of view – I want to question myself. My suspicion of the crowd is not always good for my daughter: if I reject everything that ‘everyone else’ likes purely because of the popularity – regardless of what the object of their approval is – then, to my daughter, my rejection seems meaningless.
But following the crowd without questioning is not right either.
You may find this a jump: to go straight from Star Wars backpacks to Nazis, but bear with me. I wonder if my stubborn suspicion of the crowd was absorbed from my Jewish father who grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s. (Yes, he was pretty old when I was born.) The thought, that it’s good for a child to follow a crowd because it’s fun to join in – and most kids want to join in – is obliterated if you think about Hitler’s electric popularity in 1930’s Germany and the success of the Hitler Youth movement. (My father, like all Jews of his generation, grew up constantly painfully aware that Nazi’s were real.)
Simone Weil, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Christianity, feared conformity. She explained this in a letter to a Catholic priest:
“I know that the moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi. That is a very great weakness, but that is how I am…..I am afraid of the Church patriotism existing in Catholic circles.” (Waiting for God, 1950)
There are countless expressions of fear of conformity voiced by Jews at the time, and since; another Jew who has expressed such fear is Bob Dylan. But Weil’s is the most eloquent I know.
We could all do with a little fear conformity. Life is becoming more uniform. I often think of a famous old photograph of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in 1963 standing next to a sign, which declares, ‘Protest against the rising tide of conformity‘. I have this poster permanently stuck in my head, because its sentiment is worryingly absent from the school gates. And I can hardly find in the media (correct me if I’m wrong).
Our modern Internet encourages us to think with the crowd. The word ‘like’ is shifting its meaning. We worry about how many likes we get for things we post (I try not to get sucked into that, but don’t always manage). We want others to like us; we list what we like. The word has gathered power, become a tyrant: we need likes to feel we exist; we use likes to guide us to truth; millions of likes are taken as evidence of truth.
I use a capital letter in ‘Internet’ to remind you that the current Internet used to be just one way of linking a network of computers out of many possible ways. The capital letter used to distinguish the one we ended up with from the others (New York Times, 2016). We should remember that the way our current Internet works is not inevitable and could be altered, so that it wouldn’t encourage people to think in crowds. Read, or watch, Jaron Lanier (writer, musician and virtual reality pioneer) for an explanation of why and how we “must undo” the way our Internet works. (Ted Talk, 2018) I implore you, click on this last link– it’s essential to know about Lanier’s ideas.
Lanier is a Jew whose parents were a mother who survived a concentration camp and a father who had lost much of his family to pogroms, so perhaps Lanier has absorbed the same mid-20th Century Jewish suspicion of the crowd that I have. He has written and spoken about his high hopes for technology, as well as his fears about the Internet in its current form. I can’t summarise his ideas. One relevant point however is his observation that cat videos are more popular than dog videos. In the introduction to his book ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’, he suggests that we love cats because – unlike dogs – they cannot be trained, they “are still in charge”: “Oh, how we long to have that certainty not just about our cats but about ourselves! Cats on the internet are our hopes and dreams for the future of people on the internet.” (Lanier, 2018, p. 2)
So to get back to the Star Wars backpack. My daughter happens to be more into the sparkly-stereotypicalgirly-princessy-Disney kind of style most girls in her class like. I have my worries about the style, which I have written about in earlier posts. But please notice, both styles are conformist (and both powered by Disney).
Our Internet conditions us to care about what the crowd likes. But we would do well to learn from the horrific experience of Jews in the 20th Century: that we must always question the crowd. This month I will be thinking hard about they ways in which I want my daughter to conform when she goes back to school and the ways in which I don’t.