Few concepts make us as cruel, arrogant, fickle, nasty and stupid as ‘Coolness’.
At the moment, if you’re a man, being ‘Cool’ seems to mean a combination of dressing like you live in the woods and pretending that you live in the 1890’s. Beards, bow ties and braces. Oh, but throw in some badly fitting trousers and cover your arm in tattoos while you’re at it. You’re either in a band, know someone in a band or ‘used to be in a band’. You smoke, you have a vaguely nihilistic outlook, a tortured past you don’t like to talk about and self-satisfied concern for ‘the environment’. All the while you’re hanging out at coffee shops, apple stores and quirky music venues trying to catch the eye of any girl vapid enough to compliment you on ‘your ink’. If you follow any of these trends I forgive you…but everything in my being tells me that I shouldn’t.
(Image courtesy of taesmileland at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
As you can see, talking about ‘Coolness’ turns me into a person I don’t like either. Why should I care what other people value or prefer to wear, do with their facial hair or talk about?
Where does it come from and why do we do it?
Well, there’s a theory that fashion and ‘Coolness’ are a kind of mating language that human beings have evolved. If you can keep pace with trends and notice the subtle changes in the things that other people like and value then you’re probably good at other things (like power, politics, social-climbing and brokering the big decisions that affect the group). In short, having and attracting ‘cool’ friends and partners increases your chances of survival. Get Cool, get popular, get loved, get laid. It supposedly also increases the chances of your kids survival, which would explain why it’s not just teenagers who care what their mates think.
The problem is: the language isn’t real. In order to stay useful fashion has to change constantly. Otherwise the ‘normo’s’ would all work out what was ‘on trend’ and it would cease to sort the wheat from the chaff.
We’ve all met people who so overrate this obsession with ‘Coolness’ that it makes them look ridiculous. Modern culture calls these people ‘hipsters’. Yet by lumping them all in a group and ourselves in a group defined by not being one of them, we fall into exactly the same trap. Being ‘alternative’ seems to be a modern expression of rebelling against what is popular. Yet this usually amounts to gathering together with a group of people who share the same views, prejudices and values to make themselves feel special at the expense of those that don’t.
Personally, I’ve been judged with just the same disapproval for turning up to a club and not being dressed all in black as I have for not wearing a crisp smart shirt and shiny shoes a mere hundred yards away.
So either everything is ‘Cool’, or nothing is.
But what does it mean: to be cool, to be hip, to be fly? Even at the simple use of these words I disqualify myself.
Well, when I typed it into Google, looking for free stock images, here’s what I found:
‘Man who is disproportionately excited about Tablet’,
‘Woman dressed as 8-year-old Girl’,
‘Young Man thinking Something’ (genuine title), which was slightly more convincing…
…but mainly, lots and lots of pictures of this guy:
(Images courtesy of Stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Persuaded, but not yet convinced, I’ll venture a slightly different guess.
Love, unity and a sense of togetherness is again and again sold to us as the righteous dividend of being part of the right club. But this abstract love, from a mystical set of others that we never get to know by name, is conditional; it taxes us for membership. ‘Cool’ is like a pyramid scheme and if you didn’t get in on the ground floor (like ‘Young Man thinking Something’) it can leave you feeling rather short-changed.
Let’s try a thought experiment.
You might like a particular band and that might make you feel a sense of membership and importance for doing so. You go to gigs and stand next to strangers that like them too. You hear their songs on national radio. You play them in the car, on your iPhone when you exercise and at home while you’re doing the ironing. It makes you feel good, like you belong to something, like your preference draws you closer to something grand and important than other people get to stand. But none of this is real. You spend most of your time with a few dozen people, most of whom you don’t talk to on a daily basis. Some might like the band, some may not. The truth is: you might not be that fussed about them deep down either. But you use it as social currency; it’s part of the get-to-know-you spiel you use on strangers, it makes it into your dating profile. Consciously or not, you put it down on a tiny superficial list as one of the defining characteristics of your identity and you accept it as a reference point for how to gauge others: of whether he or she is ‘in’ or not.
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Now think about every song, film, TV show, item of clothing, car, job, holiday, sporting event or music festival you’ve ever spent money or time on and you might start to see the scale of what I’m talking about.
It’s like we’re all playing a game that no one is supposed to acknowledge exists for the fear that other people might notice that they’re playing it. As if the ultimate goal in life were to convince the world that by total accident you were the most fun, interesting and sophisticated person ever born without ever having to try. Yet strip away all the bullshit: the clothes, the preferences and the name-dropping and what would be left? Character, personality, experience or the total lack of all three.
It takes time to develop these things, to measure them in others and to find out how to express them for ourselves. And just because the speed and brevity of interaction in modern life makes these things more challenging it doesn’t make the value of them go away.
When your choices are too governed by what is considered ‘Cool’ then it stifles you. It hampers your desires, it weakens your autonomy and cramps your style. Your best moments, when you risk being weird by talking or acting from the heart are lessened. The creativity and genius that occasionally brightens even the mind of an idiot only gains expression through the risk of disapproval.
What we might do if we weren’t afraid to fail…
…Which really means: the things we might achieve if we gave less of a shit about the ignorance of others.
Fear of the mob bullies us into submission in a thousand different ways. Yet for most of us, we also occasionally gain a buzz; a spike of sweet rewarding dopamine as we ride atop the popular wave. Oh to be one of the chosen ones.
(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Fascist regimes differ in form, size and impact through history but their basic tenet is the same: ‘we’ are inherently superior to ‘them’ and we should therefore treat each other differently to how we treat ‘the others’. That’s how genocide happens.
