For the sake of argument

The danger is not conformity, but servility

GERALD W. JOHNSON February 1 1958
For the sake of argument

The danger is not conformity, but servility

GERALD W. JOHNSON February 1 1958

The danger is not conformity, but servility

For the sake of argument


It is now almost exactly a hundred years since John Stuart Mill remarked in his Essay on Liberty that one of the great determinants of conduct has been “the servility of mankind toward the supposed preferences of their temporal masters or of their gods.” It is, continued Mill, “not hypocrisy; it gives rise to genuine sentiments of abhorrence; it made men burn magicians and heretics.”

A century after Mill wrote, this servility, while it may not actually burn heretics, still makes some men join the Ku Klux Klan, some turn Catholic and others Protestant without any persona! conviction, and converts some journalists into high - powered propagandists for causes that are as false as stairs of sand. But, as Mill observed, it is not hypocrisy; it is based on an utterly sincere belief that conformity is not only expedient, but also moral.

What is well-adjusted?

One need not accept all the theories of the late Dr. Robert Lindner to realize that he touched an important truth in his protest against the acceptance of “the welladjusted personality” as the psychological ideal. When we say “well-adjusted” all too often we mean a servile personality, which is an ideal fit only for a totalitarian state.

This train in human nature is one secret of the success of the propagandist. It accounts for the power of the “snob appeal” in advertising as well as fundamentalism in religion. The only successful defense against it is eternal vigilance against one’s own tendency to accept servility as reasonable and right.

There is no merit in the contention of some people, usually immature, that conformity is evil per se. But there is just as little merit in the assumption, especially common among ancient gaffers,

that conformity is virtuous per se. Conformity is in itself neither good nor bad; it is completely neutral. Its one recommendation is that in many situations it is convenient. In an increasingly complex civilization, human life is too short to permit a man to think through and form an independent, intelligent opinion on everything. For instance, there may be, for aught 1 know, logical reasons for the button-down collar on a shirt, and other logical reasons for using a clip. I have no opinion on the subject, nor do 1 expect to form one because life is too short to devote any of it to a subject of such slight importance.

There is no merit in non-conformity in matters of no importance. There is, in fact, demerit in it. The man who studies how to outrage the ordinary conventionalities is thereby convicted of spending his time and energy on trivialities, which is evidence that he is essentially a trivial fellow. A man of genuine independence reserves his energy to do battle on things that really count; if one can devise no means of asserting independence other than going to a formal dinner in a plaid shirt, or attending an outdoor barbecue in white tic and tails, you may depend upon it that he is a shallowminded faker. When it comes to a matter in which independence really counts for something, nine times out of ten you will find him falling in with the crowd.

Nor is the value of conformity, as an economizer of time and energy, confined to trivialities; there are many important affairs of state in which it is the only reasonable procedure for sensible men.

To take an extreme example, one that nobody will question, when it comes to the most advantageous deployment of military forces it is utterly nonsensical for the civilian to attempt to form an opinion. This is a technical prob-

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For the sake of argument

continued from page 8

“To make ‘controversial’ equal ‘infamous’

only helps the police”

great complexity, and what the chiefs of staff say about it must be accepted by rational men, not because it is necessarily right, but because it is the best opinion available.

However, when it comes to the question of how much money wc should spend on the armed forces, the situation is different. 1 doubt that the average man can form an intelligent opinion on the absolute sum, but he can certainly form one on the proportion of the total revenue of the government that should be devoted to armament. At present that proportion is tremendously high, and one of the chief problems of statecraft is how to reduce it without dangerously weakening national security.

No prudent man will strike a holierthan-thou attitude in this matter ol conformity. Liberal or conservative, wise or simple, naive or sophisticated, we aie all more or less vulnerable to catch phrases; the difference is that we are not all trapped by the same ones. The man who responds to “rugged individualism is repelled by “the welfare state” and vice versa. In me, “free private enterprise” arouses suspicion; but I am aware that if you offer me any proposition under the guise of “freedom of speech ’ I am partially disarmed, laid open to suggestions of doubtful validity that would never catch me off guard if they were presented in other terms. So it is not for me to laugh when l see my neighbor bewitched by the magic words “national defense” into tolerating invasions of his personal liberty that a well-trained poodle ought to resent.

