Convention

There is little so depressing in the world as its conventionality. We are swamped by it, as if by a great sea wave.

Now, I don’t mean, when I say the world is conventional, that it is suburban, middle class or bourgeois. I am not merely talking about trim square lawns and grey-flannel suits. Those are conventional targets: Such things, in fact, are the conventional images of conventionality, and that gets me down just as much.

We need an unconventional view of what is conventional, or we may not notice the phenomenon at all.

And I’m not talking about conformity. That is another issue — one largely left over from the 1950s. You can see it discussed in rather conventional terms by many of the TV dramas from that “golden age” of television.

In the 1950s, there were so-called “non-conformists” who lived “unconventional lives” but they all dressed the same and they were just as conformist in their berets and turtlenecks as their elders in suits and ties. The same for hippies; the same for our goths, punks and homeboys.

There is nothing more boringly conventional than low-hanging shorts, a slogan T-shirt and a ballcap worn back-front. It is just as much a uniform as the grey-flannel suit.

I remember radio-storyteller Jean Shepherd complaining about this in the 1960s.

“If you really want to be unconventional,” he said, “wear a coal scuttle on your head.”

There is a tie between conventionality and conformity, but they are not the same thing. Conformity is acting the same as everyone else, so you don’t stand out.

Conventionalism is thinking the same as everyone else, and when you are conventional, you probably don’t even know it.

Conventions are not the province of any single social class, nation or nationality. They are a lazy habit of human thought. Conventions are things we accept without question as an accurate description of the way things are.

Songs are three minutes long. Men wear trousers; women wear skirts. Photographs are rectangular. Automobiles have four wheels. We eat with knives and forks.

Books open from the right. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends. Poetry rhymes. Brides wear white. Weeks have seven days.

All of these things are conventional; there is no obligation for them to be this way.

Some conventions serve useful purposes, such as having everyone drive on the same side of the road, but most are mere habits.

Most any widely held belief is conventional rather than active. You could take any one and turn it on its head and make a convincing argument.

We believe modern medicine is good, yet it has helped cause the overpopulation of the planet. Death is part of a healthy life, after all. Perhaps we were better off in the long run without penicillin. It has not stopped suffering but only postponed it.

We talk about species being higher or lower on the “evolutionary ladder..” Yet, there is really no higher or lower; there is only difference.

That sense that human beings are the culmination of an evolutionary teleology is quite absurd. We need to evict the squatting convention that everything is ordered hierarchically.

The reason we rely on convention so much is that it makes our decisions for us and solves problems that otherwise would vex us continually.

Convention is therefore a labor-saving device.

But are labor-saving devices all that good, in the long run? That is another convention that bears inspection. Families were certainly more tightly bonded before the proliferation of labor-saving devices freed us from having to cooperate on chores.

Convention is habit and the problem with habits is that they dull us down and dim our awareness.

And that is why we should worry about it.

For you might ask, if we are happy with the conventional, why should we be forced into an unknown we are uncomfortable with? Why should not a painting be something pretty we hang over a sofa? Why shouldn’t we wear matching socks?

But if you begin to recognize the conventionality around you, you won’t think convention all that pleasant. You will see it as the enemy. You will see it as a form of death. It makes inert a portion of life that should be perpetually active.

Convention is a substitute for being alive. It is a false path that will lead you to the point that you wake up one day and realize you have not lived.

To be most alive is to be most aware. Convention is a sleeping pill.

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