But Everybody Does it

It is supposed to be the phrase that vanquishes all opposition: “But everybody does it!”

Or its corollary: “But nobody does it!”

Your elaborate argument, your opinion and carefully expressed points, amount to nothing. Whatever you have just said or are about to say has already been rejected by an invisible referendum: the overpowering ballot of the masses! The majority, or rather “the multitude” of Seneca, sets the rules of conformity that all must obey. There is no room for errant ideas, opinions, actions, or behaviors.

In the majority of discussions concerning human behavior, the “everybody argument,” in one of its many forms, is bound to appear at some point with its almighty force:

– Why do you do this strange thing?
– Everybody does it!

– This is very slow and inefficient.
– Nobody told us this before!

– I would like to request…
– Nobody has ever requested that!

There is a feeling of security in knowing that one is not alone. Any lack of originality is more than offset by the comfort of knowing one belongs to a larger group that behaves similarly. There is also the self-assurance that you cannot be in the wrong. If everybody does it, it must be right! The multitude defines social propriety, points to the right path, has exclusive rights to the Truth.

Without realizing it, one finds himself simply reacting to the common polls. All personal action becomes reaction. Similar to the reaction of a politician who feels he did something wrong if his poll ratings have fallen. He tries to modify his behavior to get the polls up again. Yet an unpopular action need not be “wrong” just because the majority thinks so at the time. A few months later, the politician’s action may turn out to have been wise, and not at all detrimental to his or her career. Just like the weather, popular opinion is precarious, shifting, impossible to ever determine with certainty.

Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is the perfect criticism of the aligning of one’s actions with what “everybody does.” Andersen’s story shows that social conformity is in harmony neither with the Truth nor Reality. On the contrary, although the force of the multitude seems almighty, it is actually very weak – the simplest utterance of a child may easily demolish it!

But why does social conformity creep up on us so naturally? Because it is easy. In order to detach from the group, it is necessary to struggle. To use terms from physics: the social gravity is strong, and the force necessary to achieve the escape velocity that would propel one to the freedom and weightlessness of outer (of society) space must be strong enough to match it. Most are not willing to put in the necessary effort for such a takeoff. Standing on the Earth, feeling the gravity under one’s feet, is easy, comforting, effortless.

But it is not just the difficulty of the struggle that lies at the heart of the willingness to go along with the force of society’s gravitational pull. There is a much stronger and quite invisible force that paralyzes: Fear. Fear that one’s knowledge, ability, and talent are lacking: “Who am I to do it differently? The majority knows better.” And on the uppermost pedestal stands the greatest fear of them all: the fear of failure. A fear that stems from feeling the others’ gaze upon us. For the concept of failure exists only in society, since all evaluations and judgements pertaining to one’s actions are defined by society. The actions of a Robinson Crusoe living alone on an island are neutral as there is no one there to judge them. An action that leads nowhere is simply a dead end for him, not a “failure.” Crusoe need only retrace his steps, or try again, or simply … sit down to rest! Every action on a remote island is just the natural consequence of the previous action. Our life is constant struggle without any innate adjectives attached to every effort we make. Our “failures” (the dead ends) are the teachers from which our “successes” (the roads that keep going) will arise. Yet, what each one of us experiences as a dead end, is judged by our minds as “failure,” for we unconsciously adopt the social characterization of our act as the reality of the act. It is this fear of a possible future “failure” we may end up discerning in the others’ judgemental gaze, that keeps so many from forming their own ideas or forging their own path.

Doing what everybody does destroys what everybody could have done had each one followed freely his own way. The “everybody does it” stance in life is one of the most significant factors behind modern man’s alienation. When one aligns his behavior, wishes, or ideas to those of the multitude, he distorts them, and ends up living a life that is disconnected from his inner being.

What is most disturbing is that this stance also goes against human rationality itself: What everybody does may simply be unwise. And that which nobody has done may be due to a lack of imagination – the time has come for somebody to do it! Which brings us to the heart of the matter: Each one of us is somebody. We are neither “everybody” nor “nobody.”

I recall an incident with a New Zealand hotel owner to whom I complained about the fact that the room he had checked me into the previous night was, contrary to his assurances, very noisy, and I did not sleep all night. His reply was: “Nobody has complained.” At that moment, imitating Odysseus in another context, I spontaneously replied: “Well then, I guess my name is Nobody!” I had thereby completely changed the meaning of what he had said, and forced it to conform to reality: the “nobody has complained” (meaning that no other person had yet complained) was transformed into “Mr. Nobody has just complained.” I could not be dismissed, for there I was, disproving the no-body argument by being some-body complaining!

Whenever anybody tells you about nobody ever having done something, you need only take a similar stance, and become Odysseus: become the Nobody about to do it! And when people say “but everybody who listens to the Sirens’ song is destroyed,” you may reply: “everybody else was destroyed; but I’m Odysseus, and I will bind myself to a mast, listen to the Sirens’ enchanting song, and not be destroyed!”

The multitude may rule the world. But it doesn’t have to rule you.


© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis