Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/06/2010

It’s the CONFORMITY, Stupid. Only Levi Strauss & Co. here, please.

Mickey Spillane in style

Mickey Spillane in style

The college students I teach exemplify a universal phenomenon. (That’s the kind of dramatic overstatement of a stereotype that would bring on the “delete” in the “track changes” program I use to grade their writing.) One must use a qualifier: Many of the college students I teach exemplify a phenomenon that seems sometimes to be almost universal.

The phenomenon is neither new nor specific to my students. Example: when I was in college, the standard (ubiquitous) lower-body wear for male students was 501 Levi’s. Today, however, no self-respecting male student would be caught passed-out drunk in a pair of 501’s. Bagginess is all. In my college days the standard for female students was less a look of ubiquity; rather, the women tended to dress with variation within a general “look,” not quite the “bobby soxer” look by that time, but the ubiquitous style that replaced it.

Being a somewhat rebellious (in my own quiet way) music student—gay and out, even in those pre-Stonewall days—I didn’t fit in very well in ubiquity. Neither did most of my friends. We had our own style (think Maynard G. Krebs). And we had our private fun at the expense of the “Greeks”—geeks with an “R” and too much conformity.

One semester a few years back, a student in my class bore the last name of a well-known exclusive brand of shirt. He told me that his grandfather had started the company, that his parents had sold it to some larger company, and that he and his twin brother were business majors, hoping to learn how to get the company back into the family’s hands. He told me all of that because one day I wore to class the only shirt of their family brand I have ever owned—or ever will own whether or not the boys get the company back.

The phenomenon that seems sometimes to be almost universal that many of my students exemplify is, of course, conformity. Students searching for their individuality are at least as conformist as the general population. Difference is anathema to them. In the face of difference, college students

. . . often adopt one of two approaches to make that difference seem less threatening. Either they try to reduce difference to sameness by immediately focusing on possible points of commonality to their own experience or they treat difference as fundamentally disconnected from their own experience. (1)

Last night I was having dinner with my brother and sister at one of those urban malls, malls that exist thanks to the destruction of swaths of indigenous buildings deemed redundant and their replacement with cookie-cutter shops that could be (and probably are) built identically in any city in the country. We chose an Italian restaurant with “California” in its name (we were, after all, in Oakland). This brand of California/Italian eatery can be found in nearly every state in the US. My brother commented on the menu as being different than it used to be—knowing that from a branch of the eatery in Louisiana. Eating in such a place is completely safe. The menu has no surprises from Oakland to Chicago and beyond. We “treat difference as fundamentally disconnected from [our] own experience.” American cookie-cutter businesses have—as everyone knows—spread throughout the world. MacDonalds in Jerusalem, Disney in France, Microsoft in Sierra Leone.

None of this is news to anyone. Articles, books, NPR specials, the Wall Street Journal document the ubiquitous spread of American culture in cookie-cutter form. The cultures of other “developed” countries spread, too. British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, Toyota in America, diamonds from Sierra Leone via DeBeers worldwide, Merona clothing from Jerusalem via Target in Texas. The world is awash in culture and business unmoored from its homelands, swamped by globalized capitalism.

We, as citizens of the American/Western European hegemony, leading the way in making the world safe for eating the same form of Italian food in any place at any time, find nothing strange or unsettling about any of this. We accept without reflection the

overwhelming influence of Western—and particularly American—cultural influence throughout the non-Western world; an influence that, since the end of colonialism, has been strengthened by the emergence of global telecommunications. (2)

We accept without reservation that the Western way is the best way, and we celebrate what we have been taught are universal “sacred concepts of humanity or culture” as if we are

celebrating values within [our] own culture. Universalism [is Western] in the extreme, of which the truth is of a “unitary and homogeneous human nature which marginalizes and excludes the distinctive characteristics, the difference. . .” (3)

Conformity. Conformity stems from our belief in universalism, which we mistake for universality (4). Universalism is a doctrine implying that all cultures can (and may) be subsumed under one set of cultural norms. Globalization is the summum bonum of universalism. Because Western capitalism is, we believe, the most natural or the most correct or the most moral or the most . . . (something). . .way to organize society, we believe that it is meet and right (see the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) that we spread its precepts—and its actualities—around the world.

Through globalization we believe we can spread not only the economic benefits of capitalism to the far corners of the earth, but, in the process, we can spread our [unreproachable] belief in the rights of individuals which we assume, because we understand them so well and believe in them so completely are universally understood. Never mind that

Western thought had not only made itself blind to the fact that its conception of universality was the product of a certain place and era, but also to the fact that universal ideas could be developed and codified differently in other places, in other eras, and by other people. (5)

Who does not believe, as stated in the founding document of the United States, that all men are created equal and we are endowed by virtue of our being part of the natural creation with rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Our belief in the –ism of universalism prevents us from understanding the –ity of universality, that is, that all men/women/cultures have the right and ability to develop and codify their understandings of universal truth in their own way(s). We cannot see that, as fervently as we believe in equality and rights and other principles of our social contract, they are not the only way of formulating universal truth to organize a culture.



Wearing 501 Levi’s may or may not be an important aspect of universal truth. However, if we compare products of the Levi Strauss & Co. with, for example, women wearing hijabs (or, perish the thought! berkas), we understand immediately that the globalization of markets can benefit and be benefitted by the spread of Levi’s throughout the world because they are the product of our belief in the universalism of the free market. The hajib and berka, however, are aberrations caused by a different culture’s understanding of universal truth. We must invest them with all the “disconnectedness” we can muster in order to protect our understanding of universality. Their difference is an unthinkable threat.

It’s the conformity, stupid! We must have California style Italian made from the same recipe in restaurants that look them same in Bangkok, Bergen, or Boston. That’s our understanding of the universal way to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So no hijabs, please.
(1) Kandaswamy, Priya. “Beyond Colorblindness and Mukiculturalism.” Radical Teacher 80 (2007): 6-11. Quoted in: Barnard, Ian. “The difficulties of teaching non-Western literature in the United States.” Radical Teacher 87 (2010): 44+.
(2) Ishay, Micheline R. “The sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: exploring the past, anticipating the future.” Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems 19.2 (2010): 639+.
(3) Liu, Huiqing. “When will the mute swan sing? On the ‘orientalism’ and its ‘false truth’/Quand chantera le cygne muet?–Sur l’orientalisme et ses verite fauses.” Canadian Social Science 5.5 (2009): 55+. Quotation from: Ashcroft, Bill, & Griffiths, Gareth, & Tiffin, Helen (ed & intro). (1995). The Post-colonial Studies Reader, London/New York: Routledge.
(4) For a thorough discussion of the differences between the two concepts see: Jonsson, Stefan. “The Ideology of Universalism.” New Left Review 63 (May/June 2010): 115+.
(5) Jonsson, idem.


%d bloggers like this: