Grant: So, um, what would you call yourself?
Respondent: I’m a punk, a crusty punk.
Grant: [long pause] Er, so what’s a crusty punk?
Respondent [sneering]: It means I don’t bathe much.
Grant: [long pause]: So… like… [long pause] I see.
In the early 1980s, I was doing ethnographic interviews with Punks in Toronto. The video tape was funny to watch afterwards. You can’t see me on the tape but you can hear the discomfort in my voice off camera. I was out of my depth. I didn’t know where to start the interview or what to ask. More embarrassingly, it’s clear I was quietly terrified. Terrified and clueless, the anthropologist’s best moment.
I was thinking about punks the other day when blogging about the "society of strangers."
The society of strangers says we don’t have to know the people around us to live with them. We don’t have to have to be bound to them by "trust neworks."
Punks go right after this. They present us with someone who looks threatening. Those mohawks, tattoos, safety pins, ripped clothing, black leather jackets send a message. (I still have a leather jacket from the exhibit we did at the Royal Ontario Museum. The back reads: "Help the Police, Beat yerself up." No, I don’t wear it.)
Our reaction: "how nervous should I be?" "What order of threat is this?" The punk finds a way to say, "if I am prepared to disregard my own comforts and niceties, can I be relied upon to respect yours?" The logic of the (pre-1990s) tattoo was even clearer: "if I am prepared to inflict this act of violence upon myself, think do you think what I am prepared to do to you?"
The deeper cultural logic was still clearer. By breaking the "soft rules" of civil life (social conventions), Punks signaled the possibility they might be prepared to break the "hard rules"of civil life (the ones defined and enforced by law). (I am setting aside the larger cultural and political messages of punk.)
Punks are, in other words, a test of the limits of a society of strangers. They introduce a very strange stranger, one who gives us pause. (Finally, this was more agitprop theater than reality. For all their talk of anarchy, most punks weren’t very anarchic. Conventionally dressed soccer hooligans are much more dangerous.)
Punks were a test of whether we meant what we said. Did people have the liberty to define themselves as they wanted to, or not? In the period following World War II, we were, in a sense, cheating. The forces of convention were still so powerful that the society of strangers wasn’t very strange at all. Most people could read most people pretty well. Most marginal groups were marginal, driven by stigma and exclusion from the mainstream. In effect, we had were a pluralist society that permitted freedom but had not yet had to contend with freedom. We were living a lie. (No cliché is unwelcome in this blog. We are inclusive here too.)
Then marginal cultures began to demand a new voice and profile…and now the test was on. As someone who came of age in the 1960s, I remember how long hair was received. It was customary for people to react badly, sometimes insisting, in a classic Douglasian moment, that they were witnessing a confusion of gender categories and that the wearer "must be a girl." (I remember Rodney Graham one summer in Banff threatening to remove his pants to answer the challenge.)
The test has continued. As marginal groups have insisted on a more visible place in the mainstream, we found ourselves with stranger strangers. At first, we reacted badly. The various youth cultures, lesbians, gays, all took a good deal of grief and, sometimes, acts of violence. (As of course some still do.)
Then came a relative rapprochement. As a collectivity, we discovered that these "differences" weren’t so different. Punks might look threatening, but eventually they became merely one more part of the urban landscape. Most people discovered the wisdom, or at least the usefulness, of the New Yorkers standard response to the blooming variety of that urban setting: "Whatever, buddy. Do what you wanna. Just don’t ask me to like it." Now we could go back to business as usual. Benign neglect was the order of the day. It might be better to call this, in the New York style, "disgruntled neglect."
And this is why the Protestant Right has responded so ferociously to gay marriage. Now a marginal group was asking not just for neglect but for inclusion in the very institution that the Protestant church had made the sacred moral ground of the family. Gay marriage violated the "disgruntled neglect" rule. In my opinion, it is entitled to do so. Let us keep an eye on this test of our inclusiveness.
But for the rest of us, disgruntled neglect remains the order of the day. Except when it provokes the sensitivities of a particular group, difference is tolerated. We discovered that the society of strangers could expand very considerably…and that was ok.
The post on plastic surgery (4 posts ago) suggests that we may have new differences on the way. An encounter with the lion-like Bride of Wildenstein in a New York restaurant would almost certainly give me pause (paws?).
But I’d get over it. Because, 25 years after my first face-to-face encounter with a crusty punk, I know the society of strangers can encompass even this. It’s a good thing I finally got the news. Because the real difference engine isn’t a computer, it’s a culture, our culture.
Douglas, Mary Tew. 1966. Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Leblanc, Lauraine. 1999. Pretty in punk: Girls’ gender resistance in a boys’ subculture. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.
McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain. 1996? Please Kill Me: The uncensored oral history of punk. New York: Grove Press.
Pray, Doug (Producer). 1997. Hype. CFP Video.
Savage, Jon. 1991. England’s dreaming: Sex Pistols and punk rock. London: Faber and Faber.