An Argument for Non-Conformity

Okay, so the title is a bit grandiose.

I want to address some of the ideas that JM’s previous article brought up for me. It’s a magnificent read about the ways in which the mainstream can benefit those who participate, touching on privilege, presentation, and what we do in private. JM and I seem to come to a firm agreement that his articles are the more immediately applicable, whereas I’m busy navel-gazing; furry does not occur in a vacuum, though, so perhaps I ought to talk some more about the wider social implications of furry.

As with anything that can be simply negated by adding ‘non-‘ or ‘ab-‘ (you know, like Abby-Normal), there are two sides to the coin, and more often than not, the interaction between the two is hardly a simple binary, often involving friction, and sometimes quite a lot at that.

As many readers can attest, there has been a wave of “be yourself” propaganda pushed on children and young adults in America over the last thirty or so years, appeals to the sense of non-conformity that each of us carries within us to some extent. Much of this, of course, was awful, saccharine filler that served no purpose other than to make someone money, and blanket non-conformity is hardly something I’d advise someone to undertake. However, just as in the rest of the world, furry has something to benefit from careful application of non-conformity.

Non-conformity and subculture have mixed for a long, long time. Anyone who has been part of the goth scene, or the punk scene before it, or the rock scene before that, or the jazz scene before that, knows this. These are, of course, examples that take the idea of non-conformity and spread it throughout the very interest that brings them together, turning it into something of a fandom itself. Even beyond the idea of fandom, though, non-conformity and its close cousin, transgression (an act that goes beyond generally accepted boundaries), have served groups within society as long as there has been society; one need only look to the history of early Christianity to see that. Non-conformity and transgression are hardly artifacts of modern western society.

There are, in fact, a lot of things about furry that can be seen as transgressive, both within and outside of the fandom. Some minor transgressions, acts that take place outside accepted boundaries, are seen as core ore close to our subculture in many instances: street-fursuiting, a propensity for collecting stuffed animals, or even hanging tasteful furry art in the home or office (these two pieces grace our walls right in the entryway, along with a ton of pictures of our dogs) are just a few ways in which we can step into furry space in a non-furry context, even if only a little bit. Minor transgressions, to be sure, but it’s easy to see the roots of transgressive behavior within our fandom. What could be more non-conforming than not conforming to the generally accepted species, after all?

This is, I believe, part of the reason for the relatively accepting nature of furry as well. A group which is, in a way, transgressive at its core is often a safe space for those with a stake in otherwise transgressive behavior. This is more than just “falling in with a bad crowd” – after all, we’re not that bad, are we? Rather, this goes along with the idea of finding a safe space for oneself. A safe space is, in some ways, a space in which one can engage in either transgressive behavior or discuss, think about, or otherwise wax metatextual without fear or repercussion, or at least in the hopes that that’s the case. This is the purpose of the safe-space signs in schools, which serve this purpose in a subtler way, after all: in a place where acknowledging LGBT issues positively might be seen as a transgression, or at least a form of non-conformity, these signs show that the educator is attempting to create a place free of that association.

When it comes down to it, the ideas of non-conformity and transgression serve an important role to minority identities. As this article bluntly puts it:

Queerness is not just about whom or how you fuck. It is also about not being part of that mainstream culture, about being decidedly against that mainstream culture. It is about disruption. It is about putting things at risk.

Of course, both that quote and my own words are incautious: minority identity, and in this example, queerness, are generalizations used to described trends in identity shared within a social group. I know there are several individuals who would disagree. I have my own hesitancy, here. There is an uncomfortable stage for some in the reclamation of a word where it still carries some of its old connotation before the new one has gained general acceptance. “Queer” is in that space for me, because it still has its connotation of “weirdness”, it still denotes transgression. I’ll hasten to add, though, that this is an ongoing process, within myself even as it is within society at large. The word “straight”, after all, has been largely accepted to simply imply heterosexuality, despite its prior connotations of “going straight”, where homosexuality was seen as crooked or deviant (which has been notably lamp-shaded by the movie Bent).

