We knew the mythology long before we arrived. Different. Cool. Alternative. Long has Berlin prided itself on being the home of subcultures, a place where alternative types can find their niche and wear it proudly. Add in a healthy dose of post-teen hedonism and an infamous clubbing scene, and it sounded like a perfect place to party.
Yet the resounding message from locals was that, for any of the clubs worth going to, we were very unlikely to get inside. “Wear all black or don’t bother”, we were told. “Whatever you do, don’t take your phone out whilst waiting in line”, said another. “Even then you still probably won’t get in. The bouncers are notoriously judgemental.”
If Berlin was meant to be the home of alternative culture, why did the bouncers sound like textbook high school bullies? Isn’t alternative culture meant to react against snooty judgement and oppressive social dynamics, not mimic them? It seemed that rather than subverting the judgemental, hierarchical culture that pervades the worst of ordinary nightlife, Berlin clubs were in fact amplifying it.
Berlin is by no means unique in this regard. Around the world, alternative scenes can be hard to break into. Instead of breaking down dichotomous social structures, hipsters everywhere are frequently guilty of merely replacing one set of self-serving social rules with another. Scenes founded by those excluded from “in groups” have built walls which block out not just those who might ruin the vibe, but those who might enrich it.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not expect to just waltz into any scene, anywhere in the world, and automatically be accepted. Some cultural milieus take time to adapt to, and some you are simply not entitled to join. I would gladly be turned away from a gay club for being heterosexual. I would expect weird looks were I, a thoroughly white guy with dance moves to match, to attend a hip-hop club in Harlem. Cultural scenes are designed by certain groups, for certain groups, and need not bend for the comfort of an Australian tourist.
Yet the arbitrary judgement of Berlin bouncers was seemingly not aimed at preserving culture, or fostering common bonds. It was aimed at manufacturing “cool”. The lurid, visible spectacle of social capital allocation. There is a line between keeping a scene tight, preserving its uniqueness, and using privileged positions in social groups to push others out, to inflate your own sense of worth. If a cultural scene relies on such blatant exclusivism, it has likely become detached from its roots and, dare I say it, pretty lame.
The question worth asking, for those of us who want accepting cultural scenes, is are hipsters the new jocks? Like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, just as the pigs begun walking on two legs and wearing human clothes, have the formerly weird kids merely subsumed the role of the old cool crowd?
We can all be guilty of building walls around the things we love, and this includes social groups and cultures. Often, the scenes we party in demand a form of membership – required attire, assumed knowledge, shared language. These common characteristics help define these groups, and give them a sense of common identity. Yet if they are too rigidly enforced, they risk alienating people who would otherwise thrive in such environments, but just can’t break through the barriers.
At first, Berlin had seemed standoffish. Then we met Wolf. An eccentric writer working part-time behind a bar to make ends meet, we traded worldviews and laughs over German pints. Between anxious gesticulations – impassioned, but twitchy – he would pause to ponder our words carefully before earnestly replying. He looked you in the eye when talking, without a shred of confection or affectation. His charisma was magnetic, pulling a diverse crowd to his end of the bar. He was everything the bouncers were not. Soon enough we were all discussing the rise of demagogic populism with two pro-Brexit Brits.
“We’re not racist, we’re sick of being called racist,” said one. “Immigration has nothing to do with it – it’s the system, the system itself is damaged. I’m from Birmingham – working class – and those Oxford twats don’t give a shit about us. Something needed to fuck up the status quo, and it has, and I’m glad.”
I’d never actually spoken to a Leave voter. My liberal-minded friends and I had greeted Brexit with a similar mix of disappointment, disdain, and even patronisation. I haven’t changed my mind about Brexit, and I don’t buy the simple narrative of the working class biting back after years of being overlooked. But hearing their opinions helped me grasp the true extent to which certain groups feel entirely alienated from their fellow citizens, which is being harnessed by demagogues to incite division across our increasingly fractured world.
Wolf broke down Berlin’s walls, and invited us all in. We left his bar intoxicated by the city’s vibe. If only the internet fostered the same jovial, respectful exchanges as Wolf’s corner of that dingy bar.
We sipped our craft beer in the Swanson Street rooftop bar. We ate burgers from rustic wooden boards. A bearded DJ in a denim jacket played Chet Faker. We were having a spirited discussion about our favourite Netflix dramas, until someone broke the conviviality by mentioning the US election.
“Is it possible to get special consideration from exams due to post-election grief?” jokes one. “Seriously, the Frankfurt School’s culture industry hypothesis really explains the obscuring of facts through social media in the campaign,” quipped another.
I had the horrible realisation that we were living a stereotype. We were the tertiary educated, liberal-minded “elites” that Donald Trump had so viciously derided in his presidential campaign.
The US election conjured inside me a sinking feeling, that everything I cared about so passionately had be summarily ignored. But no wonder it was. Those inside my bubble had systematically excluded those outside it. Through devising barely penetrable social theories, we were isolating not just those who offended our beliefs, but those who failed to speak our highly-specialised language. Of course, Rick from Michigan doesn’t care about universal human rights, because that discussion is rarely framed in a way that offers any tangible relevance to his life.
We weren’t as obnoxious as Berlin bouncers, but we were breathing life into the limp husk of exclusiveness all the same. We had created our own little club, inaccessible to the uninitiated. Anyone unversed in the language of tertiary-level social sciences just wouldn’t get it. Some might not see this as a problem, for university is by nature an elite institution which invariably leaves some behind. Still, without the faculties to communicate our beliefs to a broad range of people, we “liberal elites” will be left turning people away from a club with increasingly few people inside.
If Berlin taught me anything, it is that exclusiveness sucks. We must be constantly attentive to the accessibility of our social groups, clubs and institutions. We must adjust our behaviour so that those outside our bubble feel welcome to join, even if this means spoiling a particularly rigid image of how it ought to look. We must speak a language that can be understood by all. I’d much rather share a pint with someone who walks in different shoes, than wait for three hours with perfectly curated attire to dance with people who all look the same.