Lessons from Orwell: Big Brother isn't the problem. Conformity is the problem

Sunday , January 08, 2017 - 6:00 AM16 comments

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

The law is consistently concerned with how people act. Legislators and regulators create so many rules, so often, that we have volumes and volumes of written words telling us all what to do.

Yet if I asked you what Utah Code 26-34-2 was, I’ll bet you couldn’t answer. I couldn’t have answered it either, without looking it up.

In case you are wondering, that is the Utah Code provision you would use to find out whether someone was dead or alive. Yes, we have a law that helps us determine if someone is dead. However, the mere fact that we have a law defining death doesn’t change the reality of death if you are, in fact, dead.

So some of our laws amount to nothing more than common sense. Others are very technical. There are laws we enforce and laws we don't. Law enforcement conjures visions of someone with a gun who forces compliance, but almost all of us navigate the world every day without feeling coerced. The laws provide a foundation, but most of our peaceful society is created by social conformity. Most of the time we are all on a communal autopilot, moving, going, doing in sync with the people around us

Usually this is a wise choice. We fall into the traffic pattern on the interstate, not worrying so much about the speed limit as conforming to other drivers. We get into lines at the supermarket in an orderly fashion (there are no regulations or laws for supermarket lines that I have been able to find). We read and intuit the social norms within our work environment to fit in accordingly, and we fall in step with the mood of our families at home. This type of conformity is enormously beneficial. Psychologists call this phenomenon “social proof.”

Humans are social and we live in groups. Conforming assures we survive and thrive. Together and united, our ancestors built this amazing place where we live. Acting on social proof is a very good thing indeed.

Except when it isn't.

I was re-reading George Orwell’s “1984” this week for the fourth time and I began to notice things I hadn’t before. Almost everyone has heard the “Big Brother is watching you" idea of living in a surveillance state, where your every action is monitored.

As I re-read “1984,” however, I was struck by how much control exerted by the state was based on social conformity. Big Brother didn’t watch so much as just expect everyone to behave the same way. Say what others say, regardless of any personal knowledge or belief. Don’t go to the places where the group isn’t going. Avoid conversations that aren’t socially acceptable. The intense inner desire to fit in was far more intrusive than Big Brother. The book ends with all Winston Smith’s individuality being removed through torture, ensuring his total conformity to the established social norms. Once that's done, surveillance isn’t necessary.

So on one extreme, following social proof can lead to peace and comfort; on the other, it can lead to tyranny and loss of individuality.

In light of the fictionalized world of Orwell, we can better examine how accustomed we are to conforming to the group. I have seen many different attempts to explain the results of last year’s presidential elections, but do you know the most accurate predictor of how someone would vote? Political party affiliation. When all was said and done, people simply did what the other people in their group were doing.

Even in our entertainment, we are told how to react. Sitcoms employ laugh tracks to signal jokes. Operas used to pay people to clap at the right times to get the crowd to join in. We feel safer and more secure when we act in accordance with our group. Even today in the theater, the standing ovation of one spawns the standing ovation of all.

This internal desire to conform leaves us open to exploitation.

Fake news is a group problem. A societal problem. Once a fake story has enough social credibility within a group, evidence and truth fall away, and "groupthink" takes over. Social proof beats factual proof most every time.

This is particularly dangerous on social media, when social groups are easily formed and social proof is readily proliferated.

Our laws and Constitution have long been bulwarks against false social proof, but social media often acts like an updated version of Big Brother, telling us how and what to think. The first step is to realize you are relying on social proof — groupthink — not actual proof. The next step is to avoid conformity and realize the pull of the group.

Our society is at a critical juncture where the bandwagon is the last place any of us should be. The final irony is this: the more we strive to break out of groupthink, the more unified we can be.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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