The narrative of inauthenticity
I post occasionally about this hipster-bashing phenomenon because it fascinates me, and I’m trying to work out why in my head. Invariably, when I do, the comment thread takes two directions: 1) Semantics arguments which interest me not in the slightest and 2) Defenses of hipster-bashing that are a form of hipster-bashing. Thanks to this last one, I think I have a much better idea of why this fascinates me and why I think it’s relevant to politics, something I was stabbing at when I said hipster-bashing is something that has become a conservative trope. (And if you don’t believe me, I invite you to read my email or replies to me in comment threads/Twitter elsewhere.) By examining this question, I’m not trying to shame anyone or take away the pleasure they find in taking swipes at someone for wearing a vintage T-shirt with skinny jeans (at least, I’m not in this post). I’m just interested in how narratives build and expand on one another in our culture.
Let’s take the defense of hipster-bashing in two parts: 1) Hipsters are bad people and 2) I have a right because I’m more authentic than they are.
The reasons given for making hipsters an acceptable target were that hipsters are smug, superior, and you can tell they’re very wealthy and have trust funds because of their cheap beer, thrift store clothes and lack of other markers of mainstream middle class success, such as home ownership and expensive cars. (This argument never fails to amuse me. Are there some people with wealth who choose to live this way? Yes. Did this culture evolve because most people in it have money to burn? Is it true that high fashion steals ideas from street fashion and sells it back to the public at a premium? Yes. Is it true that the people who originate the fashions that are stolen are responsible for this? I’m skeptical.) The most important quality hipsters are claimed to have is inauthenticity. They are claimed to only pursue certain pleasures to prove something, and not because they actually derive pleasure from it, and to be overly concerned with opinions of others who are also inauthentic. The hipster love of irony is invoked as proof of this inauthenticity. If you say, as I repeatedly did, that in my experience, people I know (and myself) experience intrinsic pleasure from going to shows, wearing certain fashions, listening to certain music, or even vinyl-collecting, the No True Scotsman fallacy is invoked—that said people cannot be hipsters. An entire subculture is defined by those few in it who do exhibit this negative quality of being a poseur.
On the second tip, the reasons given for hipster-bashing centered around claims to authenticity. The basher is more authentic because he/she is more in the mainstream of society (lives in the suburbs, doesn’t buy music anymore, thinks irony is mean-spirited, etc.). In this case, not experiencing certain pleasures is invoked as proof of authenticity—the basher is superior to hipsters because he/she is raising a family, too busy at work to worry about that sort of stuff, or a grown-up who disdains that kind of obsessive pop culture collecting/creating. Or, conversely, they are more authentic because the tend to align with subcultures that are considered less cool and more geeky, which proves that they’re doing it for love and not popularity.
What I found interesting about this discussion is that it really does mirror perfectly the tribal warfare of wingnut America on the people they call the “liberal elite”. The liberal elite are described as secretly or not-so-secretly having more money than the wingnuts (even though, statistically speaking, Tea Partiers are far wealthier on average than liberals). They’re described as smug and superior. The No True Scotsman fallacy is out in full force, because people who are liberals but aren’t college-educated, middle class, living in a coastal city, or fans of lattes are basically ignored in this equation, or are described as being manipulated by the “liberal elite”. And above all, the “liberal elite” are accused of being inauthentic. Environmentalism, anti-racism, and even feminism are seen not as deeply held values of liberals, but as acts we put on to impress each other.
Conservatives then claim they deserve to engage in this bashing because they’re more authentic. They’re Real America. They try to prove this by claiming to work harder and play less, and they support laws (such as anti-choice laws or bans on pot-smoking) they see as punitive towards the “liberal elite” and all the pleasures they indulge, which makes them bad people. They are more mainstream, they claim, and this gives them authenticity. Or, conversely, they’re aligned with uncool subcultures such as evangelical Christianity, and this also makes them more authentic that the “liberal elite”.
What’s fascinating to me is that these narratives are so evocative in our culture, and the consequence of that is that the group being bashed as smug and elitist—hipsters, liberals—is assumed to be the ones that have to do the compromising and apologizing. The mainstream narrative in our culture is that hipsters have all these privileges of good taste and pleasure (which is impugned into money, though statistically, I’m guessing they’re no more or less middle class than their traditional bashers), and therefore they’re the ones who need to be taken down a peg, even though in the real world, the people bashed as “smug hipsters” are hardly exempt from being treated like shit for who they are, which is one reason they shun living in rural and suburban communities where they’ll be excluded and choose to live in urban areas where they can find people they get along with.
Interestingly, you see the same narrative with conservatives and liberals. After brow-beating liberals for supposedly being inauthentic and elitist, conservatives have successfully managed to get the mainstream media and the Democrats to accept the narrative that all compromise responsibilities belong to liberals. They’re the ones who have to give in. They’re the ones who have to make concessions. They’re “inauthentic” and not Real Americans, right? So why should Real Americans give them anything? Real Americans are oppressed by the liberal smugness, after all. So the liberals owe them.
There’s a real danger in this narrative, as you can see. I was uneasy with the talk of “poseurs” in the earlier thread, not because I think there aren’t poseurs in this world, but because the existence of them is being used to make broad accusations of inauthenticity. And I’m not really a believer in authenticity, honestly. It’s a rabbit hole that will swallow you alive, and you really see this in the conservative vs. liberal narrative that conservatives have promoted and the mainstream is not regurgitating. Liberals are just less American, even if they, like Barack Obama, were definitely and provably born on American soil. When they vote, there’s something fraudulent about it. When they win the presidency, they must have forged their birth certificates.
The narrative of authenticity has a strong grip on the American imagination. I fall for it all the time. But it’s seriously fucked as a concept, and we as a culture need to abandon it.