Be Who You Are. But Don’t You Dare Make Them Uncomfortable.
They make money when we’re weird.
They make money when our synapses spark and we find ideas that resonate with people searching, because they can package it and brand it and sell it en masse.
They make money when they sell Kurt Cobain posed uncomfortably in TV Hits. They make money when they find an off-beat tech kid and pulverise her talent and ideas through the pervasive power of capital.
They want us to be who we are. It’s okay to be who we are. That’s the message they forced down our throat with shallow and skin deep messages delivered through awards show speeches and motivational screeds. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be strange. It’s okay to go your own way.
As long as we don’t make them uncomfortable.
The commercial and social and political systems that exist around us don’t want to be made to look in a mirror or question themselves and their deeply problematic behaviours or their structural crises of faith and failure and insensitivity.
The companies want us to be a marketing tool or a communication tool that can bridge a generational gap, but they don’t want to show up when it matters. The straight and cis people who play dress up at mardi gras are looking for gay best friends out of a 90’s sitcom, but they don’t want to talk about what happens when the queers are beaten.
Our identities are only allowed to thrive when they don’t disrupt the peace.
The system was not designed to handle scrutiny. The system only wants our labour.
The system wants to profit from black athletes but refuses to allow them to take a knee and protest the abuse, violence and racism that was designed to keep them “in their place.” We want to see them play, we don’t want to see them have thoughts of their own, and how dare they challenge our deeply held personal opinions!
The system wants to profit from “girl power” but refuses to extend that girl power to women of colour, to extend it to trans women or to even protect women from being brutalised in the streets. Women’s empowerment sells, in small controlled doses that generate profits that go towards funding institutional sexual harassment and assault.
The system wants to leverage LGBTQA+ people for their own publicity, profit and brand equity but is reticent about backing them, supporting them, paying them, voting for them, believing them or giving them space on the side walk when it hasn’t been conveniently painted with a rainbow logo funded by a national bank. The system wants their token gays to dress up and play with like so many dolls. The folks who came up as a part of these systems will happily ditch their rainbow logos as soon as it suits their personal tastes.
It’s this subversion of true expression that keeps the machine of commerce well-oiled. We know that in order to gain attention, we have to break from the mundane, and let a few bright fireworks light up the night. But those fireworks must be monitored, and choreographed. We can’t let the spectacle get out of control, or burn too bright. That’s the key to the suppression of true intent and purpose.
I’m drawn to stories of people who refused to back down. And too often, I’m drawn to stories of bright rebels who wound up selling butter and starring in reality TV shows years after being a Sex Pistol was profitable enough to sustain their investment portfolio. It’s not that I decry commercialisation as a whole — and I refuse to be one of those short sighted punk rock purists who point a fishnet gloved finger and scream sell out while shopping at Hot Topic.
But I think this speaks to the challenge of commercialisation.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur who wants to change the world through a blockchain product that hasn’t been designed to steal money from those members of the public misguided enough as investors to take on a bitcoin mortgage.
Whether you’re a venture capitalist who has a bold and non-mainstream thesis about what constitutes “the right stuff.”
Whether you’re a musician with a burning message about the state of the union and the nihilists who run it…
…you need to balance the power of the system and its reach, capital, lifestyle and signal with the knowledge that you came here for a reason, and you burn with that reason and you can’t let it become truly subverted for mass appeal.
We know what they want. We don’t have to give it to them.
Refusing to play the game by a set of house rules that will always favour the dealer is the only way to rebel against their accepted ways of running this planet into the ground.
I have no interest in being a well-behaved citizen of manufactured inequality and inequity just to get a win on the board and become a pop culture success story while selling out the truths that actually matter to me.
Anthony Bourdain spoke truth about misogyny and did not stay silent when silence was in vogue. His refusal to sacrifice his truth for a more palatable and polite image inspires me.
Beyoncé does not shy away from celebrating her culture and her identity, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes conservative columnists, two penny political hacks and barely concealed white supremacists in positions of power.
Arlan Hamilton is investing in startups created by queer people, women and people of colour and criticising the billionaire elite like Elon Musk and she started doing that while living out of her car because she would not let the systemic suppression rule her world.
You can find people right now who want to strike a scrap of flint against a stone and spark change. They’re weird and they know that, they’re unpalatable to the existing machine, and they accept that, they’re facing a battle and they’re armed for it. These are the people to watch. These are the people to bet on. These are the people we pray never succumb to the succubi of an ICO but would line up, were they to announce it. These are the ones who make them uncomfortable.
There’s a burned out legacy for every revolution that will always see its heroes printed on T-shirts and sold at gas stations. It’s inevitable, as people catch onto an idea and forget it when the next one arrives. It’s the legacy of Johnny Rotten, and it’s the legacy of people who were young and weird once, and found that a part of that was valuable on the open market.
If you walk through an old record store you can find them, the former rebels. They look young when they’re displayed on the covers of old records, full of songs about the shape of the world and the need for change. If you ran into them in a bar, like Shane McGowan, they might try and borrow five pounds off you until next week.
I don’t think that inevitability needs to touch and taint everything. I don’t think it needs to destroy the value of everything. I don’t, and won’t believe that our fire and our identity must be snuffed out just so that we can make a living. When I look back on what I’ve done, and what you’ve done and what we’ve achieved, I may find that I was wrong. When that day comes, I may find myself a little more forgiving of the icons whose last stand became a souvenir shot glass.
From the vantage point of the present day and the energy and stupidity of being in my late 20’s, I know one thing for sure. When they’re uncomfortable, it means that we’re winning.
When they’re uncomfortable, I don’t intend to stop.