You would think sincerity would be easier by now.
I can’t quite remember the first time somebody called me a hipster. I was probably in 10th or 11th grade, but there’s no way to know. I can, however, say for sure that my response to that first accusation was a mock, indignant, self-reflexive “No, you’re a hipster!” which essentially became my perennial comeback. I couldn’t just say no, of course — I didn’t want to. Whether I was actually a hipster (and good luck finding a universally agreed-upon definition of that particular sub-culture) didn’t really matter. I wanted people to think I was, so naturally I denied it, which is basically the first rule.
And then I started playing the part.
It really isn’t difficult to play up hipsterism. It’s a lot like playing up drunkenness when you aren’t all that far gone. You just take preconceived notions and amp them up. More and more, I found myself claiming that I was doing things ironically, like seeing “Sex and the City 2” in a homemade SATC-themed T-shirt and carrying a purple parasol to school on days when it was threatening rain. It got to the point that I would go out of my way to invite accusations of hipsterism. I reached the point where it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be doing things ironically, it was just that sincerity had, for the most part, ceased to be an option. And as my behavior and outward demeanor became more pointedly self-referential — “Oh look how funny I am, carrying this purple parasol! How out of character and surprising for a heterosexual teenaged male!” — I found it increasingly difficult to be open and sincere with my friends in a meaningful way. Irony was on autopilot, and I was miserable.
When you begin to live an ironic life, nobody tells you that it’s addictive. But it is. Irony is sexy and alluring and seductive and fun and 100 percent addictive. The alternative, of course, is scary. Beyond scary. It’s a terrifying thought, to be real and open with another individual, and to be okay with sharing yourself in a deep-down way. That’s why we become hipsters — so we can disengage ourselves and remain aloof, and in the end, protect ourselves from the disappointment that can come from sharing ourselves with another human being — another human being who, if they so wished, could disengage and remain aloof from us. We find ourselves in this prisoner’s dilemma: Nobody wants to be hurt, so nobody chooses to be real. It’s the disingenuousness, however, that does the most lasting damage. In trying not to be real, you put yourself precariously close to forgetting how to be real.
It’s not for nothing that developmental psychologist Erik Erikson posited Intimacy vs. Isolation as the central struggle of being a young adult. Isolation is easy, and intimacy is hard, and given the choice between easy and hard, your average young adult probably isn’t going with the latter. She ought to, however. She ought to keep trying, despite how terrifying it is, to reach out to other people in a meaningful way. Irony and hipsterism may provide momentary respites from the fear that is part and parcel of intimacy, but it’ll only end up making your average young adult lonelier and more isolated than she would have been had she tried for intimacy in the first place. She’ll have lost the central struggle.
Now this is not to say that you should go around with your guard forever lowered, ready to open up emotionally to anyone who’ll listen. It is, however, extremely easy to lose yourself in hipsterism — and like most things, once you’ve realized that it’s extremely easy, it’s likely worth re-evaluating whether it’s worthwhile in the first place.
Email Zachary Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org.