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  • Writer's pictureSara Sharpe

Does Conformity = Unity? You and I might answer this Question Differently.

Dear Friend,

Remember the day before yesterday when I wrote about how we are genetically predisposed to be right- or left-leaning politically? To find comfort in conformity or feel constrained by it, for instance?

Meet Darryl George, a Texas high school student who apparently (and importantly, I argue)* feels constrained by conformity. George has repeatedly faced disciplinary action for refusing to cut his hair, which fails to meet his school’s dress code requirements because, technically, it falls below his eyebrows. The George family points out that Darryl wears braids to comply with the code and argues that the district’s policy violates the Texas CROWN Act, a law prohibiting discrimination against hairstyles “commonly or historically associated with race.” The case has now escalated to a full civil rights lawsuit.

In response, Texas Superintendent Greg Poole paid for a full-page advertisement in the Houston Chronicle on January 14, defending the disciplinary action heaped upon George and arguing, among other things, that “being an American requires conformity with the positive benefit of unity.” 


Can I confess, friend, that I shrieked when I read that? I felt so horrified by the idea that being an American “requires conformity” that I had a loud and visceral reaction to it.

You, on the other hand, might be significantly less horrified by the idea than I am for reasons having to do with genetics, I now understand. Perhaps you agree with Superintendent Poole a little or even a lot.

One way or another, if Jonathan Haidt is to be believed (he’s the social psychologist we talked about yesterday, remember), Poole’s statement – right along with Darryl George’s hair, for that matter – speaks to something deep in each of us: either an innate celebration of nonconformity or an inherent disapproval of it. This controversy pokes at our core value systems in ways that cause big reactions. And it shouldn’t surprise us that at our core of cores, you and I value different things. Or, at the very least, we prioritize values differently. Bear with me for a minute because this is interesting:

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt explains that liberals and conservatives gravitate to different places on the “moral matrix,” depending on which values we hold most dear.

Apparently, for conservatives, the most sacred value is “PRESERVING THE INSTITUTIONS AND TRADITIONS THAT SUSTAIN A MORAL COMMUNITY.” Right-leaning folks also value loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

The most sacred value for liberals, on the other hand, is CARE FOR VICTIMS OF OPPRESSION, along with liberty and fairness.

With that, I’m leaving the moral matrix to Haidt (because what, exactly, is a matrix other than a simulated reality in a Keanu Reeves movie?). That said, I appreciate having this new knowledge to filter things through. I now understand that when Superintendent Poole argues that being an American (at least a good one) requires conformity, he does so partly because he is genetically wired to crave order and stability. Conversely, when I argue that being an American (at least a good one) requires non-conformity (else, wouldn’t we all be British?) I am doing so partly because I am wired to crave diversity and reform. If Superintendent Poole and I can understand this about each other, we might be less inclined to have the kind of emotional, reactionary outbursts I had when I first read his statement – the kind of reactionary outburst that makes reaching across the political divide impossible. (I’m trying, friend. I’ve a long way to go, but I’m trying.)

Ultimately, I think your inclination toward conformity, even if it’s not as extreme as Superintendent Poole’s (and even if it is), has likely been responsible for school uniforms, which many school districts and families like very much, given that uniforms and dress codes take pressure off kids. You can help us see and understand this.

My inclination toward diversity means that I can help us see Darryl George’s hair as a vital form of personal expression – one that honors his beloved culture – precisely at the age when this young man should be expressing his individuality in safe and creative ways.

One way or another, I hope we come to value our differing values. I hope that someday we can come together in the community and at school board meetings, ready and willing to compromise. (Because let’s face it: lots of school board meetings have gone off the rails lately.) We can talk, for instance, about the value of dress codes and individual expression while recognizing that we are predisposed to lean inexorably toward one or the other and that if we’re not careful, we can lean too hard, toppling over into rigid arguments and ceasing to listen…

Not for nothing: if we're doing it right, we will always come away from this bridge-building business feeling safe, valued, and wildly uncomfortable. Compromise can feel a lot like losing, and losing is ouchy. But we must embrace the discomfort of not getting everything we want. The alternative is never giving an inch until we get our way totally and completely, which, in a pluralistic society, is almost never a good sign.

Onward, friend


*Why do I think Darryl George’s nonconformity is important? Imagine if I were to suggest to Superintendent Poole – assuming lack of conformity is the main concern – that the school board issue a mandate demanding everyone wear braids like George’s. That would take care of the conformity problem, would it not? You and I both know that the school board isn’t likely to take that suggestion seriously for many reasons. But herein lies the problem: why does Superintendent Poole get to decide what hair constitutes appropriate American hair? The kind to which we should all conform? Ultimately, these are not frivolous questions. The answer, so far as I’m concerned, is that he doesn’t. He can’t.

The civil rights lawsuit is about much more than hair, is the point. These are important issues to wrestle with and to litigate when necessary.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know.

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