Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Do Sub-Cultures Dislike Luke-Warm Adherents

It's a sad time for sub-cultures in the developed world. Why? Many subcultures, particularly those with mostly young folks (and who else will go out of their way to spend money and effort and incur opportunity cost to signal their identity this way?) have traditionally relied on either seeming a little threatening, or being obscure. The internet has made that very difficult, and those kinds of subcultures have failed to remain coherent, because they have more difficulty preserving an us-and-them divide.

But people do genuinely differ in their talents and tastes and shared experiences, so SOME subcultures remain. And one that fascinates me is Burning Man, which I've written about before. I went to Burning Man once, in 2000. It was fun and a really interesting experience, but I don't see the reason to do it again; and partly too, the art legitimately impressed me, and I don't want to go back without contributing, and even if I had the talent I don't have the time to make something. But here's the interesting part. From self-described Burners who I meet casually (i.e., people who are not already friends), I've gotten some pretty thinly-veiled hostility at my casual attitude. The only way I can make sense of this is that here's something that forms a big part of their identity, and partly what they like is the specialness of it - not everyone is a Burner after all - and here I come in effect saying, it was fun, but I was able to partake, not be fundamentally changed by it, and not return, out of insufficient excitement, rather than outright rejection. (As a patriotic San Francisco adoptee, I have a little bit of the same reaction when someone visits San Francisco from elsewhere in the country and is unimpressed.)

This observation can likely be applied much more generally, but what makes me post about these occasional conversations with annoyed Burners is that part of what does seem so great about something like Burning Man is exactly the voluntariness of it; you want to go, great. You don't want to go, great. But that's not the way this attitude makes me feel and I imagine I'm not alone in that. It would be one thing if people shrugged and said, "Ih, it's not your cup of tea" but in several cases the comments have been more judgmental. Once you go, you apparently have to profess your love indefinitely. So much for voluntariness!

It could also be that there's a certain status associated with being a Burner, and when you're in contact with someone but don't play their status game, there are two ways to go: ignorance and conscious rejection. Ignorance is the clueless foreigner who has different status-determination rules. A proud Mercedes owner doesn't mind that said foreigner is not impressed with his Mercedes, because the foreigner doesn't "know any better", and therefore doesn't count. Much worse is the smartass that says "A Mercedes really isn't that great" or even worse, "I don't care what kind of car you drive." That boils down to, "Yes, I recognize that you value your car (or Burning Man experiences and friendships) highly, but to your face I'm telling you that not only am I not impressed, but I think you have poor values and have made a bad choice about how to measure yourself."

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