Recently, I’ve become increasingly aware of the usages of the derogatory terms, “woo-woo,” “hippie-dippie” and other similarly estranging monikers. I’ve noticed these words being invoked by a wide demographic — from progressive millennials to conservative libertarians to scientifically-minded seniors, and everyone in between.
Being “woo-woo” or “hippie-dippie” is apparently not something anyone ever wants to be. While the terms aren’t synonymous they seem to connote that which is spiritual, mystical, healing, heartfelt, alternative, or intuitive. They are sometimes equated with the equally derogatory term, “New Age.” The most interesting usage, in my mind, happens when people use the term to simultaneously embrace and distance themselves from its contents, because they “don’t want to sound woo-woo” or “don’t want to come off as hippie-dippie.” By the way, such folks never want to sound “cheesy” either.
Practices that are “woo-woo” are presumably ones that have not been scientifically tested and are therefore suspect, if not just crazy (e.g. reiki). But, I view the term as an extension of the colonialist project to deride, minimalize and marginalize indigenous and feminine ways of healing and knowing. The proliferation of the term elevates scientific materialism while sabotaging human capabilities for healing apart from a commodified and pharmaceutically dominated medical system. It diverts us from our own intuition, as well as from the mysteries and beauty of life.
To be sure, building an evidence base for medical and psychological interventions is critical for effective practice (even though Trump just withdrew federal support for the most important repository of evidence available on mental health interventions). Indeed, some things that were once thought of as “woo-woo” now actually have some of their own evidence base and apparently are not so “woo-woo” anymore (e.g. meditation).
But, when we say something is “woo-woo,” I believe we are ridiculing traditional ways of healing and worshiping, whether it is an African-American grandmother who couldn’t afford doctor visits or medicine and made poultices from the flora that grew in her yard, or a Haitian vodoun practitioner who engages in a spiritual bathing ritual to cope with the challenges of life, or an indigenous person who prays for/with/to the earth creator in ways that may defy understanding. These are resilience practices done to withstand the blows of capitalist colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. In short, using the term “woo-woo” maintains the status quo of cultural imperialism.
Now, consider the term “hippie-dippie.” I believe the idea here is that hippies were interested in mysticism, spaced out, stupid, dirty, and — in splendidly capitalist fashion — useless, lazy and non-productive. They may also possess the horrible quality of being excessively kind. I think this one is perhaps even more generational, as young people have always subtly, and not so subtly, attacked what was important to their parents or grandparents, and vice versa, as Turgenev famously depicted in Fathers and Sons. I’ve been especially intrigued by the ways that young yoga teachers and other healer-activist types, including my own social work students, deliberately use this term to distance themselves from these connotations.
But, here’s a big news flash. Modern postural yoga in the West, mindfulness meditation, and other related practices and therapies such as cognitive-based therapies, would not exist today without the spiritual revolution of the 1960s (as well as many other factors, of course). The seeking, “the tuning in, turning on and dropping out,” and even (I know it sounds cheesy) the idea that love is the answer — were preconditions for the practices and therapies that are readily available today.
It turns out that we stand on the shoulders of giants in this regard. Indeed, we would not be where we are in this moment — culturally, politically, and spiritually — if it weren’t for the hippie movement, as it opened new pathways in political action, environmentalism, feminism, spirituality, music, and much more. If nothing else, perhaps the term “hippie-dippie” is just ignorant and ageist.
The Tyranny of Cool
Besides a lack of awareness, one of the core drivers of all of this is the tyranny of cool. The tyranny of cool is the straitjacket of an attitude, belief, job, lifestyle, clothing, and/or haircut needed to maintain an image of one’s (clearly idiosyncratic) idea of what is cool. In this case, cool people are rational, believe in science, and aren’t dumb enough to believe in things you can’t see like religion or reiki. And there’s often a (lack of) class consciousness that goes along with all of this.
The corollary to this form of the tyranny of cool is a lack of faith. To put faith in something, particularly something unscientific, is to betray the cool. Instead, scientific empiricism asks us to bow down to the gods in white lab coats. In the worst cases, this leads to a fixation on evidence (and by extension, authority), constant questioning that leads to crippling doubt, and an inability to act on one’s own (individual and collective) behalf. And, to be clear, I am not discouraging people to utilize their capacities for critical thinking and healthy skepticism when appropriate.
It is certainly understandable that people would want to distance themselves from spirituality and healing given the prevalence of religious fundamentalisms, spiritual abuses, commodified Westernized pseudo-mysticism, and the proliferation of charlatans implying that if you just think more positively you will have more abundance in your life. Or, my personal nemesis, yoga teachers spouting half-baked truths about the benefits of a yoga pose that just aren’t founded.
Human happiness means something different to everyone, and a consciously spiritual path or concern with “alternative” healing or loving-kindness is not for everybody. But, is it really necessary to disparage other ways of knowing, living, and healing because it is perceived to be seemingly backward or weird?
I’m 48 years old, a proud Generation Xer, wedged between the aging hippies and the doubting millennials. Indeed, I wanted to be cool once too, as did the hippies. Inter-generational work, historical study, and cross-cultural learning continue to be some of the most important work for those of us interested in the intersections of personal and social transformation. These undertakings begin with conscious communication and a willingness to learn from the past, analyze the present, and imagine a way forward.