However, I think that the word “queer”, and others like it, are important in the sense that this sort of non-conformity is vital to identity. When it comes to arguing identity (that is, discussing the point with the goal of changing minds, not necessarily having shouting arguments – though sometimes that too), it is advantageous for the argument to be cast in one’s own terms. When the argument from a minority is cast in the terms of the majority, the minority often only receives relatively small concessions, rather than recognition. Transgressive language and non-conformity help to recast the argument so that there is a greater likelihood of one’s point being made forcefully.*

While conformity is generally the province of the majority, non-conformity is hardly detrimental to it. The culture of the majority is a static behemoth, whose only purpose is to remain precisely where it is, as it is. This is all well and good for those within the culture who benefit from that stasis, but this isn’t the case for everyone, and often isn’t even the case for the actual by-the-numbers majority of individuals wrapped up in society. Minority culture and identity, subversive and transgressive, have the job of pushing the majority culture forward in such a way as to improve life for more and more of those in society, attempting to break that stasis to benefit those involved with their culture and identity. A lot of social progress that humanity can claim comes from this tension and friction; the majority promises safety, the minority promises progress. Both have a purpose.

So, let’s tie this back to furry and the idea of conformity.

When it comes to JM’s article, I really must stress that I whole-heartedly agree with it. There is a lot to be gained in terms of safety by conforming to the majority. One furthers one’s standing within that culture by not, say, wearing a collar to one’s interview. This helps in terms of personal progress: a better job, perhaps a greater amount of respect from those around you, and yes, even the possibility of using that progress towards one’s goals within the fandom (EF2015 sounds like a good idea – JD’s been talking about it for a while now).

Non-conformity is nothing to feel bad about, however. Neither is conformity! Both have their purpose in our lives, and every single one of us expresses both in some way or another at different times and in different aspects of our social interaction for our own reasons. Even furry. Transgressive acts such as street-fursuiting, publicly visible gatherings such as conventions, and even talking about furry from a critical theory standpoint on a publicly visible website have helped to legitimize furry as an identity, a membership, a subculture. Conformity, on the other hand, helps many the individual members of furry to keep things moving forward by benefiting from what the majority has to offer to those who go along with it.


* Note that this is a very reductive view on critical- and queer-theory, topics very much worthy of their own post(s). I have to get to the point somehow, though! If this sort of thing is interesting to you, I highly suggest prowling around more: there’s a ton out there.

About Makyo

Makyo spends her time as a frumpy arctic fox, usually, but she's all over the map. She's been around furry since about 2000 under a variety of names. She writes, programs, and screws around with music.

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10 thoughts on “An Argument for Non-Conformity

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying so eloquently what I have been trying to put into words in response to JM’s post. I worry about being a perpetual gadfly here, but “conformity” is a red flag to me.

    Of course, one can be queer and still be a conformist. Probably most gay men are, and they live double lives in which they try to blend into the Western business world and at the same time, conform to equally restrictive patterns set by their “hidden” role in a subversive culture.

    Furry fandom, as we have seen it described here repeatedly, is not one but two steps removed from the mainstream. First by consisting largely of gay men and secondly by the interests that loosely define furry itself.

    As you say, it may be financially advantageous to some when they put on a suit and tie, cut their hair short, and pretend to “normalcy” (whatever that is) in order to rise in the business world or whatever career or society they have chosen as a goal. However, in doing so they are being supportive of the very bonds that oppress us as a minority, whether the division be gender, orientation, age, race, religion (or lack of it,) or even just the desire to wear a fursuit or other exotic costume in public.

    My rejection of those straight-laced and moronic “rules,” most of which serve no useful purpose, may have limited my economic success in life. However, that same rejection has liberated me to become a much more happy and self-fulfilled individual, creative and satisfied with my life. I contend that had I followed my father’s example and suppressed all my “deviant” expressions to work in a white-collar, striped-necktie career I’d either be insane now or dead of suicide.

