Transcendentalism in Modern Society

The ideals of transcendentalism revolutionized the way people considered the world and they flourish to this day, as the ideas of nonconformity and free thought still manifest themselves in contemporary American culture. Society encourages the oppression of individuality but the ideals of nonconformity, an integral theme of transcendentalism, still influence movies and novels. Conformity is a theme that permeates the very fabric of society. It forces people to sacrifice individuality to gain acceptance. However, Lydia Millet, the author of “Oh Pure and Radiant Heart” disagrees with this concept.

She declares: “We’re so many, we‘re so hard to distinguish from each other, but we long to be distinguished…” (Millet). Millet echoes the sentiments of the pioneers of transcendentalism. She stresses the importance of being unique. Social forces such as peer pressure subdue our natural desire to stand apart. In fact, another contemporary movie, Wristcutters: A Love Story illustrates the sometimes dire consequences of conventionality.

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Tom Waits, a character in the movie states: Once upon a time there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. And they grew next to each other. And every day the straight tree would look at the crooked tree and he would say, “You’re crooked. You’ve always been crooked and you’ll continue to be crooked. But look at me! Look at me!” said the straight tree.

He said, “I’m tall and I’m straight.” And then one day the lumberjacks came into the forest and looked around, and the manager in charge said, “Cut all the straight trees.” And that crooked tree is still there to this day, growing strong and growing strange. The straight tree symbolizes society and its obsession with perfection. Society sometimes brands unique individual characteristics as shortcomings, blissfully assuming that compliance is preferable over individuality. The downfall of the tall, straight tree is caused by its desire to exist in the comfort of conforming homogeneity.

It is thus ironic that though society values uniformity, it also adamantly defends the right for the independence of thought and expression. Free thought was once discouraged but in today’s modern society, it has become an admirable attribute. For example, the topic of religion has long been a taboo topic for discussion yet in this modern era, it can be discussed and even derided. Steven Hyde, a character of That 70’s Show declares: “Although I respect the Judeo-Christian ethic, as well as the Eastern philosophies, and of course the teachings of Muhammad, I find that organized religion has corrupted those beliefs to justify countless atrocities throughout the ages. Were I to go to church, I’d be a hypocrite” (Danny Masterson as Hyde). Free thought has become so acceptable that once sensitive topics are now regularly debated about and even mocked in comedies.

Such comments (especially about religion) in the past would have resulted in persecution of the speaker but today, it merely incites mirth. Another medium used to convey free thought is that of the political cartoon. With a satirical tone, politics and policies can be ridiculed. David Horsey, a prominent political cartoonist criticizes the policies of the Bush Administration in the war with Iraq. In one of his cartoons Bush declares: Those who question my Iraq policy are blinded by a self-defeating pessimism! I prefer self-defeating optimism!”(Horsey).

What would have once been considered treasonous behavior and libel is now accepted as reasonable dissent and as an expression of freedom of speech. The tolerance of society today is truly remarkable in comparison to that of even the recent past when such actions would have resulted in inevitable imprisonment and even execution. These changes could not have been accomplished without the work and dedication of the men and women who built the foundation for transcendentalism.