We are hardwired to conform. It only takes a small group to influence us to align our decisions, attitude, and biases accordingly. But conformity, viewing it through the lens of human nature and survival, makes sense: it provides a sense of community, dispels loneliness, and allows us to develop relationships; it champions the many important facets of life.
But with anything, balance is key.
Seneca, in Letters From a Stoic, advises us to be mindful of mass crowds:
Let me give you, though, this one piece of advice: refrain from following the example of those whose craving is for attention, not their own improvement, by doing certain things which are calculated to give rise to comment on your appearance or way of living generally.
Perhaps, as one of the many millions millennials, I can tell you firsthand that this behavior has run rampant. There are plenty of people disguising themselves as something else because ultimately what they lack is attention, appreciation, or a sense of belonging. I don’t point this out to criticize—I was one of them many years ago—but to show that this is what a culture can create by fetishizing the news, worshipping celebrities, and, in my sincere opinion, having an outdated education system where bullying and shame prevail over learning, connecting, and innovating.
But back to mass crowds.
Seneca talks about how to dress, and states that “Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should conform with the crowd.” He says this so we don’t escape the conventions of society [emphasis by me]:
We should not keep silver plate with inlays of solid gold, but at the same time we should not imagine that doing without gold and silver is proof that we are leading the simple life. Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob. Otherwise we shall repel and alienate the very people whose reform we desire; we shall make them, moreover, reluctant to imitate us in anything for fear they may have to imitate us in everything. The first thing philosophy promises us is the feeling of fellowship, of belonging to mankind and being members of a community; being different will mean abandoning that manifesto.
Seneca’s timeless and timely wisdom is based on a deep understanding of human nature, life, community, and how to ultimately be a better citizen, friend, and person.