Tuesday, November 27, 2007
What Is a Hippie?
Last night at up/rooted I got to see an old friend, Tatiana, and her husband Chico. They are a fun and unique couple who live in an intentional Mennonite community near Chicago called Reba Place Fellowship. At one point in the conversation I playfully told Tatiana that she and Chico were "hippies", and proceeded to try and explain what I meant by that and why it was a compliment in my book. I don't think I did a very good job of it though, so I wanted to take another stab at it here. Keep in mind that I am not at all attempting a historically accurate definition; I am merely describing how I personally use the word.

To me a hippie is someone who, like myself, cares about issues of social justice - things like care for the environment, concern for the poor, and non-violence/peacemaking. However, unlike myself, a hippie is someone who also looks the part. That is, they are immersed in a sub-culture of like-minded people who tend to dress and present themselves in ways that reflect their values. You know the stereotypes - long hair (often dreadlocked), hemp or organic or handmade clothing with lots of holes and frayed edges, facial hair, t-shirts or bumper stickers or back-pack patches with socially progressive sayings on them, etc.

But it's not the image that is most important. The outward "hippie" look is really just a way of identifying that one is part of a community that cares about justice issues. And in fact much of the look has thoughtful rationale behind it. For instance, "hippies" are often concerned about where their clothes come from - whether they were made ethically and in environmentally friendly ways - so their clothes will tend to look different than what you'd typically find at Wal-Mart or the Banana Republic. Beyond that, hippies also tends to dress in a way that expresses themselves and reflects the community they are a part of.

Sadly, while I've always wanted to be able to pull off that look, I've never been a part of a community like that, where that image is the norm. And truthfully, it's just not me. I care about all those same issues, but I've never felt compelled to fit into the hippie, activist "look" myself. I think if I did, I would just be posing. It wouldn't be true to myself, or the community I am currently a part of.

And that, to me, is the both the attraction and the danger of being a "hippie", IMHO. I've long wanted to be part of a community like that, where I am surrounded by others who all share my same passions. I think it'd be great to live in the kind of community that Chico and Tatiana are a part of (though the introverted side of me does get a little freaked out by the idea). However, the danger is that truthfully the image can sometimes become a barrier to others who perhaps care about the issues but feel like an unwelcome "outsider" if they don't fit the look. It can honestly be intimidating for a typical suburbanite to join a group of dread-locked, hemp clad "hippies" and wonder whether we are being judged based on our more conventional attire - in the same way that hippies and others who dress in "alternative" styles are themselves very often judged by folks in mainstream society for their appearance.

I know this may all seem trivial, but this is the way society works. Wrong though it may be, we human beings do tend to judge books by their covers and exclude or welcome people based on appearances. So while I'd love to be able to fit into the hippie/activist sub-culture, I also want to be able to be a bridge to people who aren't part of that and let them know that it's okay for suburbanites to care about justice issues too. Because ultimately it's going to take all types if we really want to change the world.


posted by Mike Clawson at 8:24 PM | Permalink |


At 11/28/2007 09:32:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

I think the term hippie is nearly useless these days. It can describe a look. It can describe a loose set of beliefs or, more likely, values. It can describe behaviors. It can carry connotations from the 60's/70's for those who remember them or can be simply reinterpreted in today's terms for people born in the 80's. And depending on the person (whether self-proclaimed hippie or outsider) that you ask, you will get a different set of criteria.

You say:

You know the stereotypes - long hair (often dreadlocked), hemp or organic or handmade clothing with lots of holes and frayed edges, facial hair, t-shirts or bumper stickers or back-pack patches with socially progressive sayings on them, etc. But it's not the image that is most important. The outward "hippie" look is really just a way of identifying that one is part of a community that cares about justice issues.

I'd say the stereotypes you list are accurate, but a little selective. If you're going to talk about stereotypes of hippies, you have to also throw in drug use (pot at a minimum, though others are also popular) and an openness toward expressing one's sexuality freely as long as nobody's being hurt (the whole free love thing).

Now of course as with any stereotype those don't apply to all hippies. Certainly not most "Christian hippies" that I know (although many of those that I know have at least dabbled with pot and some are regular users). But "Christian hippies" is a pretty small subset of hippies and they contribute little to the overall stereotype. And those things (drugs, sex without the patriarchal/societally imposed bonds of marriage) are as big a part of the overall hippie stereotype (and subculture, in my experience) as are concerns about social justice.

I'm not trying to be a finger-wagging moralist about it. Those things don't "scare" me and I have good friends who are pretty into them. But I think to be accurate the less positive aspects of the hippie stereotype have to be included, even if only to say "but that's not true of most of my hippie friends."

Amen to your last paragraph.


At 11/28/2007 10:33:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Perhaps I wasn't clear Karl. I wasn't trying to accurately describe people who actually are hippies. I was describing how I personally use the word. For me it's simply a slang term that I will occasionally jokingly apply to my friends in the progressive activist subculture. How I use the word has no necessary connection to the hippies of the 60's or people who might still self-identify as such today or practice that lifestyle you describe.


