In the popular imagination, the 1950s were the United States’ paradigmatic Age of Conformity. Irving Howe introduced the term into the national lexicon in his January 1954 article for Dissent, “This Age of Conformity,” which described a contemporary intellectual milieu lacking in oppositional qualities. He described an intellectual class that had previously inhabited self-defined bohemias being co-opted into academia, the mass culture industries, and governmental bureaucracies—a process whose deadening effect could be felt throughout American culture.
The pursuit of “middlebrow culture,” defined by critic Dwight MacDonald in his 1960 essay “Masscult and Midcult” as easily digestible but prestigious cultural products that middle-class strivers could consume in a quest for “classiness,” became an obsession that resulted in record attendance at symphonies and ballets and widespread membership in the Book of the Month Club. Economic prosperity was reflected in the family lives portrayed in TV sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Underlying that prosperity was an almost universal anti-communism, widespread reverence for what was considered the “American Creed” of freedom, democracy, and free markets, and high levels of attendance at churches and synagogues. The emblematic figure of the decade was the protagonist of Sloan Wilson’s best-selling 1955 novel and 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a mid-level manager trapped in an unsatisfying but remunerative public relations job for a broadcasting company.
This Eisenhowerian Age of Conformity did not exclude all expressions of nonconformity, however; it also encompassed trends whose importance would not become fully apparent until the following two decades. A rising tide of rebellious youth culture was heralded by innovative forms of jazz music and the explosive popularity of rock ‘n’ roll. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education delegitimized as unconstitutional the concept of “separate but equal” and set events in motion that resulted in the civil rights movement. The writers and artists of the Beat Generation foreshadowed the drug culture, sexual libertinism, and iconoclasm of the following decades. In 1957, Betty Friedan began the series of interviews and surveys of women that led to her landmark 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, the work that launched Second Wave Feminism.
Seven decades on from the Eisenhowerian Age of Conformity, the United States’ burgeoning New Age of Conformity turns the first on its head in many ways. The mutated offspring of the ideological and countercultural subcurrents of the 1950s have jumped from the back of the line to the front; they now form the default positions of the social and economic establishment. Today’s Man or Woman or Gender-Fluid Person in the Gray Flannel Suit, a mid-level manager in a news media, sports, entertainment, or high-profile consumer goods corporation, is more likely than not to vocally support the Black Lives Matter movement, fiercely oppose any restrictions on abortion rights, celebrate Gay Pride, and support economic boycotts of states that ban the inclusion of transwomen in biological women’s sports competitions. Today’s versions of Howe’s conformist intellectuals, ensconced in their burrows in academia, media, and government bureaucracies, want to “decolonize” the curricula offered to the United States’ students by dropping long-established works of the traditional intellectual and artistic canon and replacing them with works by BIPOC authors and creators; they demand adherence to a vacuous, shifting ideology of diversity, which at many universities is a de facto condition of employment; even the mildest dissenters from the new conformism are shunned or worse.
Producers of today’s exemplars of MacDonald’s “midcult” cultural products, first among them long-form video streaming series, fall over themselves to ensure inclusion of at least one LGBTQIA+ character in their shows. Rather than blacklisting suspected Communists, Hollywood instead blacklists men on accusations ranging from credible charges of rape to interpersonal behavior that was once considered simply rude or socially inept, as if it’s all a single continuum of offense.
This positional flip-flopping also applies to today’s oppositional culture, whose members are, in the main, persons whose views and customs would have placed them among the mainstream establishment of the 1950s. They include practitioners of traditional forms of Christianity, believers in American exceptionalism, supporters of the police and military, advocates for free markets, proponents of immigrants’ assimilation to the American melting pot, and champions of the nuclear family.