    Do not prescribe conformity as a good thing. Everything new is “non-conformist.” That includes having electric lights when your neighbors still use gas or kerosene, as an obvious example. It also includes choosing not to have children, or belonging to an uncommon religion, or, if you live the the US, such simple things as speaking a language other than English or not watching television.

    Voting for a minority party is non-conformist. Should you only vote for one of the two corrupt and useless, do-nothing major parties? I say no.

    Women who campaigned for the right to vote were non-conformist, and they were rocking the boat. This was a good thing, but viewed in the terms JM presented, might be judged otherwise.

    Today in the US, the right of same sex couples to enter into legal marriages is a similar issue. This is non-conformist, and perhaps we won’t know for a century whether it was a bad thing or not, but I say it’s likely a good step and therefore not a case where one should “conform.”

    The man’s necktie, by the way, is a completely useless and sometimes dangerous fashion item with no useful purpose except as a badge of power and authority. It also becomes a sort of marker of submission to meaningless “rules.” I reject it, and reject any argument for wearing it.

    1. Thank you for the well-thought-out comment, Altivo! It means a lot.

      I think you make a good point about personal happiness, which, while it was touched upon in both articles, ought to figure large in the eyes of many. This is especially true given the nature of our fandom and how close it comes to being a hobby for many: furry ought to be a way for us to feel good about ourselves, to become better, well rounded people – another set of ideas that have shown up several times both here and in the wider realm of furry online (speaking mostly of really positive FA journals I see every now and then, but all of our creations should stand as testament to that.).

      I think that the idea that all new things are non-conformist: the author of Ecclesiastes may be correct that there’s nothing new under the sun, but that does not mean that things are not novel in a given context. This newness is what helps to push our society forward in a great many ways, but as a result of it frequently challenging status quo, support of new things often winds up in non-conformist territory. Conformity, it could be argued, is just one aspect of the social contract we agree to as members of society: we, the majority, will provide you safety, protection, and membership so long as you go along with us. This is certainly valuable to many! After all, I’m hardly going to leave the house in anything other than pants, no matter my troubles with gender, because it’s simply safer to follow along.

      Non-conformity, on the other hand, provides the forward momentum at the risk of safety, protection, and membership. Per your examples, people voting for a third party are derided as having thrown their vote away, women campaigning for the right to vote risked imprisonment and, on hunger strike an often-fatal “soup cure” [1], and those in support of same-sex marriage are thought to be intent on tearing the traditional family apart [2]. It’s easy to fall into conformity after the goal one is fighting for is accomplished (many media outlets here make the recognition of same-sex marriage out to be the end of the fight for gay rights, for example, or even of all discussions on marriage, which is something that many disagree with [3]). However, non-conformity and transgression are and always have been processes for the sake of the process of advancement, rather than for the sake of simple goals, and, nice as it is to have milestones along the way, the growth of our society never ceases just because they’ve been surpassed.

      Again, thanks. I think you bring up some good points and definitely some good examples!

      [1] http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/war-on-women-waged-in-postcards-memes-from-the-suffragist-era/
      [2] http://nursingclio.org/2013/04/02/same-sex-marriage-does-threaten-traditional-marriage/
      [3] http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2013/04/gay-marriage

      1. [Just an aside]

        You wouldn’t go outside in anything but trousers? Really?

        I recommend it. Fursuit is only one choice. Kilt? Kimono? Caftan? I’ve done all those before. Monk’s habit? Renaissance “garb”? Cross-dressed? Those too.

        “Clothes make the man” is a lie. “The man (or woman) gives meaning to the clothes” is the actual truth.

        1. My current place of residence does not rank high on the list of places that I’d feel safe wearing, in today’s case, a sarong (black, embroidered; with a blue shirt *pretty*), but then, if you look up “awkward hang-ups with regards to the social implications gender” in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of me refusing to leave bed.

          I’m not yet to the point of feeling comfortable with that particular transgression in a public space :o) Cons are a notable exception, of course.

          1. I understand. Though you can break free of some of those chains by starting small. An earring? Subtle jewelry? Pink socks? (Or purple or whatever?) It also helps if you aren’t alone in the venture, just as fursuits are easiest to wear at a furry gathering.

