An Argument For Conformity

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Money does buy happiness.

More specifically, money buys happiness up to around US$75,000 per year. Beyond that, money has very little effect. (Ref, full text.)

The generally accepted reason behind this phenomenon has nothing to do with money ‘providing’ happiness, rather that a lack of money makes people unhappy. At US$75,000 pa (and beyond), day to day money problems are essentially nonexistent: when a bill arrives, the bill can be paid.

A 2011 paper, written by Dr Marla Carlson and published in Theatre Journal, “Furry Cartography” (full text here), discusses the important of money in the context of the furry community. I originally intended to review her paper as part of my occasional series of “Furry Research” articles here on [a][s], but her field can be written about with far more authority by my fellow contributor Quentin Julien (and my recent article reviewing the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, or more specifically the rejoinder by IARP member Nuka, shows how I, as an amateur, can get it wrong).

Briefly then, Dr Carlson talks about the need to earn money, and how (in a capitalist world) “one must be an individual, but one actualizes that individuality through the purchase of appropriate name-brand products“. She sees furry as a version of this concept. Our ‘performance’ as furries, the way we actualize our furry identity in the real world (perhaps a purchased fursuit or a commissioned work of art) “fuels the buying and selling of commodities both real and virtual“. Here, she is talking about the furry economy; goods and services sold to help people pursue their furriness.

Furry is personal. It’s about identity, or as Dr Carlson puts it: “for some as an expression of an inner essence and for others as escape from a restrictive human persona“. Yet public and outward displays of our furriness are important. Dr Carlson argues that “the fandom manages its public image in order to remain edgy but not out of bounds“, which roughly defines the range of expressions we allow within the furry community: the extent to which people can express themselves while still fitting in. So an animal-themed t-shirt in public is okay, whereas ‘anatomically correct’ gear is not.

External expression of identity is important to everyone. People in the mainstream are often flummoxed by expressions from the fringe. Why, they might argue, do gay people need to make such a big deal about their sexuality; why can’t they just leave it at home and act ‘normal’ elsewhere? The answer, of course, is that people in the mainstream also express themselves, just that they are lucky enough to conform to society’s norms without having to make any special effort.

(As an aside, this blind spot is known as majority privilege. To choose another convenient example: the subset of gamers that get fired up whenever someone points out that women aren’t fairly represented in the gaming mainstream—these guys are used to games being male-dominated, so anything challenging this feels like it’s pandering to others, so they complain that they’re being marginalized. See also: straight people who begrudge redefinition of the word ‘gay’.)

It’s sometimes difficult to express furriness in a public space. Furry spaces such as conventions, private parties, and corners of the online world, are environments where we can express ourselves without having to worry about conforming to the mainstream. Furry spaces can act as important relief valves: they allow us to vent the pressure of acting ‘normal’ (or ‘normal enough’) in the wider world. We understand that we may need to mask our furry selves in some circumstances: maybe at work, or around extended family.

Some furries, of course, manage to ‘opt out’ from the requirement for conformity by largely excusing themselves from society. Many of us fantasize about this (just read Rabbit’s dreamy ‘what if’ article from a few weeks ago, speculating on the founding of a furry town). A typical fantasy involves a big rural space away from other people, an idea that probably requires a big chunk of cash, to say nothing of the psychological challenges of isolation. For most of us, the fantasy will remain a pipedream.

For those of us who can’t escape, there is a balance to be struck. The need for personal expression must be tempered with the requirement to meet society’s norms. An external expression of identity that fails to meet mainstream standards can be costly: wearing a collar will probably harm your chances of getting that office job.

The way you present yourself affects how people react to you. If you fit in, people are more open, lowering the barrier for a social interaction. People are more likely to engage with someone who doesn’t scare the horses, so to speak.

(There is also a phenomenon called the spotlight effect, familiar to anyone who has found themselves underdressed for a social gathering. Most people become anxious when they feel like they are presenting themselves in an inappropriate fashion. This social pressure is often more about self-perception than about the others: it’s also felt by transgender people trying to ‘pass’ for the first time.)

This article, then, is an argument for the value of meeting the expectations of mainstream society. This article is an argument for conformity.

I argue for conformity of appearance, not conformity of thought. The two are often confused. The sight of identically-dressed commuters is often derided, as if all commuters were mindless automatons, as suggested by pejorative terms like rat race. But nothing is further from the truth: each commuter has a personal identity, one that is not on display. A furry in a business suit is still a furry, just one in a different costume.

