April 15, 2005

Counter Culture

The following is a piece I wrote for HIST 150: America in the 1960s. The date on it is October 27, 2002. I think it is an interesting read, both for the content as well as for a sense of where I was with my writing ability when I first arrived at George Mason University.

The counterculture was an unstructured group, composed primarily of young people, who perceived themselves to be isolated in their search for deeper meaning in life. For a group like the counterculture to be considered revolutionary, it needed to have presented ideas that were fundamentally different from what was readily seen in dominant society at the time. So, was the counterculture revolutionary? The counterculture was very much a part of something larger than itself that, when considered as a whole, was revolutionary. Many movements, including the counterculture, sought to find meaning in their lives in radically different ways from mainstream society. They also experienced a failure to communicate what it was that they were looking for.

Many groups that emerged in the 1960s felt they were somehow left impoverished by society’s great plan for them, most dramatically the counterculture. This empty feeling itself wasn’t anything new if you consider, for example, the existentialists who had long expressed it before the 1960s. The renewed focus on filling the void was at the time revolutionary because it was more widely and overtly acknowledged within these groups as a problem that needed to be dealt with head-on. The varied attempts to deal with it were themselves radically different from the mainstream. The mainstream made a choice to simply ignore its existential responsibility by instead pursuing a life driven by the need for more and more economic security. They saw happiness as something potentially existing in the future, depending on how hard you worked for it. The underlying message of the mainstream was to do what you are told to by society, convention, your peer group, and advertisements. It encouraged these emergent groups to lead a similarly unexamined life. The counterculture strongly rejected the notion that the problem could simply be suppressed.

According to Guy Strait, the hippies felt short-changed by the expectations placed on them by society. These people knew that they didn’t want to sell their souls for material comfort. They challenged mainstream society by not conforming to its values. Through a process of elimination of these values, the counterculture hoped to discover whatever it was they were missing. A mass exodus of youths fled the constraints of structured society for what seemed to Joan Didion as no good reason. The very fact that these people deemed it necessary to give up their security, at a time when blacks were highly disadvantaged in that manner, indicates that they were looking for something that transcended material comfort. They wanted to be exposed to as many new experiences as possible for example by experimenting with drugs and sampling exotic religions. What the counterculture collectively settled on through these different experiences was that it was easier just to try and be happy in the immediate moment. That is pretty much where their search for answers left off. To quote the young man from the documentary, “There’s nothing to climb for, it’s all right here.” What he conveyed was that people who identified with the counterculture had felt lost because they didn’t know how to live.

Betty Friedan explained in the Feminine Mystique that women were also unhappy with conforming to society’s vision for them. They lacked some greater definition beyond having a husband and making babies. These women were no longer content fooling themselves into believing the things society promoted would ever be enough to make them feel fulfilled. The conclusion that a lot of women arrived at was that this fulfillment could be located and had in the things society deprived them of. Betty Friedan explained in The Feminine Mystique that if more women went to college, for the purpose of obtaining an education and afterwards a good job, they might be able to resolve this. In The Graduate, Mrs. Robinson went to college to find herself a husband because that was what society dictated women do. A man she met in college impregnated her. She then married him in order to preserve her social status. Later in life, she felt like something was missing. In her desperate attempt to fill the hollowness she felt, Mrs. Robinson deviated from the mainstream by having an affair with a younger man.

Norman Bowker, a Vietnam veteran and the main character in Speaking of Courage, also couldn’t find a meaningful purpose for his life. After he returned from the war, he tried to integrate back into the mainstream, but he just couldn’t. Having a job and working to secure his future no longer had the same appeal for him. Nothing had the same stakes as war did. He came home to the realization that life is short and that there is emptiness in socially accepted pursuits alone. He inevitably dealt with this by taking his own life.

It has been so far established that several groups, not limited to the counterculture, identified a desire for a greater meaning to their existences that they dealt with in radically different ways from the mainstream. These groups attempted to articulate this desire to others. They found that they couldn’t relate. It was never clearly reestablished that it was a problem everyone experiences. This failure to communicate and relate with others was revolutionary. These groups longed to connect with others on a deeper level than the mainstream sought to and maybe that is why they were met with such difficulty. Even basic connections became complicated and at times an impossibility for them. The song “The Sound of Silence” (Simon, 1964) described “people talking without speaking” and “people hearing without listening.” The people on the receiving end seemed to be so consumed with their own desires to resolve and communicate, that they either ignored or were truly oblivious to what was being said.

Characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest had come to believe that the narrator, Chief Bromden was deaf and mute. The truth is that he chose not to speak originally because he was just ignored when he did. He later continued in his silence out of fear of Nurse Ratched. While he remained silent for that last reason, he represented the more passive element of society that submitted to authority (the mainstream).

Ben Braddock and Mrs. Robinson, two characters featured in The Graduate, couldn’t find anything meaningful to talk about. Ben often tried in vain to engage Mrs. Robinson on such topics as art, her major in college, interestingly enough. Their relationship was of a sexual nature. Mrs. Robinson seemed to have sought a physical connection with Ben as the means to resolve her empty feeling, whereas Ben seemed to have sought to connect with her more on a verbal level. It was clearly a desperate attempt on both of their parts to connect somehow with a fellow human being. Ben realized it was futile and gave up trying.

Ben and Mr. Robinson had their own difficulty in communicating. Mr. Robinson called Ben by a different wrong name a few times in their early encounters with one another. He also gave Ben the same wrong drink twice after asking in each instance if it was the right one. Ben had informed him both times that it wasn’t. It seems Mr. Robinson didn’t place a whole lot of value on what Ben had to say before he found out about the affair. When Ben was established as a part of Mr. Robinson’s problem, he began communicate with him differently.

Betty Friedan wrote her book in hopes of communicating the problem that housewives were grappling with mostly in silence. She arrived at a bad conclusion that jobs would liberate these women precisely because she did not bother to concern herself with other women, who at first glance, did not appear to be in the same boat as her.

The female interviewee from the documentary film discussed the sexual freedom of the 1960s, but she didn’t seem to communicate that she was enjoying it. There was no definite emotional conviction coming from her. This indicates that she, like Ben, had an underlying desire to connect with another human being in a more meaningful way beyond sex.

Norman Bowker also wanted to talk about his problems, but nobody in town wanted to listen. Life went on as usual for them. No one really knew what the right thing to say to him was so he was simply ignored. When he finally found someone that was effectively in a position where he had to listen, Norman Bowker found he couldn’t talk.

These groups all shared a common dilemma: finding a greater meaning to their existences. They attempted to address this problem in many unconventional ways and found themselves faced with tremendous difficulty in communicating. The counterculture itself seems to have done the best job in not prematurely eliminating possibilities in trying to answer that question. The counterculture was revolutionary despite seeming unaware that it was part of a larger effort to address this universal problem in radical ways and to somehow communicate with others what it was they were going through.

Vestiges of this problem are still around today. It persists to be an agonizing question that still does not consistently reside at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Is fitting in with the mainstream really all there is to life? Everyone has to address this question when they find themselves confronted with it. Even if you ignore your existentialist responsibility you are still responding to it. As Sartre said, “What is not possible is not to choose…even if I do not choose, I am still choosing.” The best approach is to face this question head-on as these groups have shown us. There may not be a conclusive answer for everyone, but the point the counterculture made is that life is finite and you should not throw it away in the sole pursuit of a meaningless existence.

-- CrystalShiloh @ 06:09 PM