By Candice Louisa Daquin
When you read sci-fi novels and they have most of the world living in small sections of the planet, in endless skyscrapers, the future can feel a little dystopian. As practical as living in close proximity is, some of us yearn to be away from the maddening crowd. As our world swells in number (7.753 billion as of 2020, projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100 according to UN statistics) is it feasible to live off the grid any more? Is it becoming more difficult not to be part of the mainstream?
During a time of illness, I watched a strange TV show Alaskan Bush People, I would not usually entertain. It was a wilderness show about a family who chose to live off-the-grid. I watched it the way we view any reality TV, with disbelief and morbid curiosity. However, with time, I began to get involved. I admired that these eccentric people — even if some of it was spoofed for the camera — could live in this way. They valued being able to live off the land. I began to wonder if we put too much onus on city-urban-dwelling to the detriment of other life-styles. If we judged those who lived more basically, assuming we were sophisticated. If the grid failed in some way, if electricity or the internet failed, or a giant EMP burst took everything out, we’d need those lost-skills, we’d value those kinds of people more. Maybe we should know that now, before it does, and not get caught up on judging people on how large their house is, or what car they drive. After all, we’re rapidly hurtling toward a future where ‘big’ is going to be problematic and finding alternatives will be prized.
When I moved from a large city to a smaller one, I felt completely cut off from what I termed the trappings of city living, such as the ballet, theatre, good book stores, interesting alternative restaurants. It took me some time to adjust and settle into a slower life with less options. Part of me never stopped missing the variety of a large city, its diverse heart. But I did appreciate the calm that came with a slower pace of life. Sometimes less is more. Moreover, when I met people from big cities, I noticed how their identities were hinged on their experiences of ‘culture’ and how judgmental they were about what counted and what did not. Even the use of words like ‘native’ or ‘naïve’ artist, seemed patronising and racist. Who said one culture or city had more value over another? When did we start respecting the business man over the farmer? When our very existence depends upon the latter? It’s a little like what happened during Covid-19. We realised the value of nurses and front-line-workers a little late in the day.
There are many reasons people crave moving from larger communities to smaller ones. The most obvious is retirement. You may live in a large city but it’s expensive and fast-paced and when you retire it is possible you need different things. You may swap the city for the beach, mountains or lakes. You may find a retirement community has more to offer at that juncture in your life, you may want to have a horse farm or live in another country with more sun. The retiring Baby Boomer generation has caused a massive uptick in house prices throughout desirable parts of America, as they take their affluence to other areas and bring their expectations with it. “Baby boomers held an average wealth of $629,683 in their 50s, equivalent to $704,158 in today’s value. Worse off is Generation X who, on average, owned $396,293 when they started reaching their 50s,” Boomers may be the last ‘affluent’ generation in America to have this mobility and generational wealth. It has changed the landscape of America in terms of house prices.
Take for example a town: New Braunfels was a sleepy little town with nothing to recommend it. Boring but by a river, with an outlet mall nearby. New Braunfels is currently growing at a rate of 5.96% annually and its population has increased by 76.03% since the most recent census, which recorded a population of 57,740 in 2010. It had nothing much to recommend it. Retirees began to move in because it was affordable, had year-round good weather, you could get a lot more for your money than if you chose the more traditional retiree communities in Florida and Arizona. This incoming wave perpetuated another; an exodus of large companies from expensive states like California, wishing to re-settle in cheaper ones. They brought jobs and housing. Before you knew it, this little town was one of the fastest growing towns in America, which is baffling given it has very little to recommend it. But like anything, exodus isn’t always based upon seeking the best, but seeking the most practical, which in some ways it was. More baffling; Texas is home to seven of the 15 fastest-growing cities, which when you compare the beauty of other states, seems non-sensical, but speaks to consumers need for less expensive, warmer states, seemingly at any cost.
However, some smaller communities exist by choice before retirement. Historically there have been reasons people have chosen to live separately. Not long ago, the majority of the world was rural and historically that historically the case. But in the last 100 years, this has drastically changed with more opting for urban living. Religious difference and cultural practice are among the most common reasons people have chosen to live apart. In the 1960s and 1970s ‘fringe’ groups and sub-culture became more familiar among the main-stream. Perhaps because in the 1950’s the idea of being a ‘teenager’ really took off and emancipated young people into being more diverse and following their own interests over their parents. This led to more sub-cultures popping up. That said, is it really such a recent phenomenon?