It’s one of the common jokes about the internet: that sooner or later someone will compare the person that they disagree with to Hitler or the Nazis. But the origin of intolerance is just that: an unwillingness to accept that those who have different values are not inferior. Tolerance though is a nice idea that becomes meaningless unless we have the personal strength to fight for it.
The history of the human race is one of a species becoming tribes, tribes becoming nations, nations becoming empires and empires becoming economic blocs. Groups of us have always pushed and pulled to get more of what we want at the expense of other groups. What allows us to be nice to each other whilst, frankly, being less nice to other groups of people, is our sense of ‘tribe’: an evolved instinct to have special loyalty to one set of people over all of the others.
There’s a difference though between the practical concern of you caring more about keeping your friends and family alive and happy, and the false sense of superiority used to shore up your status: the petty source of power we get from winning social points.
But I’m at risk of wandering off here and political action is not the subject or the basis of this blog. Policies don’t make culture and culture doesn’t force us to make bad choices. And it is individual choice, at the risk of insulting the intelligence of the reader, that governs the only direct control we have over our lives.
‘The media’ is blamed for all sorts of things nowadays. We use this strange word called ‘socialisation’, akin to some kind of black magic; a spell that is cast upon us that makes us do bad things without the slightest self-control. It makes us violent, lazy, obese, ignorant, dangerous and a whole load of other things I don’t have time to mention. But what does it really mean on an individual level, in reality, to people like you and me?
Basically, it amounts to the punishment and reward that the collection of people around us apply to our behaviour. If people disapprove of what we wear they give us dirty looks, make comments under their breath or crack jokes to their friends behind our backs. Occasionally it goes further than this and the wrong outfit in the wrong part of town can get your head kicked in.
These consequences can be real and we all have to make concessions to the demands that the mob puts on us. If you don’t take showers, limit nudity to special occasions and go to the toilet in the holes provided then socially you’re pretty much done for.
But for the most part, a lot of the disapproval we fear is empty; there’s nothing to fear and there’s no real comeback.
Our emotions and primal instincts work much like a smoke alarm: just because the alarm goes off doesn’t mean that the house is burning down or that everyone is about to die; sometimes it just means you’ve burned the toast.
Do I think that Morrissey can sing? No.
Was every episode of Breaking Bad a riveting masterpiece in my opinion? No.
Does Kanye West’s arrogance and pretension outweigh the brilliance of many of his lyrics? For me, yes.
Did I enjoy every moment of standing in the mud, bursting for the toilet, struggling to stay awake at Glastonbury? No, the bits between the music where you’re sober are sometimes boring and unpleasant.
You might agree with me here or you might not, I don’t particularly care. Not because I’m insensitive but because if you feel a sense of displeasure at reading an opinion that you don’t agree with then that’s your ‘cool-alarm’ going off and your problem to deal with.
In my opinion, ‘having things in common’ is somewhat overrated. Here’s an idea: how about we start with about 99.99% of our DNA?
A person is more than the sum of their preferences and the chances are that when we aren’t ‘trying to fit in’ while ‘trying to be different’ there will still be more than enough crossover to get along with one another. Yet to feel unburdened from this load we have to believe that our differences can be interesting and healthy rather than dangerous and damaging.
Modern life polarises us. If we choose to, we are free to only spend time with people who are like us, agree with us and validate us. As if the destination of a life well-lived were to end up as part of one big circle-jerk.
Yet the truth is the opposite. A group or society that can accept and embrace disagreement and differences will be more successful than one that can’t.
There’s a fancy concept called ‘requisite variety’ that explains this pretty well. What it basically amounts to is that in any environment, whoever or whatever has the most options (the greatest variety) has the most control over that environment. In other words, the more diverse the strengths are of a group of people, the better their chances of being able to cope with the different problems and challenges that they face.
On a football team you don’t just want big strong players or small skillful ones. It is the combination and diversity of different strengths and abilities that will allow you to adapt to the different opposition that you play against. Sometimes brute force stops an attack or breaks down a defence. Sometimes is it guile, subtlety and skill that does the same. Too many players of the same type leaves you vulnerable. Just ask any Arsenal fan.
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What makes you different makes you strong and it makes you weak, depending on the situation. The alternative though, is constant mediocrity.
The price of chasing ‘Coolness’ can be enormous. People make stupid choices, working against their own happiness, in order to gain a weak sense of connection and acceptance by people who have no real emotional or physical investment in their well-being. In other words, they get a crappy return on their investment of time, money and sacrifice.
If you can liberate yourself from the notion that there is some sort of invisible league table, where your worth or closeness to the centre of things is somehow judged by an objective measure, then it opens up a whole new world of possibility.
If you can conquer this part of yourself, then suddenly hours of every day, hundreds if not thousands of pounds every year and a massive chunk of decisions made in your life will be back under your control.
(Image courtesy of Stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
The respect you show for people will be real instead of forced, the time and effort wasted on the irritation that others disagree will suddenly be returned.
You can pursue goals that other people don’t approve of while the power they have to keep you in line or make you play by someone else’s rules (especially ones that profit them and punish you) will quickly disappear.
‘Caring what others think’ is a prison when those people don’t care about you. Caring is a verb; an action and when there’s no physical proof that the price of membership is yielding just rewards then it’s probably time that you cancelled your subscription.
That freedom is arguably the greatest single untapped benefit of living in the modern western world. What gives you that choice though is destroying a myth and accepting a fact:
There’s no such thing as ‘Cool’, and what you or I or anyone else prefers is not a democracy.