Throughout our lives, from school, through college, attending sermons in the places of worship we frequent according to our faith, we are taught to be good and courteous, indulge in appropriate behaviour, and so on. In short, we are trained to conform… to societal norms. Hence the article titled A club for the Cancelled in The New Yorker magazine made me sit up. Here, every month, over 200 media professionals, academia, and other intellectuals are invited in New York to what is called the Gathering of Thought Criminals! The only qualifying factor — you have to be socially ostracised, broken rules, lost a job, friends, etc for holding unpopular opinions. Some people on the guest list are notorious: élite professors who have broken university rules, journalists who have made a name for themselves amid public backlash, or nobodies who have defied societal norms.
Initiated by Pamela Paresky, a PhD from the University of Chicago, and lovingly referred to as the ‘Mother hen of the cancelled,’ the thought criminals meet once a month and talk about how many of them are misfits. One attendee ranted about how left-leaning New York has become and almost “every conversation is about how capitalism is evil or how America is the most racist, sexist, homophobic country in the world.”
It’s a long article which talks about “political homelessness” and other issues which set me wondering about how the place for dissent and nonconformist views is shrinking in our world, including our own country. But imagine how dull and boring our lives will become if everybody falls in line, obeys all the rules, good or bad, right or wrong, because people in authority say so; be it in a school, college, workplace, religious organisation, political party or government. If that happens, how will new and different thinking, innovations, disruptive businesses — such as Airbnb or Uber — come in? If the system, your organisation, your loved ones, or government, lulls or steers people towards a state of mind where you accept everything without questioning, rejecting or doubting, then what is left of the human mind? It’s very convenient for the ruling dispensations to label those who ask question as “urban naxals,” or “environmental terrorists”. But just look at the disasters that happened by not hearing their questions or heeding their warnings, be it in Kerala, so often devastated by floods, or Joshimath in Uttarakhand, both due to haphazard and dangerous construction activities in ecologically sensitive zones.
This is at the community level, but even at a personal level, if we conform to accepted norms all the time, fall in line always, both at the workplace and the home, surely something within us shrivels up, and you diminish as an individual, worst of all, in your own eyes.
Quite often there is merit in standing up, speaking out, standing apart… it requires courage, but is worth it in the long run. We might not make it to Pamela Paresky’s gatherings, but we’re bound to make a difference, somewhere… somehow… and to someone.