Alexander the Great was only eighteen when he ravaged a quarter of the planet with his conquests. Other famous historical conquests were at the hands of what we’d deem today, very young people. So younger people have always sought to strike out on their own and forge their identities. The suffragettes in the 1930s, the Zazou in France in WW2, Jazz Age of the 1920’s, the Fin de siècle amongst artists from 1880 onwards … the list is endless. Existentialists, LGBTQ, Nudists, Dadaists, counterculture in the 1960’s, there are so many explosions, one would be forgiven for thinking there is no mainstream, but in reality, these groups have always been the minority and often fleeting.
Youth and age aren’t the sole determinants for such sub-cultures to evolve. People seem divided into those who seek homogenisation and those who seek diversity. For some it may not be a choice, such as LGBTQ or those on the spectrum or isolated communities that were ‘discovered’. But for others, it’s a deliberate attempt to dislocate from the mainstream to express their individual perspectives. Of those isolated communities and uncontacted people, it is hard to establish how many would have wished to become mainstream and how much choice they had in the matter. Some indigenous peoples are in voluntary isolation, and do not require ‘saving’ as per the modern cultural assumption. Some indigenous groups live on national grounds, such as the Brazilian Vale do Javariin and those who inhabit the North Sentinel Island in India.
I have visited Quaker, Shaker Mennonite and Amish communities as they have fascinating insights on how to live outside the mainstream. Some do without electricity, others have seemingly flexible prescriptions where their ‘young’ can leave the community once adult and spend time in the outside world before choosing whether to return or not, this is known as ‘rumspringa’. This seemed risky as many could seek the excitement of the unknown, but ironically more return to the community. It reinforces the idea that small communities have staying power, which large communities may dismiss.
There are groups of youth, doing one thing, middle-aged, doing another and a whole spectrum of interests in-between. I find this particularly interesting when you go to a fair or show, and suddenly thousands of people all interested in the same thing turn out. It makes you wonder, where have they been hiding? I have experienced this at rock concerts, medieval and renaissance fairs, comic con, tattoo exposes and vampire balls. I attended out of interest but as an outsider. Watching people who are committed to their passions, get together in fantastic outfits, is a fast insight into how many sub-groups exist. Perhaps all of us have within our main-group, sub-genre groups of interest.
Back in the day we called these cults, clans, cliques and (other) but most of those terms have become insulting to future generations, that saw the impact of labeling. After one of the first American mass murders committed at a school (Columbine), the two shooters were described as ‘Goths’ and consequently, many who dressed in Goth style, were attacked. Sadly the Goth movement had nothing to do with violence but this is what happens when we assume people different from us, must have negative attributes; “Qualitative results reveal that students themselves highlight the importance of exposure to diverse others, family upbringing, the media, and several other key factors as important considerations in how they treat other people; this suggests a multitude of ways that people create their beliefs.” The same happens in America with the church of Satan which does worship the fallen angel, Lucifer, as an alternative God-head, but does not condone or sanction many of the ‘evil’ practices associated with Satanism. It isn’t hard to understand why there would be misunderstanding with such extremes but what of less extreme smaller communities?
The Mormon church not only owns Utah but much of other states too. It is one of the richest religions based out of America and has a huge recruitment reach worldwide. When Mitt Romney, an elder in the Mormon church of America, ran for President, one of the reasons he lost was due to a fear of Mormonism. The ‘other’ aspect to their faith, set them apart from the more mainstream Christianity. However, this is shifting as more politicians of Muslim and Hindu faith are becoming key figures, the fear of ‘other’ is lessening. One could argue some fear of ‘other’ isn’t a bad thing, but it’s the extent to which we react to it, that matters. I may not approve of Mormonism, I may think it’s a phony made-up version of Christianity (The Book of Mormon talks of the history of two tribes of Israel—the fair-skinned, ‘virtuous’ Nephites and the dark-skinned, ‘conniving’ Lamanites. Much of its ‘story’ is a direct retelling of The Bible, unoriginally claiming the same events occurred in North America as in Israel. To me, it seemed like racism dressed up as scriptures). Mormonism has been said to act like a pyramid scheme, but should I be prejudiced against someone on the basis of their being Mormon alone? No. We can be cautious or disagree with a religion without being prejudiced against it. On the other hand, shouldn’t we be conscientious of trying to maintain truth, which means if something perturbs us, like the church of Satan or Mormonism, bringing that to light for others to make an informed choice? Perhaps with faith there is no room for choice, it is a matter of faith, and none of us can persuade another to change their perspective. This might be why wars are so often about faith.
