The previous post explored the relationship between economics, politics, and public culture as influential on generational thinking from the Great Depression to the free market democracy of today. This post will specifically address media and public criticism of Generation Y within the context of these structures.
If Generation Y is in any way different, it is that it we were not raised with memories of the welfare state which – for all the faults one could claim – embedded a sense of shared sacrifice and collective support for others in economics, politics, and society. We were instead raised with free market values that emphasised individual freedom, especially moral, ethical, and political decisions reduced to something akin to an individual consumer purchase only to be made individually within the marketplace. Certainly, my generation is more socially tolerant as a result of socially liberal identity activism as result historical progression. Without the economic security that welfare provided, certain myths arose to defend the free market: chief among them that ultimately merit and hard work would allow you to succeed and those who didn’t succeed aren’t trying hard enough.
The two prominent critiques of Generation Y from Part I argue within these myths of meritocracy and blaming others for failures. One was last year’s Huffington Post blog meme about Lucy the hapless Millennial, which touches on some truths about the negative side of positive reinforcement and unrealistic expectations, but reduces the roots of the generational unhappiness solely to overinflated ego and comparing yourself to others – ie individuals in isolation. The other critique was Adbusters Article ‘Hipster: The End of Western Civilisation’ argues that Generation Y cares for little but status through consumerism. “Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion.”
Adbusters singles out youth culture as defined by music tastes, fashion, political beliefs, and consumer choices, but rather strangely for a counter-culture magazine ignores that consumption and identity is embedded in every facet of economics, politics, and society. The article highlights punk fashion as a romantic ideal of previous generational DIY culture, but far more can be gained from exploring the evolution of this second hand fashion to the concept of vintage clothing stores. Op shopping was considered a 70’s punk statement against the traditional labels such as jock, skater, surfer, corporate, high fashion, or any other subcultural labels. As punk culture became romanticised as idealistic and political – by people like Adbusters – entrepeneurs likely of the Generation X age group used retro revival to transform anti-consumer culture into a marketable consumer label. This is no different to the Forrest Gump soundtrack or Time Life Best of the 60’s compilation infomercials as filling a gap with the growing romanticisation of the hippie movement. Similarly, the Huffington Post blog suggests that Lucy shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, yet this is what modern politics and economic structures incentivise us to do. Aspirationalism that means simply consumer and income gain in comparison to others, entrepeneurship that means to do whatever it takes in competition with other companies to succeed, and that your brand image matters to your success whether it reflects reality or not. The rise of Facebook and Instagram is not evidence of our generation’s selfishness but akin to brand management that likely arose from corporate or political party advertising as a response to increased consumer power. All try to convince everyone else that they’re edgy yet acceptable. The Obama-Cameron-Thorning-Schmidt Instagram selfie and John Key in his son’s Facebook planking photo were the ultimate convergence symbolic of societal values, not generational ones.
Unlike previous generations, Generation Y has far less security, more fixed term contracts, and more competition in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis probably hasn’t helped. Especially, the convergence of creativity and the free market through the “creative” industries such as advertising and writing have created both an ideal dream creative job that many in my generation idealise but also with limited places and lax labour laws can potentially encourage exploitation of that dream. Notably in advertising, writing, and politics, numerous people can attest to low to no pay and unpaid internships . Her need for introspection aside, Lucy’s probably working quite hard in an unpaid internship somewhere as a means to getting her foot through the door.
Claims of exceptionalism of our supposed selfishness, laziness, excesses, sexual morals, naivety, and apoliticalism is just an endless cycle repeated every 20 years or so. The names change: swing kids, greasers, hippies, punks, new romantics, ravers, and now hipsters. Even our dancing is no less scandalous; twerking is today’s jitterbug adjusted for inflation. Lucy’s sense of self-importance and shallow consumerism are issues of adolescence might be addressed by her own introspection sure, but that’s called growing older and is only half the job. Her alleged faults are equally reflected in every aspect of economics, politics, and culture. Generation snark and romanticising some past where people worked harder or were more aware or original just avoids important questions.
The other day, I came across the OK Cupid Juggalos Tumblr via Facebook then Buzzfeed. While reading the Buzzfeed comments section – snark akin to high school bullying – I questioned whether it would be acceptable if the Juggalos were solely African American. Juggalos – fans of the Detroit-based ‘horrorcore’ group the Insane Clown Posse – have combined hip hop culture with suburban White working class culture; Black meets redneck but almost entirely White. Watching the short documentary “American Juggalo”, filmed at the Gathering of the Juggalos Festival for Vice Music, I had feelings of admiration that these people – often from difficult backgrounds – had found a home, but also felt pity for their aesthetic.
We live in times where direct public bigotry is unacceptable. Any insinuation from politicians, celebrities, journalists, clergy, or public caught on camera phone is usually met with blanket media coverage and Facebook links followed by a pile-on of supporting comments. Society is not only more socially tolerant, there is an increased pressure to prove we’re not bigots. Buzzfeed is usually socially liberal, anti-Republican and an avid reporter of bigotry, yet their approach and reader response to Juggalos is indicative of acceptable intolerance of bad taste and, given the Juggalo context, trivialises class.