At 11/28/2007 03:11:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Mike, I did note your disclaimer and see what you are getting at. I think that kind of reinforces what I said to begin my comment. No wonder people are confused when we use the term, as it can carry so many meanings. You focus on appearance and social concerns and leave off other significant elements of hippie identity (both 1960's and their present analogues), and that's fair enough, but don't be surprised if people misunderstand when you use the term. Especially when you admit that you use the term in a way you acknowledge doesn't accurately describe the actual historical or current variant of that subculture.

I can identify with your odd feeling of discomfort in hippie settings. I have a so-called white collar job and generally look pretty preppy, but many of my interests are either borderline redneck or hippie (I love the outdoors, camping, hiking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and I'm a big college football fan) or artsy (poetry, literature, music, philosophy) - and I don't fit the "look" of either the artsy crowd or the outdoorsy crowd whether they are hippies or rednecks. I feel that odd sense of "we have a lot in common under the surface but on the surface I sure feel like I don't fit in and I bet you are making all kinds of assumptions about me based on my looks" when I'm in some of those circles but I'm not willing to adopt a different "uniform" just to fit in. When you start just interacting with people as people though, many of those barriers come down in my experience. Even if they are drug-using hippies, Bud-drinking rednecks or black-wearing artsy types. Good for you for trying to be a bridge.


At 11/28/2007 04:22:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel too Karl. I'm not going to start altering my appearance just to fit into a particular sub-culture. Personally I don't really have a style, and I've never really dressed according to the norms of anyplace I've lived. I'm in suburbia, but I dress too casual for the typical preppy suburbanite. I grew up in rural Michigan but I was never a redneck. I had a lot of alternative punk/goth students in my youth ministry and owned a few Hot Topic shirts but I never really went all the way into that identity either, I like hanging out with artsy, hippie activist types, but I'm not around them enough to start adopting their styles... I guess you could say I'm just a floater or a dabbler. Maybe I have commitment issues, I don't know. :)

At any rate, don't take my use of the term hippie too seriously. It was merely meant as a light-hearted, silly way to introduce this topic. If it's not a useful handle for you, swap it out for a different one. I could have just as easily talked about the "progressive activist" look... that's just not as much fun as talking about hippies. :)


At 11/29/2007 11:09:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Thanks Mike, for putting your thoughts out there for review and comment by total strangers. I enjoy a good discussion, especially with someone whose mind is as sharp as yours. I hope I haven't offended or come accross as too aggressive in engaging you on some of these posts.

I should have added that another place I experience that phenomenon is our local natural food co-op, where we do what we can to support local, sustainable agriculture (does that earn me points around here?). I'm definitely not hippie enough to blend in with the crowd there. But like you, unless I'm in my work clothes my wardrobe is too casual to fit in with the preppies either. I've always been a bit of a floater too. One who, within the first several months in a new setting probably has far fewer friends than the average person, but after several years in that setting actually knows far more people, from a more diverse bunch of groups, than the average person. I've never felt comfortable just choosing one clique to be "mine." I think you are right that is probably the result of a mixture of noble impulses, and commitment or other such issues.


At 11/30/2007 04:10:00 PM, Anonymous tatiana

I am glad you brought up the fact that a lot of people can be put off by the aesthetic of subcultures. It is actually a big part of why I have taken out my dreads (though I do miss them, :::tear::::). I felt like I needed to move past the phase of life where I feel like I need to communicate in a major way through my appearance.

This new perspective has been both nurtured and hindered here at Reba. It has been nurtured because all of the actual (money-sharing full commitment) members of Reba Place Fellowship are some of the most un-image-obsessed people I've ever met. They have been doing alternative community so long that they are not even aware of cultural and fashion trends, much less trying to resist them. It has been very healing to live among a lot of women, especially, who seem to be completely oblivious to the "world's" standard of beauty. These are respectable, loving, strong, caring women - it is so good to have these models around me.

My new perspective has been hindered, however, by the incredible wave of young people that are now surrounding Reba. When I came here, there were just a few other people around my age and only a couple of them looked particularly "subculture". Now there are dozens and dozens of young people, not to mention lots of college students and visitors. And most of them are very hip (though I would say not very "hippie" as there is only one person with dreads and she is not the standard) and attractive-looking. I think a lot of people easily become enamored with the "do-it-yourself" culture, which is not bad... but I do wonder if it is more driven by the aesthetic allure of it rather than by conviction.

I am trying to learn how to look more plain, though it is hard when I have tended toward finding identity in my "look." It feels silly though, when I am honest about it all. What I really want to be is a Christian. If my spirit, my words, my thoughts, my actions, are actually filled with the joy and love of Jesus... then hopefully I will no longer feel the need to express myself through how I dress. But it is an intentional and difficult journey, and I still have quite a ways to go.

Thanks for making me think, and for giving me one more little piece of encouragement to resist my own addiction to fashion (or "anti-fashion" as the case may be).

Peace to you...


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