Currently throughout America there are many sects and groups who thrive in relative obscurity and are untouched by the mainstream. Whilst group polarisation clearly exists, the famous stories of cults throughout the world committing mass suicide like the Branch Davidians, or fighting against authorities, isn’t as common place now, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. Social media has made it easier to be underground and thrive but people always find ways. Whether those communities can come together, depends upon how incompatible they are. Near where I live there is a conservative Jewish community where only conservative Jews live. They chose to live separately because of a high number of hate crimes throughout America, where Jews continue to be the #1 most attacked group.
Other groups have become more comfortable co-existing. Twenty years ago, you would not have seen as much diversity as today. In my neighborhood, there are people of every culture and skin colour — Sikhs, Jews, LGBTQ, single parents, tattooed bikers, affluent conservatives, communists. It has been interesting to see how they are able to come together over a mutual interest and get along. When it’s a special event like Halloween, everyone let their children free to trick or treat. They do not avoid certain houses like they once did. There is an acceptance that we have more in common than we have differences and even if we vote differently, look differently, believe differently, we can put some of that aside for a common good.
Just recently I was asked how I could tolerate someone who was say, a Trumpster. It got me thinking that there must be a cut-off in terms of what we do tolerate. For example, if someone were a racist, a Nazi, a pedophile, I would not wish to be in touch with them or live next door to them. But both my neighbors voted for Trump, and I didn’t vote for Trump, but that isn’t enough of an ideological divide for us to not run in the same circle. Interesting they are both Hispanic and there was this idea Trumpsters were Anglo which isn’t always the case. It is those perpetuated stereotypes that cause the most harm. We can get past differences in ideology but most of us have sticking points such as extreme hate, prejudice or harm to children that would be unrecoverable differences. This is how society polices itself to some extent and legitimizes blame. If we didn’t then racism would be more acceptable, but the nuance is sometimes subtle.
The media has a powerful influence on people and can be responsible for promoting a stereotype of a particular group or enhancing scapegoating behavior. People let loose on social media and are uninhibited in their vitriol. This can create more divisions between us. It is difficult to police prejudice because it involves opinion, which may not always show itself in ways that are unlawful. But when we consider communities; communities can thrive with difference, without becoming contentious. Perhaps because our wish to be united is greater than our wish for division. Secularism is misrepresented often. Although when you drive through parts of the American South as a person of colour, you could be forgiven for thinking ‘secular people’ can be hateful, because there are towns where you will definitely not be welcome. Some groups may not outright say they don’t accept others (people of colour for example) but they will actively encourage segregation through their secularity. This may be unavoidable as much as it is racist, but how can we really change that? Would it work to demand racists accept people of colour as next door neighbours? Would it be good for the people of colour to be part of that experiment?
Another concern is a subject brought up by famed linguist, Professor Anvita Abbi, in relation to bringing distant or smaller cultures into the mainstream and their impact. Dr. Abbi received her Ph.D. from Cornell University, USA and began teaching Linguistics at Kansas State University, where she says, she “realised that a large number of Indian languages especially those spoken by the marginalized communities are under-researched.” This led to Abbi wishing to “unearth the vast knowledge base buried in the linguistic structure of Great Andamanese before it is lost to the world.” In the process, as she recorded in her book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, she realised this language was “a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe, the remnants of the first migration out of Africa 70,000 years ago.” Awareness of the Great Andamanese, resulted in invariable negatives; “Outsider-contact has brought diseases, subjugation, sexual assault, and ultimately decimation of the tribal culture, tribal life, and tribal language.” But what has been learned from this outside culture, is invaluable. Sadly as Dr. Abbi says; “Jarawas maintained the isolation and now they regret the interaction with us.” Which if we consider other ‘first contact’ scenarios, seems a universal response.
‘Mainstreaming’ is a colonial model, which can suppress the indigenous dignity of people in favour of assimilation. But assimilation isn’t the same as ‘fitting in’ because often, the qualities of incoming cultures are derided by this colonial model, leaving those incoming, feeing disrespected and alienated. In America, Mexicans are considered ‘less than’ other immigrants (Asian predominantly) because they may have lower education rates. This breeds a division between immigrants that undermines those least appreciated by the host-country. With Asians set to overtake Hispanics in America, this has been at the forefront of race-relations and considerations lately, with some tensions building up as for a long time it was anticipated America would become Hispanic. When Donald Trump was President, he actively encouraged immigration from certain countries over others, because he believed those countries had more valuable people. This sounds an awful lot like the argument for eugenics and, at its core, it shares a lot with racists who believe certain groups have more potential than others.
