On Hipsters

This blog entry was originally the overgrown Facebook comment that convinced me once and for all that no thought could be comprehensively explored in a Facebook comment. That admission was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back and got me to make this blog.

It’s all about hipsters.

The term “hipster” is one I don’t remember hearing much of five or ten years ago, but which now finds its way into either my eyes or ears on almost a daily basis. At firs, I thought it was a synonym for “hippy,” but when I couldn’t reconcile the fact that most of the people I saw dubbed with the term seemed to shower on a regular basis and not to cry especially hard when their neighbors squashed spiders, I decided I was mistaken. Over time, I managed to put some patterns together. A disproportionate amount of male hipsters seemed to have mustaches, and thick-rimmed glasses, and to wear short shorts, for example.

However, none of these traits seemed definitive. Sometimes, a mustachioed person would be a hipster, but sometimes he was just a redneck, or a child of the 80’s, or a regular dude. And sometimes a person had all of these attributes – mustache, thick-rimmed glasses, short shorts and white as a marshmallow – but then turned out to be Magnum, P. I. dressed undercover, which turns out to be just about the exact opposite of a hipster.

After a whle I came to the conclusion that “hipster” — which to my knowledge has never been used with a positive connotation — just meant someone between 20-35 who a lot of people thought was a douche bag. Though not satisfactory in a rigorous sense, this definition seemed to work well enough for a number of years.

A year ago, though, a friend shared an article with me titled, “How to Live Without Irony,” which was a New York Times opinion piece written by Christy Wampole, a professor at Princeton University. Here’s a link to the article, which is worth a read.

How to Live Without Irony

When I read this article I found for the first time in my life a clear definition of what the ephemeral “hipster” I had been hearing about actually was. From the article:

The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.”

And finally:

He is an easy target for mockery. However, scoffing at the hipster is only a diluted form of his own affliction. He is merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living.”

Actually, looking at it again, it does seem like my going definition of “someone a lot of people think is a douche bag” is pretty applicable. However, thanks to Ms. Wambole, we now we have a more definitive description. A hipster is a chronically self-conscious person who shields herself from the terror of revealing her true thoughts and feelings to the world by projecting an ironic and insincere image. Also, she likes any one of a number of outdated hobbies such as record players, fixed-gear bikes and playing trombone. There, that’s clear enough, isn’t it?

Ms. Wambole’s description is, I think, a pretty accurate summary of what most people think of when they use the word “hipster:” a young man or woman wearing intentionally awkward and unfashionable clothes, riding Schwinn bicycles from the ’50’s with apparently nothing to do except stop to smoke the occasional Lucky Strike and make tongue-in-cheek jokes with their “too cool to be cool” friends, which everyone finds clever but no one deigns laughs at.

Wambole’s article, as the title suggests, is about ironic living. She argues that modern U.S. society faces a sort of crisis of rampant irony, and that this is symptomatic of our inability to face the real world. Rather than square up to the troubles of social life, such as judgment by peers, young people today project an image of irony that is understood by all not to be serious. In doing this, they protect their real selves from being judged, but at the expense of sincerity.

When I first read the piece, I was struck by this message because I think it has a lot of truth to it. I myself have been exasperated by people’s excessive inability to be sincere and even more upset by my own tendency to hide behind a projected mask of irony when I secretly wanted to show my true thoughts. Nevertheless, there was something about the terse way in which Wambole described and dealt with hipsters I found unsettling.

It was a long time ago when I first read the article and gave it a thinking through, then discarded it because I live in South Korea where maybe hipsters exist but they’re impossible to differentiate from the rest of the population. When you live in a place where people dress in some weird Koreanized version of cute, flashy, and pragmatic, with so many random Western-derived and garbled-English accessories thrown in seemingly at random, it becomes impossible to tell what is ironic and what is just…Korean. Beyond that, life is so filled with bizarre and immediate problems (how do I get Korean missionaries to stop proselytizing me on the way to work; or communicate that “not eating meat” includes not eating beef OR bacon OR seafood OR pork; or find garlic toast not covered in sugar?) that not much attention is left over to make such differentiations.

Suffice it to say, hipsters are not and have never been an issue in my every-day life. Yet, despite this absence the term “hipster” has continued to surface both on the Internet and in the conversation of my expat friends, with curious frequency.

It did once again several days ago when a friend of mine posted this video on Facebook:

The web page that I first saw it linked on was titled “The Best Takedown of Hipster Racism you’ll Ever See,” and I’d say that’s a pretty good summary of its contents. In it, two young black poets castigate a specific subset of white people that line up extremely well with Wambole’s description of hipsters for being, essentially, absurd and buffoonish hypocrites. They describe the stereotypical hipster image of a privileged young white adult with “horn-rimmed glasses, sweater hoodies, vintage leather Oxfords, authentic [unintelligible (to me) word] Guatemalan bookbags and crafty hand-made wooden iPhone cases” and name them as “self-affirming, self-satisfied, self-righteous douche[s].” The point is that while these hipsters think of themselves as progressive, racially integrated people, they actually live a lifestyle that continues to affirm and perpetuate racial differences, or at the very least screams of privileged ignorance.

