When observing humankind there are two outstanding characteristics that never fail to reveal themselves; the desire to stand out, and the need to fit in. Of course, these are both highly contradictory, as are many of man’s traits. Just as we yearn for exciting, novel experiences, while also requiring safe and familiar surroundings, and we desire both lust and friendship in relationships that inherently undermine the existence of both, the struggle for originality, in tandem with that of conformity, is similarly problematic.
In public spaces – especially those of schools and town centres – this process is frequently seen. The sporty types, usually those of football fans, are often together, and are usually the norm by which others in this generation establish themselves around. Whether a sportsman themselves, a casual football fan (of which most Brits naturally become, often without any conscious decision), or just wanting to be part of the group, the number of this type thrives wherever you go in this country. I would argue that by adhering to this overwhelming cultural standard the individuals are still seeking originality, by their endeavours to be the most athletic and most passionate sports person of them all (as is an integral part of sporting culture, on and off the field). But for the purpose of this argument, this – as is often labelled – ‘jock’ will be used as the cultural norm, of which to become one of is to conform to society.
Against this social standard arrives numerous social groups of which any person tends to fit into. For example, hardcore rock fans (sometimes labelled ‘metal heads’) can still be seen in groups of pierced, tattooed, long-haired, middle-aged men. The artsy types are spotted by their colourful, abstract or often retro hairstyles, make up and clothing (depending on whether they play music, dance or act), and the self-believed intelligent, middle-class, or intensely fashionable (by which I mean those who care and invest immensely into the latest fashion trends) types can currently be identified by knitwear, trousers and other very ‘British’ things. Of course, such groups are not as clearly identified or as stereotypical as I have portrayed, nor are they as simple. However, for the sake of this argument such generalisation is required. So, indeed, society is therefore trying to be themselves, and, against the sporting cultural standard, perhaps they are going some way to achieving this. But, crucially, the fact remains that each ‘individual’ has still found solace and conformity within its own ranks. The metal head found other metal heads, allowing their behaviours and appearance to naturally gravitate towards an established norm of their own and, therefore, neutralising the uniqueness that was the initial driving force behind their new persona. Seeing others may have even influenced the individual to take on the role in the first place.
If one is to be truly original such negotiation must be avoided; which, perhaps, is an impossible idea. I do not believe for one second that should a person decide to take on a personality that is rejected by everyone he/she knows that they would persist. What is more likely is that they would tailor their individuality in line with more accepted characteristics; as seen by the modern obsession for unique phone covers and wallpapers for example. The popular mobile phone satisfies the requirement to conform with others, while the colourful, funky cover or personalised wallpaper allows the individual to feel unique. Clothing, music and hairstyle choices (to name a few) – particularly among our current generation of youths – follow a similar trend. Consequently, people’s individual urges and passions hardly ever reach any further than the tattoo, or the slightly more outrageous hairstyle; resulting in a failure to ever break out of the barriers of conformity that control how far one is allowed to go in order to be different. This is the reason why rap music and hip-hop is an infinitely more popular way of speaking one’s mind than poetry is among the youths of today, and why graffiti is the preferred choice of art for young adults. Both of which allow for individual expression while still adhering to the popular social trends of today.
The fact still remains, however, that a person’s individual ideas and thoughts can survive this cultural scrutiny as they are not easily seen, and therefore judged, by others. In this sense, within one’s own mind, true originality perhaps can be accomplished. It is when such ideas are put into practice that their individuality and –I would argue – true ‘value’ is compromised. It takes a special, and indeed very rare, type of person to keep faith with and demonstrate one’s views in a room full of those that think the opposite; and an even rarer type when the opposition is fuelled with hatred for, or is motivated against, those views. I have lost count of the number of times I have remained silent or renegotiated my response in times of disagreement or – which is usually the case – naivety or ignorance on the part of others. That is not to say that one’s individual thoughts are not often naïve or misunderstood also, but if it is truly one’s unaltered viewpoint then they should be, at least partly, commended.
It is therefore apparent that originality, particularly through actual human behaviours – crucially, the only avenue for such ideas to be applied anyhow – perhaps does not, and cannot, exist. The important conclusion that should necessarily be underlined is that every being, I feel, is indeed fantastically original, but painfully deprived of other, equally as inherent, qualities that are needed to realise and convey such expression. Particularly through one’s own cognitive conflicts, our inevitable consciousness of others and, more importantly, their moral judgement, and the humanistic need to navigate our true selves in line with others, this struggle is highly visible. In essence, we are programmed to gain acceptance from, and model, others. Consequently, our own desires, beliefs and, in turn, our actions must be compromised. Indeed, civilisation would perhaps not be able to function without this process.
Through a sociological lens, I believe this battle for true individual expression can be further explored and, potentially, swayed; such is the power of social structure and its effect on our innate selves.