Conformity and consumption

2004/12/14 at 13:39

I’ve long thought of myself as an independent thinker and a skeptic of conformity and consumerism. In the last few years, however, it’s occurred to me that much of what I thought of as my rebellion against conformity was, in fact, just a different type of conformity.
Go back to high school. For reasons that I do not fully understand, in the U.S. we tend to think of teenagers socially as falling into two groups: the ‘socials’ and everyone else. As a non-social, I thought of myself back then as a rebel against the conformity of that group. In actuality, I now realize, I conformed quite well and willingly to the norms of other groups: band member, speech nerd, etc.

When I was a graduate student and living in older, close-in parts of Austin, I ranted at length against the wastefulness of the suburbs. I swore I would never follow the sheep to the ‘burbs. Now that I live in the burbs, I realize, first, that the suburbs are nothing like I thought they were back then, and second, that I mindlessly conformed to the ‘in-town’ mindset just as much as I thought the suburbanites mindlessly conformed to the expectations of their lifestyle. I didn’t spend my money on a McMansion, but I did spend it in ways that were acceptable within my circles: having coffee at a coffeehouse, shopping at the food coop, etc (well, back then we didn’t have much money, but you get the idea).
Another example: I will go on at length to anyone who will listen (or to anyone whom I can corner) about how I refuse to let the car I drive be a personality statement, and how wasteful it is to drive a car that suits your social expectations, not your actual driving situations (e.g., using a 4-wheel-drive vehicle for driving around town, that a minivan actually has more space and better gas mileage than an SUV, questioning the motives of people who buy hybrid vehicles, etc.)
I’ll explain that I drive a bottom-of-the-line Corolla based solely on pragmatic reasons: that’s the type of car best suited to the task driving to and from work: good gas mileage, gets me there and back.
I stand by my belief that using pragmatic criteria is the best way to select a car, but to be honest, I am nonetheless a practitioner of the mindset that I decry: I probably think of my car as a representation of the values I want to project much more than most SUV or luxury car drivers. While I reject the notion of viewing a car as a personality extension, actually that’s precisely what I practice.
The Rebel Sell in This Magazine addresses issues of conformity and consumption:

What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. To show that they are cooler (Nike shoes), better connected (the latest nightclub), better informed (single-malt Scotch), morally superior (Guatemalan handcrafts), or just plain richer (bmws).
The problem is that all of these comparative preferences generate competitive consumption. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” in today’s world, does not always mean buying a tract home in the suburbs. It means buying a loft downtown, eating at the right restaurants, listening to obscure bands, having a pile of Mountain Equipment Co-op gear and vacationing in Thailand. It doesn’t matter how much people spend on these things, what matters is the competitive structure of the consumption. Once too many people get on the bandwagon, it forces the early adopters to get off, in order to preserve their distinction. This is what generates the cycles of obsolescence and waste that we condemn as “consumerism.”

So, not only am I deceiving myself when I think I’m rebelling against some consumer/mass culture trend; in point of fact, I’m playing right into the marketers’ hands. Damn!