The slam is brilliantly written and phenomenally performed. It addresses an issue that people like me – a middle-class American white guy who has never suffered from entrenched racism – need to be confronted with. Racism is not as simple as segregated buses or the KKK or even the comparatively tame act of treating people of different races marginally differently than we treat those of our own. Racism is embedded in our behaviors and our conceptions and the very structure of our society – neighborhood gentrification, underfunded minority-heavy school districts, and the skewed imbalance of lower-paid minorities in the “DDD” (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs — read: Jobs White People Think are Below Them — to name a bare few examples.

Racism is not only perpetuated by shop owners that peremptorily dismiss people of color or by policemen that pull over black and Latino people in second-hand Caddies faster than their white counterparts in ’07 Corollas (yes, I know these are stereotypes; I didn’t use them on accident). It is perpetuated with a momentum all the more powerful for its invisibility by white flight from urban centers, the lethargic apathy with which programs are put in place to help empower and enlighten people living in entrenched poverty – a poverty whose entrenchment is itself the direct legacy of colonialism, slavery and segregation – and a thousand other subtle but pervasive aspects of our culture and our own individual lifestyles.

It is easy to ignore these problems as a white person, even one who attempts to be racially aware and sympathetic, but it is even easier to remain ignorant of them. This convenient, compliant ignorance is what makes such problems invisible, which is disturbing because a problem must be acknowledged before it can be fixed. People tend to think opposition to change is the biggest barrier to progress, but I think the lack of acknowledgment that a problem exists is a much more substantial barrier than acknowledgment followed by opposition. It is insidious and it is compelling.

The tone of the slam is harsh and direct, like most slams, and while I have to admit that as a middle-class white man who loves his organic food and fits more stereotypes than he’d like to admit it hits me hard in some sensitive spots, I must also admit that it is probably healthy for people who live in the unafflicted majority to be faced with words that err more on the side of harshness than ease. It is too easy for even sympathetic members of a privileged people to become complacent and thus contribute to the sort of insidious discrimination described above. So as much as cutting language make make me wince, I actually like it here because complacency is not dispelled by calm and polite words. A soothing “Daaaave. Wake up sweetheart!” generally sufficed for Ma to get me out of bed in the morning, but when she wanted to be sure to get the job done she put steel in her voice and came armed with a glass of cold water.

Yet, despite agreeing with its overall message and reconciling myself to its tone, I was still left with vague feelings of distaste by the end of the slam presented by the talented young Kai Davis and Safiyah Washington. After mulling it over a while I thought back once again to Wampole’s article and realized the same thing bothered me about that piece as bothered me about Davis and Washington’s slam on “hipster racism.” It’s the way they describe “hipsters.”

And then I remembered the Nerdwriter.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out The Nerdwriter, I strongly recommend it. He is a vlogger on youtube, and although he has not posted actively for the last five months, his archive of 61 existing vlogs is excellent. The subjects he addresses are diverse and fascinating without exception, and he has a talent at presentation that makes each five-minute episode compelling and easy to watch despite the complexity of some of the issues he takes on.

A while back, about a week after Wambole’s article was published in the Times, the Nerdwriter posted this vlog:

Probably the thing I love most about the Nerdwriter is that he has this tremendous gift of piercing directly to the heart of issues. He has a priceless penchant for redirecting eyes that have been distracted by alluring by secondary distractions back to the more fundamental, more humane point that underlies it all.

His vlog on “How to Live Without Irony” is no exception. Though I find his liberal use of sarcasm in this episode (not characteristic of the majority of his posts) slightly off-putting, his overall analysis is incisive and grounding. He cuts through Wampole’s superficially shrewd dissection of the hipster “culture of irony” to remind us that, while some of Wampole’s ideas may be correct, her article is ultimately centered on a caricaturized stereotype. It takes a huge mass of people who appear superficially similar to the distant eyes of a Princeton professor (or any one of us who has pejoratively used the word “hipster”) and assumes to know their deepest fears and motivations.

When I watched this vlog again, it remound (I don’t care if it’s not a word; it ought to be) me of one of my favorite passages from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”

“And I have known the eyes already, known the all –

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?”

We have all known this feeling at some time in our lives – the feeling of having been summed up and categorized and judged based on some aspect of our appearance or on some tiny and nonrepresentative sampling of actions chosen selectively from the vast drama of our entire lives. We have all felt the unjust sting of having our entire quality as a person assessed by a few mistakes or by some subjective interpretation of our actions by a person privy only to the outward manifestations of our bodies and not the internal churning of our souls.

When I first read Wampole’s article, I felt myself swept away by her arguments about ironic living. I recognized in her illustration of ironic gift giving (a section for which she comes under fire from the Nerdwriter but which I think is a well-chosen example) how irony can truly become a sort of preemptive defense mechanism, shielding us from the consequences of sincerity. And because of the clarity and probity of her analysis of the ironic lifestyle I tended to agree with the rest of the article as well. I found myself imagining the chronically ironic hipsters Wampole described and assumed that, given the quality of her analysis of irony, these people who so perfectly embodied the behaviors she described must by extension exist.

