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Inner Freaks and the Conformal World

I watched the other day one of my favourite films: Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 movie Freaks. It’s set in the world of the sideshow carnival in America and starred real life freaks- including a limbless man who with stunning dignity rolls and smokes a cigarette with just the use of his mouth. The freaks are victimised by their life sized co-workers and achieve a chilling revenge…by the end of the film you want to be ‘one of us’ as the freaks sing, their membership chant reversing their outcast nature.


Why the film exerts so much power is that it portrays a simple truth. On the outside someone can be freakish, but in their character and actions a beautiful person. And a beautiful person in conventional terms (the bad guy in the film is a stock blonde beauty) can be evil inside. A simple truth but one which the everyday world continually masks. I call this conformality. It’s a con, it’s about making conformism look good and it uses an arbitrary notion of normality as a bench mark.


We are now living in a conformal[1]world. It is a world in which the ‘normal’ is utterly different from any age in human history. That’s quite a claim but let me expand a little. The ‘normal’ in the past was directly linked to how people made a living. Hunting, fishing, tilling the land and performing manual labour- all done in groups. These activities served to fulfil basic human physical, emotional and psychological needs. There may have been many downsides in terms of comfort and health- but I am not talking about that. I am simply referring to the fact that being ‘normal’ was a pretty good stance to take when it came to mental well being.


But that has changed.


The current projection of the normal involves the idea of working eight hours a day in front a computer screen, often alone, with a social life spent largely in front of the same screen. Maybe a bit of binge drinking thrown in for good measure. Or ‘clubbing’. Add some driving around in a car that looks like it’s been pressed from a jelly mould and you have ‘normal’ life. The effort to look normal in such a world is extraordinarily high. The sheer relief when you stop posing as normal and accept your ‘inner freakishness’ is immense. The power of eccentricity is just that- it releases a lot of energy bound up with trying to copy others and look like them.


I recently discovered that when I’m hill walking I go much faster when I’m leading than when I’m following. I thought it was about some need to be first or something but it was actually about pace. By setting my own pace, a bit faster here, slower here, adjusting my gear, looking for a certain path I was conserving energy, energy I was able to use in going further and faster than when I tried to conform to another’s pace.


But the conformal world is hard to outpace or leave behind. It’s everywhere- TV, social media, the news, commercials, the products we buy, the way we live our lives. I need to re-emphasise that trying to be normal in the past at least brought the comfort of numbers, of group satisfaction. Now ‘normal’ is increasingly working from home, alone at your work station, telecommuting. And if you work in an office- doing a bullshit job. The creeping ascendancy of bullshit jobs- documented so well by David Graeber- is an outcome of corporate feudalism- the real era we currently inhabit. 37% of Britons believe that their jobs are essentially pointless…


So it is no surprise that the price of trying to conform to the conformal world is failure, unhappiness and mental health problems. But the price of fighting the conformal world without knowing about basic human psychological needs for attention, friendship, human support can also be failure, happiness and mental health problems.


Oddly enough it may be that the real deal breaker for many is that the conformal world is just too expensive. It is cheaper to be different. You have to do something different to survive in a world where property and utility bills make ‘normal’ living impossible.


By embracing your inner freak you establish the first necessary condition to surviving and ultimately thriving in the conformal world. You establish that your ‘difference’ ‘weirdness’ ‘nonconformity’ is a good and healthy thing, a powerful motor to help you find happiness. Indeed you celebrate all the things that the conformal world has made you doubt, the thousand ways it has undermined your confidence in being ‘you’. Why do we live in age obsessed with identity? It is a reaction to the extreme pressure of conformality, to erase difference and promote ‘one size fits all’ thinking.


Eccentricity- the way of the freak- has always been the motor of real achievement throughout history. But in the past being normal had as its reward a healthy and fulfilling psychological life. But being normal now doesn’t supply that. That’s why the option of eccentricity in the past is now a necessity…


[1]Conformality is a term derived from mathematics. It means whatever the projection you make of a shape the angles remain the same. Which of course is something that doesn’t happen in the real world. It has overtones of conformity ie. the angles never change and normality, meaning it’s unchanging shape become the norm. It is also a formal construction- something, as we mentioned, couldn’t happen in the real world where ever increasing scale means other forces distort lines and angles- in the real world all lines are curved.


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