Society has always forced people within its borders, punishing outsiders. It’s human instinct, evolutionary, the only way to move forward as a race. Now that the more immediate outside threats of nonconformity have been removed, we are still left with a culture actively attempting to force others into a social mainstream. This isn’t offered in criticism (that’ll come later)–just as fact. In the beginning of the 21st century, however, there has been a concerted effort to encourage individualism, with endless powerpoints showed to school children on how to stand up to bullies, maintain healthy self-esteem, and are given strict guidelines about how to be an individual. And there is revealed the great irony of the situation: being an individual is now part of the mainstream. Individualism is being like everyone else. And even the things we are encouraged to think of as off the beaten path are lovingly adopted as part of the collection of mass-accepted cultural items. We see the paradox: in order to be an individual, you have to be mainstream, but mainstream is individualism, and God this is worse than time travel. If individualism is mainstream, it can only be concluded this is no individualism at all.
Best exhibiting this societal phenomenon is the hipster. I know, I know. I groan too anytime a blogger tries to detail what a hipster is, or try and relate it to a topic. But I’m aware that’s impossible. Even using the word hipster makes me cringe, as it long stopped meaning what people think it means, as I’ll explain. Picture the two social groups one Mainstream, one Hipster. Say the mainstream road is continuing on however it continued during the early 2000s’. Then comes the hipster road, growing slowly based on a collection of identifiable principles, the ones you see in your mental image of a stereotypical “hipster.” As more latent hipsters came out of the closet, if you will, this subculture living an alternative lifestyle becomes identifiable to the Mainstream, but not as it truly is. Like explorers of the
16th-19th centuries, those documenting or commenting on these hipsters were writing to entertain an audience, and in-depth analyses of subcultures don’t sell. The solution? Dilute the culture to the most identifiable, controversial, and bizarre aspects and publish. Consequently the world was painted the picture of the bike-riding, all-organic, fair trade, coffee drinking, Jack Kerouac quoting hipster.
Everyone assumes hipsters engage in the antithesis of American materialist society, and is familiar with the phrase, “I liked them before they were cool.” This mostly correct popular image presents a subculture that rejects the most integral values of its parent culture, and when their parent culture adopts some of their beliefs, the hipster movement immediately forsakes them. It sounds like hyper-individualism and a total rejection of the mainstream, but the movement is lovingly welcomed into it. A cultural misunderstanding like that shouldn’t happen, not to such a degree.
However, in isolating hipster culture to a few aspects, immediately that drawn culture is not “hipster.” Hipsters are united as hipsters not by commonalities, but by differences. They reject aspects of modern culture, sure, but it must be understood every true hipster is his own breed. Like the Dalai Llama, a true hipster is born, not made. They are hipster because that’s the cultural route their preferences and beliefs take them, not through some decided effort to memorize obscure indie groups just to namedrop. This is real individualism, not the pre-wrapped brands offered by motivational speakers and counselors.
Perhaps, however, this mainstreaming of the fiercely individualistic hipster movement is a deliberate attempt at bringing those outsiders back within the society, and all the talk of individualism is just a new angle of conformity.