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It was the school holidays and there were lots of teenagers in my local park. I sometimes spot them meandering home, but I rarely see them en masse as it were. Blind to the bluebells, peacocks and glories of nature all around us, they were glued to their palm-sized screens. What were they so engrossed in – some kind of game or trivial video, a map of the park perhaps, unnecessary given the proliferation of signs? Are they texting, e-mailing, or trawling through the Internet, or all of the above? If one did not know what these shiny seductive objects were, one might think that they controlled the person, rather than the other way round. And to a large degree they do.
For parents of teenagers, seeing groups of young people within a smartphone bubble, isolated from and, crucially, with no awareness of the environment around them or other people, is, I expect, commonplace. For me it was shocking. Equally startling and somewhat depressing was the herd-like behaviour. Where was the individuality here; has the uniformity of the high street or shopping centre, the café or restaurant, hotel or housing development infiltrated the minds of human beings, young and not so young? So it would appear.
There is tremendous pressure on everyone to conform to a particular stereotype, to be easily categorised as a certain type of person. The reasons are clear and predictably crude – to allow governments to build a database of who we are and what we think, and to enable advertisers to better target ‘consumers’. We’re no longer persons anymore of course, we’re vessels of consumption into which stuff, mostly stuff we don’t need, can be endlessly poured. The pressure to conform to a constructed ideal is perhaps most acute within youth culture; to look and dress in a particular way, act in a certain manner and want a specific lifestyle. Girls and young women are expected to be slim, beautiful, dressed in the latest high street fashions, which of course change with every season to maintain the consumer frenzy; they should be sexy and sexually active, glossy, as well as achieving high marks at school or University. For men or boys the predominantly macho image presented on TV, in films, video games etc., is perhaps even more prescriptive and inhibiting. The pressure is colossal: it is not accidental, and it is making lots of people, young and not so young, ill.
Independent thinking and creative exploration are key enemies of the forces behind this worldwide attack on true individuality, and so an assault on the creative arts is being waged in many developed countries. Under the spurious banner of ‘austerity’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’ – a set of far right excuses to justify decimating public services – funding to the creative arts; theatres, dance groups, Opera, ballet etc., is being slashed. The scope of work groups can offer is reduced, admission prices, already too high, increased, further restricting access to a predominantly elitist world. Education budgets are being attacked in many countries and art education (together with social science and physical exercise) in schools is the first to be axed or drastically reduced – despite the fact that it improves students’ academic results. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, “students who study art are 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and 3 times more likely to be awarded for school attendance.” The problem with creative education from the point of view of those who want a drowsy, frightened population that won’t challenge the status quo too loudly or think of alternative ways of running society, is that it stimulates independent thought, allows for individuality and feeds anarchic discontent.
Conformity together with fear is the cornerstone of control, and the current education system in most developed countries drives both into children from beginning to end. Conformity and competition are built into the system; both are crippling and inhibiting, feeding fear, and conditioning the mind, not just for childhood and early adulthood but often for life. As Krishnamurti made clear in Education and the Significance of Life, “conventional education makes independent thinking extremely difficult. Conformity leads to mediocrity. To be different from the group or to resist [ones] environment is not easy and is often risky as long as we worship success…the search for inward or outward security, the desire for comfort – this whole process smothers discontent, puts an end to spontaneity and breeds fear; and fear blocks the intelligent understanding of life. With increasing age, dullness of mind and heart sets in,” and whatever fight there was in the man or woman to begin with is drained away.
Add to the inhibiting education environment in which many young people find themselves, a social media blanket of uniformity, mainstream media – TV, radio, crass gossip magazines, trashy tabloids and dishonest advertising selling a hollow materialistic life-style – and the many headed hydra pushing people to think and act in a certain way, begins to raise its ugly head above the sea of stress, self-harm, and suicide. The inability to express oneself’ naturally and freely for fear of being seen to be ‘different’, inevitably results in stasis of some kind, which may lead to so-called disruptive behaviour, or some form of disease, mental or physiological.
Of course we all need to live within the moral codes agreed by society, but psychological and sociological conformity has nothing to do with respecting the laws and traditions of a country: they are to do with control and fear, and with the rise of the right that is now taking place throughout the world, such suppressive methods are set to become even more intense. True individuality – the manifestation of our innate nature, not the distorted individuality that places selfish desire and ambition above the welfare of others, should be encouraged and fostered, and conformity in all its devious, pernicious forms called out and resisted.