Meanwhile, affinity-based residential sorting has resulted in fewer friendly political debates over backyard fences. While mainstream conformists have concentrated themselves on the West Coast and along the Washington-Boston corridor, as well as within an archipelago of urban centers and university towns sprinkled across the remaining parts of the country, oppositional conformists mainly inhabit rural areas and swaths of suburbia and exurbia. New York film critic Pauline Kael’s famous remark following the 1972 presidential election—“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken ... ”—could be repeated in an updated version today by the great majority of mainstream conformists regarding their isolation from Trump voters, who are regularly depicted in conformist mainstream media broadcasts as “white supremacists” and “domestic terrorists” who staged an “insurrection” against the U.S. government.
Unlike during the Eisenhowerian Age of Conformity, when much of the intergroup condemnation was done through newspapers, magazines, and Congressional hearings, and intragroup policing was carried out face-to-face in churches or at meetings of civil society groups, the bulk of today’s intergroup condemnation and intragroup policing is carried out on social media. The venues of the Eisenhowerian Age of Conformity either required a certain level of measured reflection (editorials in newspapers and magazines) or required critics to personally engage with their targets (meetings at churches or civil organizations). In contrast, the social media venues of our current Age of Conformity allow for the split-second gathering of faceless, nameless online mobs whose impact on individual lives and careers are no less devastating than McCarthy-era blacklists. This speeding up of commentary and cutting out of face-to-face engagement abets an easy, frictionless dehumanization of one’s opponents. Online culture warriors joist with despised cartoons of the Other, not with fellow Americans who might reasonably be allowed to have differing opinions that reflect their own beliefs, life experiences, and personal circumstances.
The social cancellation tactics practiced by the mainstream conformist set are often erroneously referred to as censorship but can be more accurately described as censureship. Unlike censorship, which by definition is applied by a public or private controlling body, censureship may be applied either by government (as it was by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s), by nongovernmental groups (including nonprofits, corporations, and advocacy groups), or by loose online affiliations of individual advocates. Censureship consists of attempts to apply focused, massed social opprobrium to psychologically punish and socially isolate the target, or to inflict economic damage by rendering the target so socially radioactive that his or her employer fires the individual or withdraws from a contract (such as a book deal, a sponsorship agreement, a distribution deal, or an honorary association). The latter tactic may be applied to both intergroup and intragroup targets.
Recent examples of the use of censureship by the mainstream conformist set abound. Mid-level and lower-level staffers at large publishing houses have circulated petitions intended to pressure management into withdrawing book contracts offered to an in-group member who has transgressed newly drawn moral lines (like Woody Allen), or to an out-group member considered particularly loathsome (such as former Vice President Mike Pence). Similarly, lower-level employees at technology firms such as Google and Amazon have organized to press executives to withdraw Cloud hosting, artificial intelligence, or large-scale data analysis services from the Department of Defense and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The New York Times has hosted repeated censureship purges of its own staff who suddenly find themselves labeled as ideological heretics or insufficiently zealous; persons thus purged have included veteran science writer Donald McNeil, editorial page editor James Bennet, and editorial assistant Adam Rubenstein.
Efforts to use the censureship weapon by the oppositional conformist set are less ubiquitous. This is true in part because the oppositional conformist set is more ideologically diverse than the mainstream conformist set, so would-be intragroup police cannot demand adherence to a single party line. This was true in the Eisenhowerian Age of Conformity, when oppositional groups such as the Communist Party, various flavors of socialists, civil rights advocates, proto-feminists, gays, lesbians, and beatnik bohemians had a great deal less ideological cohesion than the era’s mainstream conformist set. The Communists shared enough ideological cohesiveness among themselves to engage in internal purging of heretics, but they were outliers among the oppositional groups of the 1950s. Other oppositional groups tended to be more ideologically fluid. Within the Beats, for example, patriotic, flag-loving Jack Kerouac could proudly call the skeptic and critic of the United States Allen Ginsberg his dear friend.