This is an Andrew Baines painting, "Escape of the Corporate Battery Hen". They look like furries, fetishists, and deviants to me. You can buy it at www.andrewbaines.com/prints.html

This is an Andrew Baines painting, “Escape of the Corporate Battery Hen”. They look like furries, fetishists, and deviants to me. You can buy it at www.andrewbaines.com.

I believe that meeting society’s norms—conforming—increases personal happiness. It’s a compromise, and the requirement to moderate external expressions of identity can be challenging. But the reward is a better, broader, happier life.

Someone who puts on a good ‘normal suit’ will be less constrained by the wider world. A good ‘normal suit’ doesn’t mean you are normal. It simply means that you restrict what you show to the outside world. Most people would argue that it’s a bad idea to share teenage sexual exploits in a public forum—Facebook, say—because they may linger on the internet to be discovered by future employers, lovers, or family members. Someone who refrains from sharing details of a raucous 18th birthday is simply keeping their ‘normal suit’ on.

Those furries who are meeting society’s expectations are giving themselves more opportunity in life. They are likely to earn more money, be freer to travel, and have more options to express themselves as furries. To put it another way: would you rather wear a collar to a job interview in 2013, or a fursuit to Eurofurence in 2015?

It’s not very romantic to suggest that the best path is through engaging with the mainstream; through moderating one’s appearance, through earning and spending money, through ignoring the philosophical messages of Rage Against The Machine. It’s especially distasteful if you, like many furries (including me), are most at home in the fringes of society.

The argument for conformity is a pragmatic one. It’s about balancing an individual interior with an acceptably bland exterior. It’s about, on one hand, working within society’s constraints and, on the other, finding appropriate outlets for self-expression.

Andrew Baines says that conformists “head off to work nine to five every day and they’ll do this until they turn 60 and then they’ll probably get a gold watch and drop dead“. I think this is false. Instead, I think they experience the relief and benefits of conformity, and never look back.

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About JM

Your friendly local houyhnhnm

23 thoughts on “An Argument For Conformity

  1. The key here is moderation. I don’t turn myself to be “not furry at all” at work, but I guide my expression to be within more conservative bounds. I likewise mind which of my friends I invite to dinner sometimes; I am always glad for their friendship but for voluntary issues of identity I find more flexibility with friends who can “turn it off”.

    Once you land that job, or visit that restaurant that first time, or meet those in-laws, then you’re likely much better-equipped to push those social norms a bit—and, done well, I find nothing wrong with that. :)

    • Hi Dax

      I couldn’t agree with you more. The flip side of this article is, once you’ve learned how to fit in, you have a lot more scope to act in a way that’s closer to your true self. It’s important that you appear conforming when you’re getting to know someone new: after that, you can start opening up and acting your true eccentric self.

      There’s quite a bit more to be written on this topic, I think. The different identity that we furries carry around—the human one and the animal-person one—often mesh well, but there is some conflict too.

  2. I concur with this view and I find that the exception comes with furries who are independently wealthy or self employed.

    Anyone whose income doesn’t depend on social acceptance tends to be less concerned with the social comfort of others.

    I label this phenomenon “fuck you money.” Anyone with an independent source of income can tell anyone else to go fuck themselves.

    This also applies to anyone upon whom their source of income depends implicitly. For example, if your company depends implicitly on a certain ability you have, such as rapid pattern matching, you can walk around the office in a fursuit all day and no one can say anything about it because managers will quash the input of anyone who might cause this important person to want to leave and ruin their company.

    This principle also applies to furries I call “trust fund babies.” They get a certain income from a wealthy parent every week/biweekly/monthly or somesuch and so even if they never have a job they’ll always have income, so they wear ears and tails and collars in public all the time, even in places where it makes other people uncomfortable and they express themselves with unrestricted freedom because they will never have to worry about what someone might think and how that might impact their revenue stream. Those particular people express a problem where, as they run out of furry friends, they get louder and louder in their self expression as to attract attention to themselves, but in that way they only push people further away.

    • Hi Majik.

      Those are a series of great examples.

      I really like your final one, and I think it’s a phenomenon that applies to quite a few furries. The ‘trust fund babies’ aren’t getting the feedback they need to moderate their appearance, and I can see that (for some people) it would lead to the sort of attention-seeking behaviour you mention. I think it can happen to the borderline-autistic as well, a group that might include your theoretical pattern-matching savant. People with limited social skills can’t easily identify where those informal, ever-changing boundaries of ‘normality’ are, because they aren’t as able to pick up on subtle social cues. And obviously we have a few of those types within furry as well… there are probably other examples although none are springing to mind right now.

