A hundred people gather daily in a room for discourse and social encounter, all wearing blue tee shirts. They feel secure, holding in common their identification through their attire. Then, three of the number in discussion conclude that the common apparel feels limiting, they are being denied their opportunity for free expression. Buoyed by their rebellion in common, the next day they appear wearing similar green tee shirts. Mutterings and murmurings begin. The three stick closely together as they move through the room. There is only one subject of discussion that day – the bravery, cheek, free spiritedness or disrespect of the green tee shirt wearers. Something has broken forever, the energy has changed. The next day there are eight more green tee shirt wearers. The day after, a further seventeen people are wearing them. Maybe eighteen, who cares? As the numbers grow, and the level of comfort with the new colour settles, the green tee shirt wearers disperse more freely into the number, no longer bound together as an isolated minority. The question is – at what point – either in number or behaviour – are the green tee shirt wearers no longer “alternative”?
Because being “alternative” itself, once a minority statement or behaviour, is now everywhere. Being alternative is no longer alternative. These thoughts reminded me of some graffiti painted in huge letters on the side of one of my university drinking haunts, the Compton Arms in Southampton, parodying a famous mis-quote: WHEN I HEAR THE WORD ALTERNATIVE I REACH FOR MY COCKTAIL – MOLOTOV.
Corporate life is one of the chief culprits. As Cederstrom and Fleming focus upon, in an absolute must-read book Dead Man Working, everyone now tells you it’s okay to hate capitalism, and to be authentic, be yourself. In reality it is just further evidence of the manner in which work has colonised our lives. The depressing and oppressing self-parody of workplace novelty touched on in a previous post provides further evidence.
It’s like “thinking outside the box”. Everyone is now thinking outside the box, or at least encouraged (or worse still, instructed to), such that there is no-one left to think inside the box. So thinking inside the box has become the alternative. Thinking outside the box is only interesting or important when the majority are thinking inside the box. Thinking inside the box is therefore, in previous speak, thinking outside the box. It is as if one of the early adopters of wearing the green tee shirts decides that it’s no longer interesting, and changes back to blue again, embarrassed at how diluted and meaningless the rebellion has become. It reminds me of a friend of mine who, in the teenages when we all had our ears pierced, took his out in disgust when the squarest guy in the class came in one morning with a cheap stud and a septic earlobe.
Thinking of graffiti I was then reminded of the only other piece of scrawled work that ever left an impression on me, which was painted in huge white letters on an old bridge at Northwick Park roundabout in Harrow – NICHOLAS PARSONS IS THE NEO-OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE. This when he was hosting the nation’s favourite Orwellian soporific sedative, Sale of Century which ran from 1971 – 1984 and had a record-breaking 21m viewers at its peak all getting tearfully excited about a teasmaid or for the luckiest ones, a shiny new Morris Marina. Incredibly ironic that it ran until 1984. Now that we have X-Factor, we can reflect on how far we have come. Can’t we?
There is a point to this – “alternative” itself has become so tediously and unimaginatively mainstream, it is itself the opiate that Marx assigned to religion in the quote that the above parodies. We need to be observant. Lurking amidst all of the barcamps, rebel jams, unconferences, TED events and pecha kucha nights is a dude who has brought a blue and a green tee shirt with him, just in case.
The real “alternatives” happen without fanfare, without celebration. They just know something needs to be different and get on with it. They don’t change their tee shirt colour. They just don’t show up at all, they have something better to do. Finally finding a use for the graffiti above, they mash up beautifully: ALTERNATIVE IS THE NEO-OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE.
As for Nicholas Parsons, unassailable (unasaleable?) master of Just a Minute, he is probably (and deservedly) drinking a cocktail somewhere, chuckling at us all.