July 24, 2009

Conformity as a Measure of Expertise

Justin Katz

Nicholas Wade has an interesting musing on the pitfall of conformity in intellectual pursuits:

Journalists, of course, are conformists too. So are most other professions. There's a powerful human urge to belong inside the group, to think like the majority, to lick the boss's shoes, and to win the group's approval by trashing dissenters.

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You're an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of "expert" they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you'll bear the less comfortable label of "maverick," which is only a few stops short of "scapegoat" or "pariah."

Literary hobbyists like us can certainly understand the paradox. There are dramatic limits to what one can accomplish, in any pursuit, when a living must be made elsewise. But awareness that one's statements are tied to one's living cannot be without its effects.