I was talking with a friend Sunday about some things that bother us about mainstream middle-class American culture. She was telling me about having to go to the home of a relative for holidays for years. Everyone was expected to buy expensive presents for everyone at Christmas.
She was describing her sister’s house, which had five bedrooms, five baths, work room, weight room, art room, pool, trampoline, built-in everything, eight televisions with eight cable boxes and a three-car garage.
It sounds like a really nice house, doesn’t it? So why was my friend bothered by it all? And why did the description sound so suffocating and sickening to me?
It was hard to put my finger on it, but I thought about it for much of the afternoon. I’ve thought about this issue before and I sometimes have trouble justifying the revulsion I feel for such things. I can try to justify my feelings in practical terms by talking about the waste of money and resources that go into such places, but the real answer goes much deeper than that. (Here’s another attempt I made about 18 months ago to answer the same question.)
Trying to understand why I feel this way is making it easier for me to understand why punks, goths, rappers and other “weirdos” of the world dress as they do and reject acting and looking like what we consider normal.
There are quite a number of things about modern life and mainstream culture that disgust me — things that make my skin crawl. When I look at the reasons, though, it’s not the cookie-cutter architecture or unimaginative design or cliched photographs on the walls that upset me. It’s what they represent about the people who choose them.
For me, choosing something other than what they choose is the most basic form of dissent from a culture that I find soul-crushing. And that’s what gave me a sudden understanding of and feeling of kinship with groups such as punks.
There are many of us who feel alienated from the mainstream culture. We don’t like the values that we see projected in media or from authority figures or in the things that the people around us focus on. As a result, we feel like aliens in the world.
For me, it’s not even a certainty that everyone else is wrong. It’s more the realization that whatever they are — whatever they choose to be, whatever they choose to value, whatever they choose to teach their children — feels wrong on some basic level. More precisely, it feels wrong for me.
When I drive through your suburban subdivisions, I see beautiful and expensive houses that feel as though they were squeezed out of tubes of cookie-cutter goo. They look alike. They feel alike. The families inside seem to look and think and act alike in many, many ways. I don’t understand the ways that those people act or think. They feel shallow, superficial and dead to me.
So when I’m confronted by things that remind me so much of this shallow culture, those things make my skin crawl. I come to see the things themselves as the things I hate, but they’re not really. The thing I really hate is feeling like an alien who’s all alone and wishing there were other aliens who I could join and feel not so alone.
I don’t want to become a punk or goth or rapper. I don’t want tattoos and piercings. I don’t want pink or green hair. Those cultures aren’t me. But the more I understand the way I feel, the more sympathy I have for the people of the cultures that I haven’t understood — cultures that I’ve sometimes looked down on and judged. They’re dressing as they are and talking as they are because it’s the only way they know to rebel against a mainstream culture where they don’t feel as though they belong. It’s their only way to feel that they fit somewhere.
You hear about people who are square pegs in round holes. Or round pegs in square holes. People who don’t quite fit, but can be forced into some place in life. It’s common. I feel as though the world is mostly made up of round pegs and square pegs — and every single one of them gets pounded into a round hole or a square hole. Sometimes the fit isn’t great, but if they pull out of there, there’s a better fit elsewhere.
I feel as though I’m a hexagonal peg in a world designed for round pegs and square pegs. It’s hard to find a place that fits, because I don’t fit into the mainstream round or square holes.
I imagine the people who end up looking and acting like freaks in alternative cultures feel a bit that way, too. I don’t want to go that route. I don’t want a Mohawk. I don’t want to dress in leather and chains. I don’t want to wear sad black makeup.
I just want someplace to fit. I just want somebody who’s just as hexagonal as I am to search for a fit with. And in the meantime, I’m going to hate the culture and homes and values and possessions of most people I know. It’s not really that I hate you or your culture or your homes.
It’s simply that you remind me that I don’t fit — and that makes me feel very much alone.