This human tendency is familiar to every journalist who has reached the grade of master craftsman. Making skillful use of it is one secret of his trade, a means by which he can. if he is an honest man. do splendid work in promoting the general welfare. Unfortunately, if he is a crook the same means will enable him to perpetuate injuries limited only by the height of his skill and the depth of his villainy. On the other hand, a reader who is keenly aware of this trait in his own nature is fortified against it and is usually a tough subject for the propagandist.

The merit of conformity ends with its value in preventing waste of time and energy. It is regrettable that there is

any excuse for making the statement. The average man ought to regard the assertion that there is no virtue in conformity as on a level with a solemn assurance that the sun really does rise in the cast, never in the west.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. You can hardly pick up a newspaper without seeing an account of how some meeting was forbidden, or some speaker was refused a hearing on the ground that the topic to be discussed was “controversial.” Only a few months ago a great deal of money was spent advertising the launching of a new magazine which its sponsors claimed would be different from any other periodical because it would carry nothing “controversial.”

It is my considered opinion that in all the records of the fantastic there is nothing more ridiculous than the idea of a magazine worth reading that carries nothing controversial. It means, of course, that the magazine will contain nothing to provoke thought, for whatever provokes thought is of necessity open to

question, that is, controversial. What you already know calls for no thought: it is the hitherto undiscovered truth that demands mental exercise, which is to say it is controversial by definition.

This effort to make “controversial” equal “infamous” has one, and only one, sound reason behind it, which is, to make things easier for the police. II' meanings are to be extended, let “police” be extended to cover a great deal more than the man in a blue uniform patroling the streets; let it cover all regulators of conduct and expression, including the traffic officer under a cap, of course, but including also the governor under a silk hat. the college president under a mortarboard, and the bishop un der a mitre. Let it include anybody who is considered and considers himself in any degree responsible for the maintenance of law and order.

Such authorities naturally deplore controversy, for controversy means that they must go into action, and going into action always means hard work and sometimes means risking defeat and humiliation. One should not attribute moral turpitude to them on this account. It is only human to dislike harassment and vexation. The official charged with the duty of sustaining any kind of orthodoxy would be more, or less, than human if he looked upon the heterodox with favor. Nevertheless, the growing tendency to regard whatever is controversial as somehow immoral cannot inure to the benefit of anyone except the police. This holds good in every phase of life, beginning with government itself.

This does not imply that government is intrinsically or even relatively evil. It is the writer’s firm conviction that democracy is the best form of government so far devised by the wit of man: but from this premise cither of two equally valid inferences may be drawn. One is that democracy is good government; the other is that the wit of man is a feeble instrument. To my way of thinking, the fact that millions of us have drawn the first inference without even considering the second is one of the great weaknesses of democracy. Anything that is approved as nearly unanimously as democracy is approved, is in danger of growing stale; unless it is occasionally refreshed it begins to change its nature, very subtly

perhaps, but very definitely. Sometimes unless the process is checked the approved idea turns into its opposite.

Here is the point, stated in more decorous and more beautiful language than I can command: “We should be eterna!ily vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe fraught with death.” That is Mr. Justice Holmes uttering his memorable argument for freedom of opinion. Holmes was one of the most learned men in the United States, but he said. “Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation on some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.” It follows that the very opinion we loathe and believe fraught with death may contain the more perfect knowledge that would effect our salvation.

Yet even Holmes had to admit a qualification. Immediately after the words quoted above he conceded that sometimes expressions of wrong opinions may “so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

There is the loophole through which tvranny may yet creep in to seize the stronghold of liberty.

Must w'e assume, then, that our present tendency to suppress non-conformist opinion lest it vanquish and destroy trut h represents a degeneration that proves us unworthy sons of our great forefathers? I do not think so. I not only hope, J truly believe that our yielding to the terrors that beset us can be adequately accounted for on somewhat less melancholy grounds.

After all, why did Milton and Jefferson—those champions of freedom—find it necessary to thunder so resoundingly? Obviously because the opposite opinion prevailed among a great many people in their day. Neither would have defended freedom of opinion had it not been threatened. So if it is appropriate in our day to echo their “hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man” the worst that can be said of our generation is that it has not advanced much.

Still, that is bad enough. It is a sobering thought that today, even as when Mill wrote, a hundred years ago, and when Jefferson wrote, a hundred and fifty years ago. and when Milton wrote, three hundred years ago. the really terrible foe of liberty remains not any Caesar, or Sultan, or Great Khan, but the perennial, apparently indestructible "servility of mankind.” ★

Copyright Í5 1958 by Gerald W. Johnson. This article, in expanded form, will appear in his forthcoming book, Peril and Promise (Harper).