"Breathing In Nihilism": Conformity
We have seen the power of the consumer culture to decontextualize and efface particular systems of meaning. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski identifies within the social-progress narrative of modernity a larger homogenizing action of which the commoditization process is a less idealistic variant. Kolakowski refers specifically to Arnold Toynbee’s proclamation that the future inhabitants of the world would be “heirs” of all previous political and cultural traditions taken together:
[Toynbee’s statement] expresses the ideal of a world made radically uniform and it gives rise to grave doubts […] For what, in fact, would it mean for us to be “heirs” of all the prophets, philosophers, and statesmen listed [by Toynbee]? In a trivial sense we are already the heirs of all these men, in that we live in a world they all helped to shape; but Toynbee clearly has in mind a heritage in a stonger sense, a positive continuity of ideas. But in order that our descendants may be heirs in this sense, we must admit that everything that makes the values and ideals of the people incompatible today will lose its significance; and then, far from having them all as our spiritual ancestors, we shall have no one at all.

The difference between Catholics and Protestants could conceivably vanish but then Bossuet and Cromwell will not so much become synthesized by our descendants as vanish altogether, losing what was specific and essential to each; and heritage will have no discernible meaning. […] In short, to imagine our grandchildren combining all these conflicting traditions into one harmonious whole, being at once theists, pantheists, and atheists, advocates of liberalism and totalitarianism, enthusiasts of violence and enemies of violence, is to imagine them inhabiting a world lying not only far beyond the scope of our imagination and prophetic gifts but also outside the possibility of any kind of tradition whatsoever; which means that they will be barbarians in the strictest sense. (Kolakowski 24-25)

Though the consumerist culture bears less of the active idealism of its materialist underpinnings it nonetheless enacts the process of the effacement of difference in acknowledged appearance, if not in fact.

The “popular mind” of the visible culture of the 1950s was deeply invested in the concept of conformity. Depictions of the “men in gray flannel suits” became the national impression of the relation between self and society (Young 21). In this formulation, men (and by and large exclusively men) must choose between individual fulfillment, embodied in romantic love or family life, and “getting ahead” in a corporate world where they become figurative cogs in a vast machine. They dress the same, eat the same foods, take part in the same leisure activities and, eventually, come to think the same and that exclusively about social advancement. This impression of a universal and overwhelming conformity acted as a means of social cover, as effective as the force of consumerism in covering over social ills and socially invisible groups (Young 21).

Although O’Connor’s work consistently disrupts this image of a dominant white, male culture, replaced by the particularistic illustrations of region and religion, ownership and personal investment in the mass economic and intellectual culture persist. Conformity becomes a matter deeper than physical particularity. It is rather a habit of mind that refuses to encounter the different, the other. When confronted, this conformist mind reconceptualizes the unfamiliar, attempting to remake it as a controllable entity. When this mental effacement of difference fails, the reaction of the conformist reveals an inner barbarism breaking out into violence and cruelty.

The farm owners who represent O’Connor’s depiction of the American agrarian tradition also function as her creatures of cultural conformity. The moment at which this culture of conformity reaches the height of its violence comes in "The Displaced Person". In this story, the immigrant Mr. Guizac appears as a direct threat to the economic status of the Shortleys, the hired family of Mrs. McIntyre, who owns the farm. Guizac is efficient and hard-working where Shortley is lazy and operating a still on her property. Mrs. McInryre can conceptualize Guizac as an economic resource, as one who "saves her money" and allows her to mechanize her farm (CS 207). Eventually, she fires the Shortleys so that she can keep Guizac and his family.

However, when Guizac disrupts the social and racial "morality" of the community, he causes a cognitive disaster for Mrs. McIntyre. He offers his niece in marriage to Sulk on the "farm niggers" if Sulk will help to pay for her passage out of an internment camp and from Europe to America (222). This challenges Mrs. McIntyres conception of Guizac; his hardwork and efficieny raise him above "trash", but his disregard for the socially normative makes him morally suspect and socially undefinable. Mrs. McIntyre asserts her ownership of the farm as a moral right to identify him as she needs, saying "'This is my place [...] I say who will come here and who won't.'" (223).

Guizac's assertion of independence from the community of her ownership initiates Mrs. McIntyre's decline: "'He's extra,' she said. 'He doesn't fit in. I have to have somebody who fits in.'" (225). She seeks to reassert her status as owner but cannot seem to confront Guizac; she becomes mentally paralyzed by his demonstration of the constructedness of her potential power. She thus grants tacit approval to Mr. Shortely's plan to murder Guizac and is "frozen in collusion" with him when he allows a runaway tractor to kill Guizac (234). Thus, the need for adherence to an immoral social structure leads to cognitive and physical violence in O'Connor's stories.