When Abbi was asked what the ideal way for Great Andamanese integration to occur where language and cultures were not eroded but blended with the mainstream, she said in her experience,“[t]he idea of mainstreaming and merging these tribes into our civilisation is nothing but usurping their rights to their land, forest, water, and way of life. ‘Development’ may kill these tribes. These tribes have amalgamated their life with nature so well that they are aware of secrets of life. Any kind of interference will disturb this harmony.” Perhaps we can learn from the poor, exploitative outcomes of assimilation between developed communities versus those they perceive as less developed. The fault of perceiving difference as ‘less than’ is not appreciating the dignity and abilities of those cultures. Linguistically, socially, they may have many advanced ideas over mainstream culture, but are relegated to ‘less than’ in xenophobic or colonialist thought.
Take the Native Americans of America as one example. They believed the earth was for everyone and no one group should own the earth. They are often considered one of the first cultures to be environmentalists because of their acute awareness of balance and the need to give back to the land rather than rape it. When colonialists came to America, they didn’t respect that and demanded ownership of shared lands, as well as working the land sometimes to death. Slavery and mistreatment of land have that in common, the need to conquer, own and a capitalist model of growth. Those under the yoke of such tyranny do not thrive, only the ruling minority do. In this sense, it is not far removed from fiefdoms and seems to be a penchant of humans given the opportunity. But what happens when we visit cultures where a more egalitarian approach is mainstream? Less oppression and greed in favour of sharing?
It could be argued this is why capitalist model countries like America still fear Communism and Socialism. They recognise this alternative model would undermine the oppressive aspects of Capitalism. Whilst no one ethos appears to work without serious flaws and hypocrisy, we’d probably do better to work together, blending aspects of all, than continue a ‘cold war’ about our differences. When you look at the recent antagonisms between countries, it become apparent, war solves nothing, and the wealth which could be poured into helping countries, are being squandered on military posturing and grandstanding. Until larger communities respect the dignities of smaller groups, we cannot expect this to change. On the other hand, can we afford to give up that military grandstanding if other large countries insist on becoming the conquerors we once were? How can we unite together without becoming vulnerable?
Studies have shown that integration helps overcome prejudice and racism. When people have LGBTQ children, they are more likely to become accepting of LGBTQ and racists become less racist, when people of colour move into their neighbourhoods. This suggests some of the hate is more ignorance and fear although that doesn’t justify it. But should the minority have to stomach that hate to find acceptance for their progeny? Maybe they always have. If we consider the years it has taken some minorities to become more mainstream, it has always been through personal sacrifices. Even Martin Luther King Jr’s murder galvanised more social and racial change in America. Such tragedies create martyrs, harbingers of change, but at what cost? Should it take such extremes as assassinations and mass shootings to wrought change? It seems human nature only understands things when they’re extreme. A case in point is the environment and the long duration where campaigners have warned we’re dooming future generations but business interests were put first.
How with so much division even on subjects that can be proven, such a climate change, can we hope to lay down our differences and come together? Perhaps the best we can hope for, is if enough of us try to embrace difference instead of letting our xenophobic tendencies frighten us, we will do a better job.
Immigration in America is considered a ‘problem’, but it can equally be a solution if we redefine things. Immigration is the bedrock of how America came into existence — from the Native Americans who came across the Barring Strait and made a deserted land, home, to the European conquerors who stole it but equally populated it from diverse cultures. As much as we have fought and hurt one another, we have needed each other.
Each epoch in people’s lives, shifts what matters to that particular generation, and perhaps it is the fear of being obsolete or an inability to get onboard with new ideas (or a fear that old ideas will be ignored) that causes inter-generational strife. But again, if we balance and appreciate the diverse perspective, we all have something to offer, we are stronger together than apart. If we humble ourselves and remember to learn from those cultures that may not have had as much attention given them, but held great wisdom, we may learn alternate ways of cooperating and thriving. If harmony is the goal for most of us, we need to vote and avoid dictators taking that freedom away.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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