November 21, 2014

Poor Envy: The Paradox of the Hipster Movement.

Poor Envy Image_Beaton

What’s with rich people trying to look poor, and is it better than rich people trying to look rich?

I call the former category “hipsters.”

Hipsters lament being broke, but make more annually than the average American household; their coffee shop habit “has to stop” but won’t, and they eat organic; they own digital devices twice the price of other comparable products (see: Apple); they reside “inner-city” with stainless steel appliances and routinely depart their brownstone to travel overseas; they thrift shop but have expansive, expensive wardrobes of token boots and jackets.

Hipsters are usually like me: white Millennials born into privilege.

They tend to have grown up in the suburbs and graduated from a liberal arts college with minimal or no debt.

Having championed feminism and surpassed penis envy, hipsters have “poor envy,” where they feel deprived of the ostensibly rich culture of the less fortunate.

Hipsters “jive” with people from diverse backgrounds; even though their friends are all white, they wish they weren’t.

Hipsters may wish they, too, were poor.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I coveted the artistic soul of a previously marginalized and persistently underprivileged population. In comparison, I felt not just white but inadequately vanilla. What had I done to deserve my existence thus far except teach yoga to MILFs and buy fair trade?

While I scour my self-improvement sketchbook for stuff to write about, these people have a gumbo of adversity to draw on that I can only dream of. My greatest fear was picking the wrong bar on Bourbon or contracting a brain-eating amoeba from my neti-pot; their daily struggles range from trying to feed their families with a second job to keeping their kids safe from gangs and escaping hurricanes. How rich!

Hipsters assume that trials endured by those from low socio-economic and/or diverse backgrounds deepen and strengthen them, ultimately inspiring creativity, uniqueness and general “coolness”.

Science disproves this take on Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Psychology Today’s article “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker” sums the research to date: “If you are stronger after hardship, it is probably despite, not because of the hardship.”

Of course, “stronger” is both relative and subjective.

But it seems that no matter how we define strength—whether it’s financial security, happiness or healthy relationships—hipsters come out ahead.

A new study by the University of Michigan, among others, links higher incomes with increased happiness; The Mortenson Report on Public Policy found that the impoverished are the least likely Americans to become literate and attend college; lower-income families divorce more; a 2001 Gallup Poll describes job satisfaction and income as “highly correlated”.

Hipsters are comparatively rich, successful and happy for a reason: in general, they were adequately nourished as children, had stable home lives with secure finances and received a post-secondary education. Hipsters endure tribulations to be sure (such as name-calling); but if they if really had it rough, statistics predict they wouldn’t have the luxury of hipster-dom.

While hipsters are prosperous on many fronts, we feel—and are, in many respects—deficient of life experience.

We notoriously deny our identity because “hipster” is synonymous with privilege and therefore, in our minds, shallowness and unworldliness. We compensate by voting democrat, signing social change petitions, traveling, volunteering and befriending minorities, but it’s all a wash because we see our chance for authentic depth as having passed with college graduation.

When overcompensation fails, we try impersonation. We don (beautiful) rags in hopes of acting out our fantasy of cultural depth because we associate external poverty with internal richness. Subconsciously, we want our appearances to rub off below skin, to seep in through down-pillow-dressed-in-flannel osmosis.

All the while, we’re painfully aware that we can simply exit stage left should any real crisis arise.

Believing that outer richness = inner poverty and vice versa is, of course, preposterous. What prevents us from actively debunking this assumption and asserting our value no matter our background is guilt that we haven’t “earned our keep.”

Hipsters have landed, for no reason other than luck, the American jackpot. This unfair, inborn opportunity often leads to greatness—or at least it should—but even above-average-ness precipitated by such an obvious leg up feels like fraud.

But despite the fact that hipsters’ appearances are often inconsistent with who we are and where we came from, hipsters want to be authentic. Our secret shame prevents us from being transparent.

On the other hand, looking rich, whatever that entails, might make us more genuine but calls attention to unwanted, underappreciated parts of ourselves.

Appearing rich would confirm our perceived inner poorness.

The solution is not in the fashion; it’s about diversity, and not just the kind hipsters glorify.

Diversity means a range of different elements: variety. Even nature’s most basic molecules, such as water, are composed of unlike atoms, which together give it strength. Thus, everyone’s cultural context supplies the world’s richness; our role is as essential as anyone else’s regardless of adversity.

Just as some see their misfortunes as contributing to but not defining who they are, hipsters can own privilege as something ingrained in and unique to us—and of benefit to the world.

We can use our great opportunity to lift others up, instead of lowering ourselves down.

This way, we practice both self-love and pay homage to others’ hardship instead of hijacking it for use as stage props.

There is obvious, albeit paradoxical, richness and beauty in peoples plagued by poverty and persecution. But we shouldn’t hope to endure the same to attain a romanticized approximation of cultural authenticity.

Instead, we can grow our experience and inner depth by serving others, studying and appreciating ourselves as products of our own culture and capitalizing on abilities gleaned from our upbringings, however “uncool.”



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Author: Caroline Beaton

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Author’s Own

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