The concept of class – the acknowledgement of economic, social, and environmental limitations of many to access to the same opportunities available to those with more wealth – has disappeared from political lexicon unless preceded by the word ‘middle’. With the decline of a far more generous welfare state and the rise of a market economy during the 1980s, our economic, media, and political institutions have been imbued with notions of self-reliance and hard work as the only factors in life outcomes – in spite of evidence of increasing poverty and the resulting social impacts. Without class, the political left can only promote social liberal tolerance of racial, gender, and sexuality differences as the key to life outcomes, but that still leaves everyone regardless of race, gender, and sexuality dependent on self-reliance. Both market and social liberals accept poverty, low wages, and welfare are seen as ‘lifestyle choice’. The continued use of the term ‘middle class’ is indicative that we should have the same opportunities.
As a lifestyle choice, politicians, media and public alike regularly blames working class for social ills such as racism, violence, and public drunkenness. In the past year, the Australian media and public has taken to exposing racists rants on public transport filmed on camera-phone, often attributed to bogan racism. This attitude is similar to the 2005 Cronulla Riots.
Lifestyle choice transcends life outcome akin to consumer choice is the most important marker of social divides. All regardless of race, gender, and sexuality are judged by their decisions and tastes, hence the names bogan, chav, redneck or – universally – white trash. The advent of Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle, or Police 10-7/ Cops indicates the continued popularity of white trash bear-baiting – angry, drunk, badly dressed and poorly spoken people. Much of societal sympathy for poverty exists insofar as it ends their bad choices.Christian Lander, author of ‘Stuff White People Like’, reflects on his past guilt:
“So much of my life, I believed that people in these situations had no free will, like they shopped at Wal-Mart just because they have no choice. It was unbelievable, and I thought, “Oh, if only they had money and education, they could be just like me.”
We think solving poverty might save them from their bad choices without acknowledging their experiences – a self-important mindset akin to Kony 2012 or Live Aid. Australian author Christos Tsiolkas writes in the essay ‘The Toxicity of Smugness’ that a shallow attitude alienates working class people from participation in political life.
“… there is also something revealing about the evasions and fears of the bourgeois Left in the contempt for the ‘bogan’. A smug, easy term; again, it lets us off the hook, and it deflects us from the real work that needs to be done… The toxicity of progressive bourgeois smugness can be ascertained by how contemptuous is the language used to define the behaviour and expressions for working-class and welfare-class lives. The danger of this smugness is clear in how few working-class and welfare-class voices are given space to articulate an alternative Left politics to one founded either on identity politics or categories of morality”.
Common dislike exists for those working class who make good. ‘Cashed-up bogans’ in the suburban cul-de-sac McMansions with flat screen TVs and big cars are mocked for their ostentatiousness when they should be grateful for the welfare state instead of choosing consumerism and opulence. British Prime Minister David Cameron – whose breeding, Etonian and Oxbridge education, and posh accent fits the caricature of the comical conservative tyrant – contrasts with new money Chav celebrities like David and Victoria Beckham, Jordan, and Cheryl Cole. Over drunken party conversations, I’ve felt embarrassed when self-declared left wingers mock New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s Kiwi accent, pronunciation of the word “actually”, his modern mansion in Parnell, and his favourite film Johnny English. Politics aside, they mock them for not being as cultured and grateful as we are. Tsiolkas addresses this contradiction:
“The ‘cashed up bogan’ is condemned for wanting to live in a McMansion on the outskirts of the city. The ‘aspirationalists’ are castigated for wanting to send their children to a private school rather than the local high school. The worker stood down from a power plant in the Latrobe Valley is mocked as a ‘redneck’ for questioning the promises made by environmentalists about the creation of ‘green’ jobs. That condemnation often comes from progressives living in the unaffordable inner city; that castigation from former university radicals who do not recognise the cultural capital their children are privy to; and the mockery from people who have no first-hand knowledge of the humiliation that comes from receiving the dole in the age of ‘mutual obligation’”.
When criticising their consumerism and aspirationalism, we are denying comparison with our own lifestyles. What are Fair Trade coffee, organic veges, urban gentrification, Herschel bags, and HBO box sets but aspirations for certain ideal of culture, sophistication, and social status? But, we made the right choices.
The denial of class dehumanises and denies the working class a stake in addressing societal issues. Class has not disappeared but evolved. Owen Jones, author of the book ‘Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class’, claims:
“Instead of working in factories, mines and docks, most working-class people now earn their keep in call centres, supermarkets and offices. There are a million call centre workers: that’s as many as worked in pits at the peak of mining. A woman who works part-time in a supermarket is as good a symbol for working-class Britain as any… Denying class has proved all-too-convenient in ignoring the concerns of working-class people. We don’t talk about the fact that people from unskilled backgrounds are ten times more likely to be unemployed than professional people or that five million working-class people are languishing on social housing waiting lists. Nothing makes sense without class”.