  3. While I agree with you for the most part, conformity does indeed break down certain barriers, I would like to make one point.

    I question its validity, as I’m sure there are layers in your post I am missing, but I shall voice it anyway.

    While a good ‘normal suit’ is a powerful and useful tool for an easier ride, it is not necessarily something to aspire to. Imagine everyone wearing the same suit, leading fantastical inner lives but never fully revealing them to the world? A nation of Sam Lowrys. Terrifying.

    I would argue that there is a question of confidence an conviction here, the people who change the world are generally not those wearing a ‘normal suit’.

    My frame of reference is a bit limited here due to my personal experience, but can it be said that David Bowie, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood or Grayson Perry have ever worn ‘normal suits’?

    I’m sure there examples in every field, but it seems to me that the people who make waves and move things forward (whatever this means) are not conformists.

    • Hi Theo. I think you’ve understood my article completely. At least your counter-argument is one that stands in opposition to my point. It doesn’t seem to me like you’ve missed anything.

      You are, of course, completely right. But I think it’s dangerous to point to the likes of David Bowie as a rolemodel. The fact is that almost none of us are geniuses. Your example people stand out because they are exceptional people. They are highly visible and influential, the complete opposite of my dour crowd of commuters.

      I think, in general, it’s a mistake to chase the once-in-a-generation success when there are other, less interesting, routes to happiness. There are a lot of creative people within furry, and a lot of them are looking to use their niche skillset to build their lives. For all those writers, artists, musicians, etc, it’s a longshot. I’d argue that they’d be better off engaging with mainstream society and leave the niche creative skills as a hobby, or something to be pursued on the side.

      • I think it’s dangerous to chase fame and success as a route to happiness, the Cult of X-Factor is proof of this, but I question your statement about my example people.

        They are undeniably exceptional (I am wary of the term ‘genius’), but how many of them actively sought the fame, visibility and influence they now have? (David Bowie being a possible exception to this)

        I would argue that they simply did they thing they were good at and the influence followed. I’m sure they could have been dour commuters, but they chose not to be. I think I’m getting off topic slightly here, as your argument is about happiness rather that influence, but this is something that interests me.

        I think perhaps I’m looking at this in a more broad sense than your article, within the relatively small and closed furry world and the niche skillsets that exist, it is indeed a very long shot and engagement with the mainstream is a wise course, leaving the other stuff to the side. If you do turn out to be the ‘once a generation success’ it will stop being to the side.

    • Sagemane, thanks for the link. I love a good null hypothesis.

      To be honest, the Kahneman paper I referred to doesn’t fully agree with it’s headline-grabbing conclusion ($75k for happiness!). It’s a nice to be able to pull a number out like that, but a close reading shows that it’s a bit misleading.

      Convenient for me though: I try to start my article with something engaging, in the hope that the reader will stay on for the slog through the meaty middle.It was only marginally relevant to the main point :)

      • If you want further reading on the money/happiness argument, I encourage you to read ‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James. It’s hard to sum up, but the nub of his argument is that excessive affluence, money and, by extension, consumption is bad for your mental health. He characterises it as a virus, and makes a pretty persuasive case.

  4. Screw conformity. I’m here, I’m queer and I’m furry, too and anyone expecting me to ‘fit in’ is in for a shock. I might not have a ton of money but I know that money isn’t the key to happiness, love is. Better poor and surrounded by good friends than rich and having to wonder who I can trust.

    • Heya CRA, thanks for the comment, thanks for disagreeing, and thanks for doing so in the right spirit.

      My article makes an argument, and I think it’s a good one, but I don’t think it’s correct (or even mostly correct). So thanks for stopping by and taking the time to point out that there is no such thing as a life’s philosophy that right for everyone, and that people are going about things—and succeeding—in different ways.

  5. Conformity is a balancing act. Too far one way and you lose individuality, yet too far the other and you don’t fit in. Not everyone is going to be able to keep that balance, and for those that don’t, there are other roads to happiness. I agree with your article in that a lot of people can benefit from such advice, but I feel others will find happiness in “rebelling”… Who knows, maybe someone will revolutionize the world someday. Don’t cage a dream that hasn’t had a chance to fly.

    • Hi Isaac, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree more: there is a balance, and the best balance is going to be different for each person.