But the Nerdwriter’s vlog jolted me back to reality. It reminded me that no matter how mechanically sound a theory may seem, when you are dealing with human beings mechanistic analyses simply do not apply. The identity of every single human is an ad-hoc, unpredictable and unfathomable mixture of hopes, fears, love, hurt, DNA, culture and a million other ingredients that cannot be succinctly summed up and generalized, no matter how convenient that is to our writing.

While it is said commonly enough to sound trite, articles like Wampoles and poems like Davis and Washington’s and indeed much of the parlance we use to describe the problems of our society make it apparent that the message needs to be repeated. We are, every one of us, truly unique. Yet too often the singularity of every human being, though explicitly affirmed by most, is often denied implicitly by the very ways we characterize one another.

I have no doubt there are many young white adults between 20-35 who dress ironically out of some kind of socially apprehensive identity crisis. Probably the vast majority of this population is privileged compared to the most of the earth’s population. And, as I hope I articulated clearly before, I second Washington and Davis’s message that those among this population who consider themselves socially progressive while living insulated and isolated lives are at best ignorant and at worst hypocrites.

Hipster or genuine mustache aficionado? Using the Wampole method, we can easily answer this question by simple expedient of judging the ultimate motivations of his heart.

Hipster or genuine mustache aficionado? Using the Wampole method, we can easily answer this question by simple expedient of judging the ultimate motivations of his heart. – 1

However, this does not disqualify them from the basic right of being dealt with on their own terms, as autonomous persons with their own real and legitimate issues to deal with, rather than codified, reduced and judged according to a few criteria that seem to make sense to external arbiters. We all like to be treated as self-governing persons capable of making our own decisions based on our own criteria. To be considered as such affirms our agency as human beings. Not to do so, however, cheapens every decision we make, which was inevitably born through some combination of analysis, tradition, and self-conception. By imputing our deeds to some simplified, generalized and trivialized motive that does nothing to acknowledge the reality of the struggle all of we finite creatures face in trying to navigate this massive and confusing world and everything to delegitimize the authenticity of that struggle, we devalue one another. And it hurts.

The Nerdwriter sums this sentiment up by citing his experience coming back to America after living in France for six months. On returning, many of his friends probed him with the question/statement, “French people don’t like Americans, right?”

His response, at 2:41 in the video linked above, is potent and eloquent. “To these people I answered invariably: Every man is his own man, every woman her own woman. Kind people like to be treated kindly, and French people who walk around with sad faces like to be asked, ‘What’s wrong?’”

Later, in what I think is his most probative insight in the vlog, he says that “every person is at all times going through something, and…it’s not right to judge to judge individuals based on groups if it is at any time right to judge individuals, period.”

This is, I think, a fundamental tenet of the moral life – to understand that the person who cuts us off on the commute to work, the boss who keeps pressuring us for deadlines, and the lensless glasses-wearing douche bag sporting a “Fuck the System” shirt produced in an Indonesian sweatshop under horrible conditions are all going through something. Sure, they’re confused, and hypocritical, and irritating, and chronically afraid of judgment by their peers, and probably a thousand other things that are neither flattering nor commendable. They have that in common with me, and with you, and with everyone else who has ever walked this earth.

One of Socrates’s claims to fame was his insistence that knowing what you do not know is as important as knowing many things. When I see a white guy dressed in coke bottle glasses and Miami Vice shorts riding a throwback bike around a college campus with his mustache blowing in the wind, I know that person is a white dude wearing nerdy glasses and short shorts with an old-fashioned bike and a mean ‘stache. I do not – I cannot, no matter how many people who dress like him I have met before – know what combination of social anxiety, nostalgia, self-delusion, personal preference, or privileged complacency put him in that place.

Like the Nerdwriter says, it’s a simple message, but an important one, and one that is difficult to heed when, like the overbearing boss, the aggressive driver and the trendy hipster, we find the people we are judging especially irritating.

But we need to remember. Because if we remember we can look past our irritation and empathize. And we need to empathize because it helps us understand one another. And understanding increases our capacity to love.

And love is what makes this world a place worth living in.

***Note: Davis and Washington do not actually use the word “hipster” in their slam, but the description coincides with the general hipster image perfectly enough for bloggers sharing their video to dub its message a “takedown of hipster racism.” While the performers are not explicitly referring to hipsters, then, they are still perpetuating the stereotype by generalizing and simplifying, which always has the net effect of trivializing the individual. To those of you who argue that it’s a slam and should be allowed more leeway for dramatic effect, I totally agree — I have no problem with it in this limited context when used for entertainment / comedic effect. However, I included the slam in this blog post because it was the catalyst for my thoughts on hipsterism and a good illustration of the extent to which stereotyping is  commonplace in our society despite all of us being against social stereotypes. For that reason I’ve kept it in the blog.

1 – Mustachioed hipster image above taken from Technology Uninhibited at http://technologyuninhibited.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/instagram-and-the-mainstreaming-of-hipster-culture/

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