However, media occasionally provides class satire, the best recent example being the Australian comedy Kath and Kim. Kath, Kim, Kel, Brett, and Sharon are cashed up bogans of the Melbourne suburban fringe mall culture, which translates for any metropolis in Australia or globally. We make fun of their pronunciation of “Kardonay” wine and mall culture, but the characters were created with love and we love them. It uses gift shop owners True and Prue to satirise old money – the Toorak crowd previously portrayed in Jane Riley, Janine Turner, and Madga Szubanski’s previous show Big Girls Blouse – as the other side of the same coin: consumer choice. Kath and Kim successfully portrays consumerism as the ultimate benchmark of modern social status, and we are all guilty of it.
To define the success by consumer choice trivialises societal ills as a matter of bad decisions rather than indicative of the structure of institutions. Though social liberalism has been good, without class it’s as useful as a one-oared rowboat. Tolerance only works insofar as it supports those with attributes that can’t change, but to deny the same for class trivialises poverty. Only class and social liberalism together can engender real tolerance.
Auckland businessman/ village idiot David Ruck founded the Pakeha Party Facebook page as a forum to claim Maori have too many special rights or magic powers or something, inner city Auckland Facebook has fallen into two straight days of harrumphing and guffawing about it, and One News produced a story on it. Why are we talking about this?
My attitude towards racists/ sexists/ homophobes/ other bigots, or shallow minded/ sheepishly ideological people saying exactly what we would expect them to say is meh. Blogs, social media, and the internet in general has given the uninformed a greater forum than ever to broadcast bilge. Facebook liberalism has risen as a reaction to all forms of intolerance, which entails posting an article about some relatively minor slight by some populist and waiting for people to like and/ or snark. It treats any bigotry, no matter how irrelevant, as a major threat to social harmony, that must be snarked or tutted into submission. That 30,000 people clicked ‘Like’ proves there are about 30,000 people in New Zealand who are not too lazy to tentatively approve of a mild, populist, shallow myth fueled by a feeling of powerlessness – that some people are getting something we’re not. This doesn’t extend to putting on black uniforms and marching on Parliament, resulting in the banning of Fair Trade lattes, heritage buildings, and sodomy. Similar things could be said for many left wing causes that stand in simplistic opposition against as opposed to ongoing, deep, rich, coherent narrative of what they’re for. The Pakeha Party and the opposition meet our need to know that people agree with our occasional or all-consuming siege mentality that we’re outnumbered by people who disagree with us, or project our desire for people to know how progressive/ hard done/ offended by we feel. “I’m John Gutsful and I hate racism/ privilege. I need as many people to know that I think this as possible”.
Speaking as gay, half Chinese, inner city suburbanite, I don’t have the energy to get angry every time a Christian motel owner denies a gay couple joint accommodation, at every Winston Peters speech about immigrants, or when a boorish talkback host says or writes something without thinking like….. every talkback show host does daily. Those who break the law can be taken to court, and the rest laughed at. Society will always have village idiots who constantly commit the social or political equivalents of pissing on electric fences, gaining carnal knowledge of sows, and shooting duck hunters in the forest. Not having people like Pauline Hanson, Michael Laws, or Sarah Palin would deny us the light entertainment we deserve or can willfully ignore. Humour, not outrage, is the best way of disarming simplistic ideas and their key backers. This quick clip from the Bugle Podcast on anti-immigration politics in France provides an excellent example of how to take down populists.
Obsessive outrage and finger wagging over small things allows for those in power, both left and right, in politics and business, people and structures, to avoid proper scrutiny. Those who have teams of PR and communications staffers, and speechwriters to craft their message and espouse sweet nothings to make us feel at ease while they often use it to hurt those with less power and improve the power of the most powerful. In Australia, we pay way too much attention to racism on public transport and absent-minded 12 year olds at AFL matches, and not enough to Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd, who actually propose or practice about real human rights violations with asylum seekers but say it nicely.
I appreciate and love my peers for their beliefs. They’re my friends, neighbours, and colleagues: I know you’re cool with who I am as I am of you, that’s why we’re all mates. No need to prove yourselves as tolerant. For all the emphasis we place on intolerance of intolerance, our discourse contains a massive lack of empathy. Speaking for my peer group, I’ve been uncomfortable with a snarky, favourite pastime is poking fun at rednecks and bogans. Those people poorer than us who we claim to care about. For all the internet trolling, most people are generally open to an open conversation and debate in person. I’ve had colleagues in offices and student jobs alike whose views I’ve often felt uncomfortable with, knowing they would be the sort of people who would like the Pakeha Party but you can have an honest debate that doesn’t indulge in name-calling and Facebook or blog trolling. There are some it will never work with, and deserve to be tried if real harm has been caused, but real progressive social change in happens slowly through a battle for hearts and minds, not through self-congratulations and trolling.