  6. I’m not normal. Talking to me for more than a few minutes shows that. I don’t change myself for my audience, but by the same token I don’t allow my own interests to alter my core being. In the words of Eru ‘I am’ That is how I see myself. It’s not ‘I’m a furry’ or ‘I’m a male with some feminine tendencies.’ Most people are too complicated for that but often choose an adjective to describe themselves based on the situation. When people ask me ‘What do you do in your spare time?’ my brain screeches into another gear. I tend to fumble that, but what I want to say is ‘How long have you got?’ Because I don’t weigh any activity more than any other. I do things I like. I seek interesting experiences. I try to sample everything life offers.
    However, I seem to be rising at an acceptable pace in my own corporate culture, mainly because I’ve never liked to talk about myself. My co-workers know I like to wear animal costumes and I go to cons, but they also know that if I can, I intend to also wear them to the kid’s ward at the local hospital. Someone else burns designs into wood and another collects posters. Just another thing to do. Maybe I’ve gotten lucky, but I’ve never met a single person professionally who has a negative view of furry. Most haven’t heard of it and I usually don’t use the word. I’m not a member of a community. I just do stuff I like.
    That brings me to the money issue. Someone mentioned ‘fuck you’ money. That’s sort of how I feel. I want time more than money. If I make enough, I’ll probably just try to work less. If I make the leap into true multimillionaire wealth, I’ll do weird things. My ultimate life goal is to have no obligations I do not choose to have. I’ll buy fursuits and leave them at cons with signs telling furs who want but can’t afford them to take it. I’ll build a giant compound and invite my friends to live with me. That’s why I’ll never be properly rich, though. I like to help people more than I like to collect digits in an account.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for the comment. I really like your perspective, and it reads to me like it’s similar to my own, although you’re approaching the problem from a different angle.

      It sounds to me like you’re doing a pretty good job of the balancing act. As you say, you’ve “never liked to talk about yourself”. I suspect that this is helping you keep up an acceptable facade in certain situations, your ‘normal suit’ if you like. I admit that I am pretty similar: I tend not to talk about myself in the workplace and some other situations.

      I also love your good nature, so thank you for sharing that. I think that people often equate earning money with selfishness—see the earlier comment from CRA for an example: “Better poor and surrounded by good friends than rich and having to wonder who I can trust.”

      I think that you’re a great counterexample for CRA. Having money doesn’t mean that you cease being a good person, or become unable to spend your time with good people. It just gives you more options, and one of those options is to help those around you.

  7. I liked this article, and I think it will be a great motivator for many furries. I’d imagine that for most of the furs who read this blog, furry is more a lifestyle than a hobby. Naturally furry lifestylers may not want to conform to societys norms, but as a con-going furry who often conforms to the expectations of “normals”, I can tell you it’s rewarding. I pride myself on being a good employee at the restaurant I work at, because I can conform to the hard working standard they have there. And I can conform to the academic standard at University. And I can balance this with my weird hobby of going to fur cons, fur meets, and having a nerdy group of friends. Conforming is important, as much as it can be a pain, but it allows me to succeed
    and earn enough to travel and pursue my hobbies.

    • Hi Chago, thanks for the comment. It sounds like you’re in a similar situation to me.

      Conforming is a challenge for most people, but—as you say—especially so for many furries. It’s a balance, but I think it’s worth it.

  8. I’d like to say that I agree with Paul’s point: money is a material entity, like a kitchen knife or a computer. They are all objects, tools used to accomplish certain tasks, and thus, can be used for helping people, or hurting them. It all depends on the person’s intentions. My point being: money is not immoral but amoral. Having wealth does not make you an evil person. Weilding power in order to cause harm to somebody is evil.

    Going to the point of conformity, I say: do whatever will take you down the road to happiness.

    • Hi SS. I guess my point is that people don’t always know what’s going to make them happy. Engaging with the mainstream of society will offer up more options for life; perhaps through money, perhaps through increased socialization. And by maximizing your options, you maximize your chances for finding the best route.

      Someone who pursues a niche lifestyle and rejects the mainstream may find themselves trapped, in the event that the niche lifestyle doesn’t work out. And, of course, learning to conform doesn’t stop someone from opting for that niche lifestyle at some later date.

  9. Money doesn’t buy happiness. It sometimes can relieve stress or unhappiness, but that isn’t the same thing. It may seem to buy happiness when it removes restraints or pressures that keep an individual from achieving that happiness alone.

    That’s all I’ll say, since Makyo has already said much more eloquently what I wanted to say here.

  10. Pingback: An Argument for Non-Conformity | [adjective][species]

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