Defining counterculture used to be so easy. There were “us” and “them.” And if there were any doubts, the dictionary helped clear them up. Counterculture, to Merriam-Webster, is any culture “with values and mores that run counter to those of established society.”
That worked in the early 1960s. That decade had three television networks, a couple predominant religions, media conglomerates with the same playbook, a single (acknowledged) standard for sexuality, and a government with two functioning parties that still maintained a sense of shared public service and compromise. The flip side, the idealistic counterculture hippie movement, was equally easy to define.
They wore haircuts and clothes that easily identified them, listened to music the broader culture hated, took drugs without apology and fought against the government on a shared platform of equal rights, free love and pacifism.
This shared ethos is why figures as disparate as Jerry Garcia and Charles Manson can both be considered hippies.
The ensuing decades have shattered the illusion of a single, dominant culture. The edges are harder to see. When nearly everyone has the equivalent of a printing press and broadcast facility on their phones, big media have splintered and every minute communities of the like-minded form, evolve, multiply and demand respect, who’s to say who’s in and who’s way out there? Everyone has a community where they fit in and can be accepted, if they want to find it.
What defines counterculture when there is no clearly defined culture to begin with?
As long as iconoclasts want to be on the outside looking in, there is a counterculture. It’s the ultimate freedom — to declare oneself an outsider and grasp the creative license that comes from being one of “them.” Counterculture is a mindset, not a fence erected by society. The hippies are the icons of modern counterculture, but people today have a host of places to proudly plant their freak flags. That’s the benefit and maybe curse of being free.
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