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Conformity Is a Four-Letter Word, Ralph Waldo Emerson Review

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Essay title: Conformity Is a Four-Letter Word, Ralph Waldo Emerson Review

Conformity is a four-letter word

"Conformity" is a dirty word to Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is the death of the individual, he says, the enemy of originality. Indeed, the development of the individual self is one side of the human experience. But to reject conformity offhand is to forfeit the other side of that experience – the individual's participation in the community. Self-awareness may be a uniquely human faculty among all of Earth's animals, but so, too, is the formation of complex society. Total sacrifice of the self in the name of societal submission would be a horrifying perversion of human nature. On the same lines, however, the total rejection of conformity in the pursuit of self-reliance is not only impossible, it is a devastating sacrifice of the human experience.

The hypocrisy of Emerson's argument is obvious: he urges others to rely on his advice to rely on the self. What is less obvious is the conformity inherent in Emerson's piece. Let us take for example the conformity that allows for the very existence Emerson's piece: language itself. As the original linguist Ferdinand de Saussure established, language "is the social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by himself; it exists only by virtue of some sort of contract signed by the members of a community." Language is inherently conformist. A single individual cannot create a language – one cannot simply begin calling a person a banana and expect to be understood. Where would Emerson be without the use of a conformist, community-based language? He would be telling everyone to rely on their own bananas and the Dole Corporation would be raking it in. Where, indeed, would any individual be without such linguistic conformity?

The individual's reliance on conformity to social norms extends far beyond the basic use of an established language. Language is the vehicle for human interaction, but furthermore, this social interaction is the very essence of human existence. Saussure believed that there was no real thought before language was created to express it. Only when they are granted linguistic value do ideas gain any real meaning. Take, for example, a small child raised in the wilderness, free from the conforming pressures of society. Without fellow humans sharing a common language, the child has no forum to develop complex thoughts. Her life would consist of sheer animal instinct. Emerson's ideas in Self Reliance, then, only become significant when they are expressed in language and distributed to other humans. Emerson even resorts to using a fairly conformist medium – the written essay – to create and disseminate these thoughts.

It follows that if thought is not viable without language, and language is the chief instrument for interactions between humans, then participation in community interaction is necessary to thought itself. It is the building of ideas, the mind-play, the debate and interaction between many minds that creates great thought, and indeed, great individuals. Henry David Thoreau may be Emerson's self-reliant ideal, but he was an isolated man, removed from social interaction and an entire world of intellectual

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