The Cult of Optimism within the Hardcore Movement

Image courtesy of Bent Objects by the amazing Terry Border!

The word cult gets thrown around a lot. Whenever someone uses the term it is usually aimed at a group of people who are behaving in such a manner that arouses suspicion. We live in a society, therefore we need each other. It’s pretty simple. We cannot sustain ourselves without other human beings. However we parcel ourselves off into subsets of subsets to find those who seem like-minded. This way we cannot only get things done but we can also establish some level of trust. Once this happens it’s very easy to be persuaded into ways of thinking and feeling that aren’t necessarily your own.

They’re so Cult-like

One could say that all identifiable groups have some level of cult-like behavior within them. There are usually people who command a certain kind of leadership. The problem isn’t anyone who either puts themselves, or is put, in a leadership position. It is the trickle down hierarchy of the people around that leader whose influence promote certain values and ethics that are not allowed to be criticized.

Whether it’s a religious icon or a way of thinking, if you are unable to defy the logic, shamed because you question the inherent system or are manipulated into being cast out, you my friend may be at the mercy of a cult, or cult-like monopoly.

I use the term cult-like because it shares some of the sinister qualities of groupthink without being a full blown drinking-the-kool-aid paradigm. Such is the positive thinking movement, also known as the happiness industry or cult of optimism. When I started to do research for my show SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious I culled through books both promoting and criticizing positive thinking.

Think it and it is so

One book that is constantly mentioned is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. This book has sold more than 70 million copies. Hill went on to write other books including Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude, but Think and Grow Rich is seen as the bible of positive thinking,  the road towards wealth. It is the premise for every self-help book that has come since that uses a set of simple principles, that if implemented correctly and with enough persistence, will guarantee success no matter the person’s background or social status.

Happy Hardcore?

The hardcore and punk movement that I gravitated towards in order to get away from organized religion and dogmatic institutionalization was just as tainted by these lukewarm sentiments. There were plenty of lyrics espousing what was wrong with the world but there was also a contingency that used negative positivity to counteract what was seen as injustice and cultural control. If you say that, then I say this.

While the Bad Brains were influenced directly by Hill and sang the glories of a positive mental attitude (“We got that attitude. Hey we got that PMA.”), Ian MacKaye had unintentionally started the Straight Edge movement with songs that put up a middle finger to drinking, drugs and fucking (promiscuous sex). By declaring that he didn’t need to take part in a culture that promoted substance abuse, he also made the declaration, “I’ve got straight edge”. Mackaye has stated numerous times that he was not trying to start a movement, but the influence of these four words have since been twisted and re-arranged to mean a plethora of negative postives that have only led to a furthering of fanatical leanings.

Putting an X on my hand

I became straight-edge for a number of years mainly because I saw my friends abusing alcohol in a way that frightened me. Watching your friend pound his fist into the pavement screaming Why won’t she love me? not only tempered my urge to get fucked up but it also keyed me into the fact that this was the only way they felt safe to express their feelings.

However, in the pit at hardcore shows, one could take all that emotional torment and execute it through a physical contortion that was not only acceptable but encouraged. The New York Straight Edge scene not only embraced the initial concepts of straight-edge’s anti-substance credo but added vegetarianism on top of it. This eventually got taken up a notch to veganism.

Let’s take it up a notch

Although the posi-core movement had been in full force since the early 80s, Youth of Today started what became known as the youth crew movement. Not only were they promoting a straight-edge lifestyle but were also purveyors of a positive attitude. Eventually Ray of Today, the singer, left and became a Hare Krishna. He returned to the hardcore scene to promote this way of life through his new band Shelter and the ridiculous term Krishnacore was born. The amount of kids that start to grow little chia pets on the back of their heads increased.

While most straight-edge kids considered themselves non-violent there were strands that used their life choices as a platform for self-righteous posturing. Within the subculture, there were subsets that were intolerant of homosexuality and abortion. Something that was initially stated as an anthem to oneself was co-opted, exploited and reformed into various levels of extremism.

It may or may not call itself a religion

If you take the example of the Mormons and all the various spin offs of that belief system (e.g. polygamy vs. non-polygamy movements) you can see a common thread. Take the words of anyone and shape them into a rhetoric that cannot be challenged and you have yourself a very cult-like system in place.

The thing is that we all want community. We want to be able to express ourselves freely, be accepted for who we are and be able to serve others through generosity and kindness. There are many different models for how this can be done and so when we feel strongly for or against something we should look at why. We can welcome those close to us to challenge us in a safe capacity so that we understand not only ourselves but that which we disagree with, because there is nothing wrong with being optimistic as long as we are not forcing ourselves to be.

Questioning the Questioners

The thing that drew me to punk, metal and hardcore in the first place was the ability to have a dissident voice within a subculture that allowed for disagreement within the subculture itself. When one voice becomes the voice for many that needs to be examined. Even if you can completely agree with the sentiments of a particular articulation, it’s important to be aware that groupthink can be right around the corner; that even the simple notion of thinking positive can be inherently filled with a arrogant devotion that leaves no room for doubt.