Similarly, in today’s New Age of Conformity, oppositional groups such as free market advocates, fundamentalist Christians, America Firsters, immigration restrictionists, gun rights enthusiasts, free speech proponents, cultural traditionalists, small business owners, small farmers, the non-college educated, and outliers such as white supremacists disagree, often vehemently, over many questions of ideology and moral standards. Forebears of these groups in the 1950s conformist set had found themselves united by a shared anti-Communism, then seen as an existential imperative, similar to how today’s mainstream conformist set views anti-racism and the struggle against climate change. Whereas George Floyd serves as a totemic figure and the various elements of wokeism as a hymnal for today’s mainstream conformist set, the closest analogs for today’s oppositionalists would include former President Donald Trump and a set of policies thought of as Trumpism. Yet Trumpism, whose national approval rating has consistently struggled to reach 40 percent, is not quite the object of universal devotion among oppositionalists that wokeism is for conformists. For many in the oppositional set, vocal and visible support for Trump and Trumpism is more of a contrarian gesture than a set of defined beliefs—a raised middle finger meant to protest the aggressive encroachment of wokeism into areas of society and culture formerly thought to be politically neutral, such as professional sports, newscasting, public education, and the corporate provision of consumer goods.
Still, champions of Trump and Trumpism do seek to shame members of the overall oppositional in-group by tarring them with labels like “cuckservatives” online and on talk radio. In my own travels through the rural communities of Virginia and West Virginia, I have noticed many “Trump 2020” flags and banners that have not come down (and perhaps will remain until weather or vandalism do them in) and stand alongside numerous flags and banners for Trump 2024. Are these displays of Trump support motivated by a desire to pressure neighbors into conformity? Or are they motivated by a desire to protest the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and the metastasis of wokeism across the nation? I would imagine such motives are often mixed.
So where do we stand as a national community? My long weekend drives make me think we are dividing into two opposed camps, each marked by its own flags, signs, and banners: rural and exurban communities brandishing their Trump and Blue Lives Matter standards versus upscale urban neighborhoods and boutique, upper-middle-class towns whose lawns, movie marquees, and shop windows are festooned with Black Lives Matter placards, rainbow flags, and banners proclaiming that “Science Matters” and “Hate Has No Home Here.”
This impression is overblown, surely. After all, the great majority of homes I drive past do not display any of this paraphernalia, and the American flags I see hanging on posts outnumber such displays by an order of magnitude. Yet the number of ideological activists needed to drive a whole nation into enormously destructive social turmoil and intergroup violence is not very large. The Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 represented a tiny percentage of the overall Russian population. A relative handful of ethnic chauvinist Serbian agitators in post-Tito Yugoslavia managed to incite years of ethnic cleansing campaigns and intercommunal massacres as well as the disintegration of their former state. A cadre of ethnic extremists in Rwanda’s Hutu Power movement were able to infiltrate the military and organize a war of extermination that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.
An individual’s sense of identity can be molded around many different types of attributes—ethnicity, clan, religion, place of residence or origin, sex, age, language, vocation, family roles, types of illness or disability, preferred style of music, and favored forms of recreation. Yet recent historical experience has illustrated repeatedly—in Germany, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Rwanda, and Syria, to name just a few—that emphasizing ethnicity or race as the primary, overriding source of a citizenry’s identity, fostering resentments based on both historical grievances and exaggerated contemporary outrages, and dividing a populace into Manichean categories of good and evil, of victims and oppressors, can lead to intragroup violence on a sometimes genocidal scale.
Progressives who subscribe to the tenets of critical race theory (CRT) and intersectionality’s victimization pyramid are, perhaps unwittingly, guilty of offering allegiance to what is merely a variant of the essentialist blood-and-soil chauvinistic nationalism they claim to abhor. By harping on the existence of a “white” identity and the seemingly ineradicable criminal culpability of this entire group, they risk reinflating a pan-ethnic white racial identity among Americans of European ancestry that has otherwise been in steady decline for more than half a century.
