When people hear about my life story, they almost always tell me that I’m brave. You’d think I ran into a fire, carried the children and sleeping seniors on my back, and ran back inside to fetch the puppies and even the pet lizard. You’d think I stopped a mass shooter by throwing myself onto his weapon. But no. I am told I am brave because I left the extremist Hasidic community in which I was raised.
I always felt uncomfortable when people swooned you’re so brave. And that’s not because I am not proud of some of my better moments in life. I am, in fact, quite proud of myself for the strength I somehow found when I set off on this journey and was bombarded by a cacophony of derisive, gossipy, bullying community members, many of whom I liked and admired—former friends, neighbors, workmates and schoolmates, and of course, family. Somehow, I was able to feel crushed into a worthless non-person while also still believing that I had a right to give myself and my child a different life.
Of the 120 or so high school graduates from my all-girls religious school, almost all of us got married in our late teens. Almost all of us had children soon after. Those whose lives went off this preordained track because they suffered problems in finding a shidduch, a match, or because their marriage failed or they couldn’t conceive a child within the first or second year, became sore thumbs in our otherwise Stepford-like world. And they became convenient subjects for projecting our repressed appetites, which meant the schadenfreude was not even hidden. We relished talking about them and feigning pity when what we really said was, Thank god my life is smoother sailing.
So when my life went off the rails for a number of reasons—the most important of which I think was simply that I was growing out of the small box women were supposed to squeeze themselves into—I experienced a crushing loss of status and community. I did not want this, nor did I feel like I could handle it. I was hardly brave in the thick-skinned sense. I was only searching for a place in society where I could be myself. And my Hasidic community didn’t take kindly to such searching.
Nor, sadly, do the secular folks who praise me for my bravery. What they are seeing is a simple conversion story, the story of a young woman going from a repressed, patriarchal, and benighted religious community to a free, open, liberated, and egalitarian society. They are merely commending me for coming over to the other side, their side. I’ve chosen them. That feels good to them, and they pay me back in praise. You are so brave.
Frankly, I want none of their praise. I did not leave behind one stringent orthodoxy only to settle snugly into another.
And these days, sadly, stringent orthodoxies seem to be the only thing on tap. For some, the dogma requires blind faith in partisan politics, even as our elected officials stoop ever lower in their conduct. For some, the dogma calls for believing our intellectual betters know best, even as their decisions—to continue and champion lockdowns as the best way to fight COVID-19, for example, even as studies show that lockdowns don’t work—run contrary to observable reality and create an endless stream of problems. Question these dogmas, question the fiery loyalty to the tribe of like-minded believers, and you meet an opposition just as vicious and close-minded as anything I’d experienced when I informed my former friends and neighbors that I was leaving the fold.
To an extent, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Most people are more or less conformists. That’s how we organize as communities, as an interconnected social species. As blogger and entrepreneur Paul Graham has noted, for this interconnectedness to work, human beings must largely not only obey rules but, frequently, enforce them when they see others deviating from the norm; only a small minority swim upstream, and those could as easily end up compromising the collective as leading it to new great heights.
If my own experience taught my anything, however, it’s that Graham is only partly right: Personalities matter, but social context may matter more. How conformist we are depends on our place in society, and how much we stand to lose or gain by conforming. Oftentimes, we don’t as much conform as stay away from the can of worms that will be too much trouble if opened. As I learned all too well in my former life, in a system like that, where people are afraid to speak because they don’t want to face the consequence, it’s the bullies that thrive.
When the most cherished value is adherence to an agreed-upon, not-to-be-questioned set of beliefs, when you walk around feeling—as most Americans currently feel—that you’re not free to speak your mind, you can expect little but stasis, or, worst, a descent into a stifling social order of repression and coercion. I’ve seen this happen in my own community. Dear reader, we do not want this to be the case in America.
I get, of course, that most people who conform to a system, even one they feel is needlessly harsh about demanding obedience, do so because they believe they’re doing something good. Sure, you may think, a bunch of people on my side, in my tribe, are much too zealous, but they mean well so I’m just going to go ahead and play for the team and not worry too much about what I can or can’t say in public. Maybe I believe that the right is too hospitable to radical groups that recycle dangerous old racial theories, but I’m conservative and don’t want to give liberals the satisfaction. Maybe I think that political correctness has gone way too far, but I’m a liberal and don’t want to say anything that would give conservatives pleasure. That sort of self-censorship is precisely how communities grow more and more airless.
After I left my community, and after the psychological wounds of seeing basically everyone I ever knew and loved turn on me healed sufficiently, one thing that gave me great strength and comfort was knowing that no matter how hurt I still felt, I was at least free to think, to speak my mind, to make decisions based on my own judgments and ideas rather than follow the herd. This, to me, is what America is very much about, and I’ve come to know it enough to realize that this freedom is neither free nor easy. It depends on our collective commitment to standing up to any and all attempts to require groupthink and conformity at all costs. Now, then, is the time for all those well-meaning people who told me I was courageous for leaving a fundamentalist sect to in turn be brave and leave their own narrow-minded silos. It’s time for us all to be brave.
Frieda Vizel lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs at friedavizel.com.