            I am not flamboyant. I’m just rebellious. Always have been, often in trouble for it, but in the end, also much happier.

            For example, if someone isn’t going to hire me for a job because I wore a small gold ring in my pierced ear to the interview, that also means I would hate working for them. It all works out in the end. And speaking of things working out, I’m happy to give back as much sh*t as anyone tries to hand me.

            You are undoubtedly smarter than most of the people who might hassle you. Don’t forget that, it makes a difference. :D

  2. Thank you for writing this. I was hoping that someone would write a response post to the article.

    I think there is one thing that is not mentioned in a lot of articles encouraging people to conform (and I have seen a lot of them in furry): the difference between people who won’t conform and people who can’t. No offense to JM, but a lot of articles about conformity seem to have an attitude that people are non-conforming to the “mainstream” standard of socially acceptable because they’re lazy or they just don’t care, so the tone of these articles has an attitude like “it’s not so bad! You can do it! Look at the benefits!” As if the only reason a person wouldn’t conform is because they want to live a life without responsibility.

    But that is a vision that really excludes people who can’t, for some reason, conform. Many people can’t conform, due to (like you said) being queer, being disabled, being neuroatypical, etc. Many of these people have found a rare safe space in the furry fandom, which is known for being accepting of difference. Anything that tries to encourage people to conform, I only worry is going to make furry a less safe space for the people who can’t: the people who can’t hold down a regular job, the people who can’t “look normal” in public, the people who can’t socially interact in the standard ways. If people see it as a simple question of “choosing to conform” or “choosing to non-conform”, then anyone who can’t fit because of differences that they can’t change runs a risk of being accused of “being flamboyant for attention”, or “not trying hard enough to be normal”. This can be a horrible blow for people who have been struggling all their lives against a world that doesn’t have a place for them, and finally thought they had found some rest.

    Furry has historically been a rare place where those people are not seen as lesser, and many of them have made homes and friends here. I’m worried by anything that might make them less safe in the fandom, because it might be the only safe space they have.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment! I think you bring up the very excellent point of choice in the matter. You and I both brought up queer culture as a non-conforming social group, but my reasons were because they have formed a culture around themselves. Both JM and I have neglected to bring up disability and neuroatypical folks, though, and I think that’s definitely something worth exploring. There’s a lot to be said for the type of culture that both encourages non-conformity and yet is welcoming to just about everyone. JM has written on both these topics, actually: http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2012/11/05/furries-with-physical-disabilities/ and http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2012/12/17/no-you-dont-have-aspergers/ – both articles worth checking out – but neither of which touches necessarily on this topic in particular. There are many ways in which transgressive subcultures serve their members, and I think that those that you mention are very important to recognize as being particularly well suited to being welcomed.

      Again, thanks for pointing this out!

      1. You’re welcome!

        As a furry and therian with dyspraxia I liked the recent dyspraxia article on this blog too. I definitely still would like to see some articles about how bias for conformity and being “normal” can affect these groups.

        I have seen particularly a lot of people in the furry community who are less functional than the “average” and I have often seen them held up as an example of why furry is “weird”, “full of losers” etc. by outsiders. At the same time, inside the furry community we often also put down these people as people who we should not be like… we’re agreeing with the outsiders in that respect. And yet it’s very rare that we ask why these people are less functional and whether it is for disability reasons, and what we could do to help. Like a lot of marginalized subcultures, we often care more about our appearance to the outside world than compassion for those who are part of our community.

        I definitely think that now this dialogue has started, it’s a good thing and hopefully it can continue! I see the many topics of discussion on [adjective][species], and the fact that many people will post articles disagreeing with each other but also being polite, as a good hope for the future of the community as a self-aware place that thinks about its self.

  3. Hi Makyo. I just wanted to say that I think this is a terrific article. I think you’ve understood and characterized the intent of my article perfectly. And I wholeheartedly agree with your points too. Thanks for your intelligence and insight.

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