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Alternative Culture Articles

February 3, 2002

Influencing the Mainstream
by Royce Carlson

I read a letter recently by a journalist who was writing to those who organize progressive political actions, etc. His take was that, in order to influence the mainstream, one must dress and act in the same way as the mainstream. No dreadlocks or rainbow tie-dyed shirts - that will turn the mainstream folks off and they wonít listen. 

One should wear a suit and be free of tattoos, piercings, and facial hair. One should use the language of the mainstream and stay away from words like radical, progressive, left, revolution, anarchy, etc. This is one approach, the "act-like-an-insider" approach to changing peopleís minds. I adopted this approach at one time and even registered as a Republican to render myself credible in my mostly-Republican community.

A second approach is to be as "out-there" as you want to. Who gives a shit what the mainstream thinks and believes? Just be true to your inner self and act the way you want to act. If you want to wear purple hair and tattoo your forehead, go ahead! Get up on a soapbox and rave about mind-control - itís O.K. If you play to the mainstream, you perpetuate it rather than change it.

In order to assess these two approaches, it might be useful to take a look at what creates culture and why the mainstream is the way it is.

There is no person, or group that decides for all of us what mainstream culture is. It is the cumulative behavior of millions of individuals making their own choices. This gives the appearance of a cohesive, definable culture, but it is really created by all of us individually via our behavior. This means that each person within a culture has an influence on what it is and what it will be.

The human psyche has two conflicting motivations that influence our behavior relative to the behavior of those around us. Psychological studies show that, while people want to feel like they belong to society (or a part of society), they also want to feel like they are special or unique in some way. The advertising industry knows these principles well and uses them to sell stuff to us. This is why you see ads that tell you that you can stand out by buying their product. If you buy the latest hot item you can show everyone that you are a unique individual and, by doing so, join with all the other people who are cool just like you. Itís proven to be an effective strategy.

Peer pressure influences our desire to belong and causes most people to modify their behavior in order not to have this pressure brought to bear upon themselves. Because of this, mainstream behavior is practiced not only by people to whom it comes naturally, but is also practiced by millions of people trying to fit in, against their own inner direction. This creates a sort of artificial situation in culture. If people everywhere were truer to themselves, the culture would be different. It wouldnít be such an apparently monolithic thing.

Human behavior is very changeable. For example, I have a party each year called "The Tribal Celebration." A few dozen people go out to a place in the woods, paint themselves up and dress "tribal." Sometimes new friends will come and, not being comfortable in costume, show up in their city clothes. Pretty soon they start feeling uncomfortable and say things like, "Well, maybe you could put a little paint on me." Within a few hours they end up looking pretty wild. Why? They want to fit in. The cultural context has changed and they are ready to adapt. This can happen anywhere and it can happen fast.

One does not have to ignore the desire to belong in order to follow your own path. The fact is, no matter how weird or different you think you are, there are probably other people out there that think like you and can relate to you. There is, very likely, a group to which you can feel that you belong. Rather than fit yourself into the box your family and local environment makes for you, be the person you want to be and then find kindred spirits. They are out there.

It takes all kinds of people to make a world and both approaches to changing culture are valid and valuable. There is a valuable service to be rendered by those who are called to express progressive ideas so that mainstream people are more likely to understand and adopt them. They can bridge a communication gap between those who are exploring the edges of cultural evolution and those who prefer to stay away from the edge.

There is also a place for the flaming weirdo. The people who are trying new ways of living and being are adventurers exploring the possibilities of human behavior. Some of them will discover things that will be of great benefit to society.

What it boils down to is this: Donít let mainstream society dictate how you shall be and donít let a sub-culture do it either. The duty of the individual is to follow his/her own internal direction. This is how culture changes and how mainstream behavior shifts. The approach you take should be the one dictated by your own heart.


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Royce Carlson