If told over and over by academics, government leaders, top media voices, and corporate heads that they belong to an insidious, malign racial group responsible for oppressing all others, and that they may have to endure certain forms of retribution (like the shaming of their children in school, confiscatory reparations, or “righteous violence”), Americans of European ancestry may actually start to believe it. Proponents of CRT—among them the top administrators of the Biden Administration’s Department of Education—risk breathing new life into the very dragon they claim to want to slay.
So what can be done? Canadian American sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life offers an alternative to both the current conformist and oppositionist sets. Goffman was among the first sociologists to study the face-to-face interactions of individuals. In his book, he introduced a dramaturgical model of social interactions. Echoing Shakespeare’s insight that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts,” Goffman observed that in all social interactions, individuals are aware of the sorts of roles they are expected to play for particular audiences, the need to wear appropriate costumes, and the constraints of the settings in which they perform.
As Goffman emphasized, an individual may play many different roles in the course of a single day or may even opt to emphasize different roles over others at certain times, depending on the audience and setting. A contemporary woman may begin her day waking in bed next to her husband and playing the role of wife; she then plays the role of mother to her children, fixing them breakfast and getting them ready for school. During her drive to the office, she is offstage and drops the performance to indulge whatever private version of herself she chooses. At the office, she plays a program manager, switching between the roles of supervisor, colleague, and subordinate, depending on her audience. Over the weekend, she expands her repertoire to play a daughter, an aunt, a patriotic American at a veterans parade, a youth mentor at a little league baseball game, a Methodist congregant at church. In each role she plays, she selects appropriate costumes and modes of behavior, drawing on both her own knowledge and experience and looking to the expectations of her audience for guidance.
Which of these roles is the “real” her? Depending on the setting and audience, certain roles can take on greater salience than others. She may feel more intensely Methodist during Christmas or Easter services, for example. She may also decide which of her many roles are more central to her conception of herself—her identity—and which are more peripheral. Her personal ranking of the various roles will likely change as she ages and her circumstances change.
Far from the virulent binaries being forced upon us by angry ideologues, the fact that each of us plays so many different roles in our own lives means that each of us overlaps in some way with virtually every other American. The same individual may see himself, in ascending order of generality, as a Hasidic Jew, a Haredi Jew, an Orthodox Jew, a Jew, and a believer in one G-d who created the world. Thus, depending upon circumstance, that individual could feel kinship with both a nonpracticing, nonbelieving, secular Jew, and with a practicing Sunni Muslim, thanks to overlapping roles and experiences.
Both CRT and Goffman’s dramaturgical model offer conceptual lenses through which we can interpret social interactions between individuals. CRT emphasizes binary differences between the guilty (who are born into their wickedness through ethnic ancestry) and the innocent (who likewise acquire the righteousness of victimization through birth). Goffman’s dramaturgical model, on the other hand, can be used to emphasize commonalities among all individuals, based upon the multitude of roles all individuals find themselves playing during the course of their lives.
How can the Goffman framework be encouraged over CRT, when the latter is being trumpeted from society’s commanding heights and may soon form a part of most public school students’ curricula, starting in kindergarten? I believe it must be a personal choice, freely made by individuals.
One advantage of the Goffman framework is the psychological and emotional benefits that individuals experience through seeking and finding commonalities. Humans are social animals; we derive pleasure from achieving cooperation, comradeship, and friendship. Actively seeking commonalities with those who initially seem quite different from oneself can lead, at a minimum, to pleasant, brief interactions that brighten one’s outlook. It can also lead to enlarging one’s circle of friends and friendly acquaintances. The sharing of smiles, appreciative words, and laughter, given our need for social affirmations, leads to increased well-being and ultimately to joy.
Contrast these benefits with the corrosive emotions fostered by CRT. Constantly reenforced resentment results in unabated anger that, according to CRT, justifies aggressive action—those lacking power must try to wrest it from those monopolizing it in a zero-sum game. But an inability to usurp power from an indefatigable, omnipresent system of supremacy must lead to anger being turned inward as a result of failure. Guilt is equally corrosive when it cannot be expiated; no matter how much effort they put into allyship, according to CRT, white Americans cannot escape or overcome the ineluctable racism of their birth. Continuous, unexpiated guilt must lead to neuroticism and depression. Those experiencing guilt may come to hate not only themselves and their background but also their accusers, who are causing them emotional pain.
