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Nonconformity as the Norm/Berkeley & San Francisco
by Christian Ghasarian/ Le Monde Diplomatique/August 2007
Nobody notices what you choose to look like on the campus of the University of California/Berkeley or in the city of San Francisco. The wildest excesses of appearance and behaviour pass unremarked, because they've been standardised as acceptable local behaviour - provided they're practised by white middle class Americans of course.
A mother strolls past pushing her child in a wooden box on wheels. The 'roar man,' as the locals call him, muscular and longhaired, beats his bare chest and bellows like Tarzan. A homeless man sits on an upturned plastic bucket and argues with evangelical preachers. This is the campus of Berkeley, home of the 1964 Free Speech Movement - student protests with international repercussions - where being different is the norm. There are stickers on cars and walls: "Why be normal?" and "Question reality!"
Americans view San Francisco, and more especially Berkeley, as unconventional places in which the strangest behaviour is routine. The university town is often known as "Berserkley" because of the unease it inspires. Conservative America regards San Francisco and Berkeley as a nonconformist, sinful and decadent Babylon.
But the stereotype views of the city that invented modern artistic protest (San Francisco) and the old bastion of political radicalism (Berkeley) tell us more about those who hold those views than about the places they describe. What gets forgotten is that the creation of difference in the other "America" is part of a consensual social game and merely expresses the individualistic values that dominate American culture, even if they are not those espoused by most Americans.
The US anthropologist Ralph Linton wrote an article "100% American" (1) some 50 years ago, in which he described an average day and pointed out that everything Mr Average American did or used during that day had been borrowed from other cultures. This is true of the experimental physical representation of self in San Francisco and Berkeley today. Distinctive appearance is the local norm, although it is encouraged more in some parts of those cities.
Telegraph Avenue leads to the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Off the avenue is the People's Park, centre of the 1960s protest movement. The last four houses on the avenue are the backdrop for displays of individual nonconformism. At the beginning of term a few years ago, a student decided to attend classes naked but for his backpack. Winters are relatively mild in the area, and come November, he put on a T-shirt and later a sweater, but continued to attend classes naked from the waist down.
Most of the teaching staff ignored him but he became an embarrassment and was politely but firmly asked to cover his genitals. He refused and for several weeks continued to attend classes nude, invoking his right to free speech laid down in the First Amendment - constantly referred to in the Bay Area. After a warning he was suspended from class and won wide support, and not only from students. Free Naked Protests were held in the streets, reminiscent of the Free Speech Movement. These demonstrations were possible because they were in areas of Berkeley where protests have always happened. Outside those areas, with their progressive inhabitants and indifference to protest, demos would have been harder to stage and would have got reactions from passers-by.
The body as work of art
As Michel Foucault once pointed out, western societies regard the body as a work of art and the main tool of individual expression. That is the spirit behind an experiment over the past 20 years: the Burning Man Festival, which was started by a group of San Francisco artists. The annual event now attracts thousands from the Bay Area who gather for a week in the Nevada Desert to demonstrate difference through disguise, body paint and expressive nudity.
This festival of difference is open to all, and more than 25,000 people co-organise this protest against consumerism. Each participant stages an unconventional display as a gift to the community. The organisers' slogan is "No spectators, everybody a participant". The expression of difference is the consensus; surprise and astonishment are institutionalised. This rite of intensification is a larger-than life expression of everyday reality of certain areas of San Francisco and Berkeley.
A social consensus is necessary to express differences without negative consequences or danger to self. That explains why difference attracts difference. There's a standard saying that if you shake a map of the US "all the nuts roll towards San Francisco". The gay community first became important there, while artists and people in search of freedom of expression have been drawn there since the 1960s.
Many postgraduates have settled in the Bay Area. Because of their numbers, they are unable to find the jobs and salaries they might expect elsewhere and struggle to fund homes. Nevertheless they feel that the intensity of local life, with its many cultural activities, constitutes a rich social universe that they would not find elsewhere. As a member of the Hare Krishna movement explained, he chose to live in Berkeley because of the good vibes.
But such dedication to difference can lead to indifference. A look at Berkeley High School students reveals that an expression of difference may turn into an expression of banality, in which the environment plays a key part. The family has an important role in establishing a cultural model, but society, and even more so affinity groups, have a part in socialisation. Adolescents often attempt to differentiate themselves from society and their parents, but in Berkeley they are merely fledgling adults-of-difference. Their peculiar trousers, their artfully designed rags and crazy coloured hair are not eccentric. Just standard for the vicinity.
Indifference to difference
When nonconformism becomes the norm, underlying individualismappears paradoxical, whether based on a profit-making, rationale or not. In San Francisco, the efforts to which people go to distinguish themselves are part of a value system shared by peers and based on difference. In places where expressions of difference are everywhere, who notices them? Indifference to difference becomes a behavioural norm. In Berkeley the only people surprised at the appearance of passers-by are outsiders, foreign or American. And the only ones to laugh openly are tourists. If those tourists hung around longer, they would understand their laughter to be ethnocentric.
Can an institutionalised counterculture still be considered a counterculture? Current social diversification is characterised by mixed genres and an inability to categorise actions as normal or deviant, conformist or avant-garde. The differences of the white middle class - clothes, hair, or mandarin-length nails - must be distinguished from the differences of the many homeless people who look that way because they have no money, or the style of the blacks in nearby Oakland, cradle of the Black Panther movement.
There the high murder rate is the result of underlying economic and social unease. Even if there is a quiet anti-capitalistic aspect to the search for difference, there is an abyss between the social game of asserting individualism, which confers a feeling of intensified existence, and the suffering generated by the differences that result from inequality and discrimination.
In a social universe that produces people who are autonomous and responsible but isolated, institutionalised difference leads to astonishment fatigue, after which less attention is paid to others. To judge others, whether in admiration or condemnation, is still to consider them. Not judging may be perceived as a lack of interest. Individualistic values determine the generalisation of difference and indifference. Nicknaming somebody who, in order to distinguish himself, protests until he becomes a known social being in an anonymous urban space, does serve the need to affirm self. But it also allows users of that space to categorise that dissident in an obvious and relatively indifferent way.
San Francisco and Berkeley may be laboratories of behavioural and social dynamics that prefigure future expressions in urban areas. This might be true anywhere the distinctive individualism engendered by liberalism becomes a local model.
Christian Ghasarian is professor of anthropology at Neuchatel
University in Switzerland
(1) Ralph Linton, "100% American", in The Study of Man: An
Introduction (D Appleton-Century Company Inc, New York,
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