Conformity and ‘Community’: Fertile Ground for Tyranny
Many were shocked to witness the Canadian government’s brutal suppression of the truckers’ protest against vaccine mandates. Previously, draconian lockdowns oppressed many more Canadians, resulting in the arrest of pastors for holding church services. A decade before that, Mark Steyn, a critic of militant Islam, had endured his own government’s “show trial” under Canadian bureaucrats. How could such things happen in the land of those polite, mild Canadians?
The stereotype of Canadians as polite, cooperative people seems to be widely accepted. They often view themselves that way. One Canadian joke goes, “How do you get a hundred drunk and rowdy Canadians out of your pool? You say, ‘Please get out of the pool.’” Comparatively speaking, Americans have probably tended to be more troublesome. Nevertheless, America’s longstanding commitment to individual freedom has also helped to foster many wholesome independent spirits. Without a large number of such people, it does not take much to transform a conformist society into a totalitarian one.
These days unthinking conformity is on the rise. In Canada and elsewhere, the Orwellian euphemism often used to promote a type of enforced, top-down conformity is “community.” It really does not denote any real community but rather the mass of people who submit meekly to high-handed authoritarian decrees. Consequently, they are rewarded with official and social approval. The rest can be ostracized as selfish misfits and troublemakers.
Bruce Bawer elaborates on how the Canadian government uses the “community” cudgel to marginalize dissenters there. Ironically, though the Canadian government justifies its policies in the name of “community,” they undermine real social bonds by isolating people in their homes and punishing grassroots communities like churches for meeting together.
Another society once made constant use of the concept of “community” — Nazi Germany. The German people were encouraged to conduct themselves as loyal partakers in “the national community,” always putting the common interest above self-interest. Since Germans tended to be subservient to authority, this was not such a hard thing to accomplish there.
Japan, where I live, is well-known as a conformist society, as the Japanese themselves readily admit. That type of society has significant weaknesses as well as strengths. Conformism often targets those who do not blend in, either in behavior or looks. There is a proverb in Japan about this: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
School and job-related bullying has been a persistent problem in Japan. As a result, there is the widespread social problem of jobless shut-ins/drop-outs, called hikikomori, who number in the millions. Other casualties include the numerous suicides among the young. Young people in Japan often label as “KY” someone whose remarks show him to be out of sync with the group’s mindset. The initials stand for kuuki o yomenai, meaning “unable to read the atmosphere” (of the group).
Historically, Japan’s descent into totalitarianism especially reveals the dark potential of conformism. During the Second World War, a concept very similar to the Nazi idea of “national community” was widely promulgated — the kokutai, “national polity.” As one historical site puts it, in schools “pupils were taught to put the nation before the self” and “the obedience called for was to be blind and absolute.” For example, in their final letters, kamikaze suicide pilots declared their loyalty to the Emperor as the personification of Japan’s kokutai.
A 1946 report by the Japanese Ministry of Education reflected on the causes of the Japanese debacle in World War II, as historian John Dower explains:
Teachers and administrators were called on to engage in deep reflection on the shortcomings of a society that had led to the war and to the country’s present sorry state . . . war and defeat had come about because the people did not have proper respect for “human nature, personality, and individuality.” Failure to develop a rational, critical spirit had allowed militarism and ultranationalism to arise.
In the aftermath of the disastrous war, these educational authorities put a lot of blame for Japan’s totalitarianism at the door of a lack of support for individual personhood and the widespread inability to think for oneself. Much of my educational effort has been spent inculcating critical thinking among my Japanese students, and this strong tendency toward unthinking conformity is one of the chief obstacles to it. Regrettably, in recent years the introduction of politically correct ideology into Japan has only exacerbated this problem, as it has in the West.
Collectivist ideology, bureaucracy, the mass media, and social media are now pushing much of the world toward absolute conformity. At one time the Big Tech companies encouraged a multiplicity of views and voices. Then they decided on a policy of punishing and excluding unapproved views. Rather than providing real freedom of expression, they decided to turn their platforms into engines of conformity. So now Facebook justifies its censorship in the name of “the Facebook community,” which is nothing more than a collection of individuals making use of that corporation’s social media platform.
Oppressive conformity is an enormous problem for all of us these days, as the antics of “cancel culture” regularly demonstrate. Of course, the pressure of conformity has always been part of life but, in the free world, it was once more effectively regulated by even-handed justice and ameliorated by mercy and forgiveness, the legacy of our religious influences. Thankfully, there are still many pushing back against conformist “community” — like those brave Canadian truckers.
Graphic credit: Max Pixel public domain
Bruce Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a board member of the Jonathan Edwards Center in Japan.