The quest for individual self-improvement has been the United States’ national sport since at least the publication of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936. Perhaps the active seeking of commonalities with strangers outside one’s affinity groups could be promoted as a form of wellness—a way to elevate one’s mood. Such interactions are best engaged in face-to-face, in shared settings such as coffee shops, parks, book stores, libraries, museums, malls, walking trails, or on public transit—anywhere one can engage in casual small talk with strangers. These are all places that have been restricted, to one extent or another, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us are experiencing an acute hunger for a return to these neutral grounds where we can mingle with persons previously unknown to us.
Back in pre-COVID-19 times, I loved riding the Virginia Railway Express commuter train from Northern Virginia into Washington, D.C., because I got to know a group of my fellow riders and became friendly with them. One day, a striking-looking gentleman about my age boarded the train, wearing what looked to be an Afghan or Pakistani turban, a long salt-and-pepper beard, and traditional brown robes that reached to the tops of his feet. Such a person was definitely outside my typical circles; I grew up in heavily Jewish North Miami Beach, Florida, and although I have worked with and become acquainted with many people from across Asia, I had never worked alongside nor ever gotten to know a person who wore traditional Muslim South Asian attire. The gentleman sat on the opposite side of the aisle facing me. His face reminded me of a lithograph that once hung in my grandmother’s apartment of a Russian or Polish shtetl rabbi, also wearing a turban, holding an infant boy in his lap and beaming. The gentleman facing me had some of the kindest eyes I had ever seen. Enchanted, I wished him a good morning. We began talking, and he moved to the open seat next to me. In the course of our conversation, we learned we had something in common: We were both fathers to boys of about the same age.
After that morning, we would see each other once every week or so on the morning train, when he would board the same car I had already boarded (we never crossed paths on the ride home; I suppose he rode home on a different train). We would sit together whenever we could, and when we disembarked at the same station, we would walk together to our offices; he was a federal IT contractor, and the department he supported had its headquarters along the route I took to reach my own building. We never lacked for stories to share, always about our boys and what we had been doing with them and the things we tried to teach them.
I haven’t seen him since my office switched to full-time telework more than a year ago. I miss him and think about him often. A delightful man, he had become, in a small way, a member of my personal tribe. Our minor friendship was one of the jewels of my work week, a reason to face Monday mornings with a hopeful grin rather than a furrowed brow.
The pandemic robbed many of us of our opportunities for such nurturing moments of comradely serendipity. But the pandemic will eventually recede, and we will remove the masks that have separated us and cloaked our smiles. When it happens, take advantage of it. Be neighborly to those who aren’t your physical neighbors (but be neighborly to them, too). Reach out to persons who differ from you in social class, regional origin, ethnicity, or religiosity. Be friendly, upbeat, curious, and a keen listener. Be helpful when you can. Don’t mentally wall people off into opposing tribes. A simple “good morning, how’re you doing?” is enough of an icebreaker. If you receive a warm smile and greeting in return (and sometimes you won’t, because you can’t win them all), be observant of the other person and find something to ask them about or compliment them on—a piece of jewelry, an article of clothing, a book they’re carrying. Commenting about the weather is a reliable old standby because we all share it in common. Most such friendly exchanges will last a minute or less.
By making it a habit to seek commonalities with those around us, we can reknit the ties that bind us as fellow Americans and prevent our social fabric from fraying further. Rather than retreating to the defensive shelter of opposing conformist tribes, we can expand our personal tribes while recognizing how fortunate we all are as Americans to belong to a group that Abraham Lincoln once called “the last best hope of earth.”
Andrew Fox is the author of, among other titles, Fat White Vampire Blues.