Random Thoughts

The Mainstream and Outcasts

In any group of people that form a social unit, I think you will find that a large portion of the group, often a majority of them, will tend to form a "mainstream," with the remainder becoming "outsiders" to the group's social culture.

I don't think this needs serious defending, since it is almost a definition of terms. (What happens when two contending minority groups vie for "mainstream" recognition and powers?)

While I am sure there will be tendency for two kinds of people to fall into the same category no matter what the nature of the group, it is still not universally predictable. People with a tendency to assimilate or "go along to get along" will almost always become part of the mainstream; while loners, and those with poor social skills, will almost always end up being outsiders. (What happens when the outcasts become their own, smaller "group?")

There is no moral conflict of any value to be found in this separation - there is nothing wrong about finding oneself in the mainstream, or superior or right about finding oneself standing apart and being "different" for some reason. While it is certainly true that at times it seems like the majority are a bunch of sheep following whatever leadership they are told to, we cannot use this external observation to determine the validity of their position.

Likewise, the outsider cannot assume the mantle of iconoclast or truth-teller just because they are in a small minority - their being outside the mainstream may only be due to their psychological need to rebel or be "different," not some genuine moral repugnance at wha he mainstream holds to be true. They may simply be wrong, just as the mainstream might be.

Sometimes the issues over which these divisions occur matter, sometimes they don't. There may be a variance of religious belief (one that shouldn't matter, but usually result in death for the infidel), political leanings, fashion, or taste in art. There may be radical differences of opinion and argument over what the culture considers to be a crime, or what punishments are suitable for agreed upon crimes. There may be splits over how to handle extra-cultural affairs, such as war and peace with neighbors.

It is very interesting to consider aspects of a society in which two large minorities exist which are divided on some issue which is important to them.

Each will probably attempt to assume the mantle of the mainstream, and the general cultural approval and precedural results that usually fall to the mainstream view. This can lead to some heated debates, for we no longer have the case described above, where at least the outsider knows and recognizes that their ideas, whether true or not, are not part of the mainstream culural system. What we have are two factions that each think they (or their leaders) represent the mainstream, even the majority (or, as in the case of most mainstreams all) of the population.

One example of this is when a "healthy" two-party political system operates in a democracy. By its nature, such a system provides a means for two generally conflicting sets of viewpoints to battle for control of various spheres of political, social, and cultural influence. Describing the system as "healthy" usually is taken to mean that both parties have approximately the same breadth of power base. This means that they probably are both slight minority parties - perhaps each representing 45% of the population, with an "outsider" portion of the population remaining unaffiliated.

The best way these parties will try to gain power and influence to attempt to introduce ideas and policies that reflect the "outside" group enough to draw them towards that party's candidates and policies. This can create a true majority which is actually more representative of the population at large than either party was before this "assimilation" of ideas.

The worst way is to continuously produce propaganda, both inside and outside the party, that claims that the party represents "all reasonable people," or some such sort of rhetoric. This safely enfolds its members in a secure feeling of rectitude (excusing abominations performed in its interest), and attemtps to create social pressure for the non-aligned to agree.

This does not matter much on fringe issues, or topics that do not have far-reaching ramifications, but can be very dangerous when the effects will be fundamental and the general "issue" is vague or jingoistic - such as "patriotism."

When a party or a party's leaders wrap themselves in this particular robe, patched together from the flag, the cultures assumed shared history, and often in opposition to some real or imagined enemy, the mantle they truly seek to wear is simply one of naked power.

What are these so-called prerogatives of the mainstream? What is this mantle that is adopted either by actual majorities or pretenders to the desire to speak for everyone?

That's the first one - the idea that since a given viewpoint is "mainstream," it represents the will of the people, or even what everyone would think if they just thought things through, or were rational, or pious, or sensitive, depending on the nature of the issue at hand. It is a powerful (and dangerous) intoxicant to think that your views are not only shared with "most people," but are also indisputably right.

The second aspect of the mantle of majority comes directly from the first - in these days of the mantra of "majority rules" created by clumsy interepretation of democracy, those who feel they represent the mainstream view expect to be able to legislate or mandate societal regulations that are in accord with their viewpoint. This is one of the reasons that separation of church and state is so important to any civilized society - religious viewpoints are 1) wrong, 2) uncompromising, often 3) fanatical, and 4) typically intolerant of other ideas. In addition to these flaws, sectarian religious views are often held by large majorities of populations in a given geographical area.

A third element to being in the mainstream is a certain emotional comfort, or security. One is in a position to feel that all is well with the world (unless the mainstream position is that all is not well!), one rarely is forced or required to confront ideas that conflict with one's own, and one's ideas are typically reinforced on a regular basis by most other people and most channels of information. This feels good.

The mantle of the majority is basically, then, an unhealthy and probably dangerous thing, both for those assuming it and of course far more so for those outside it.

What about less political "large minorities"? What happens to them depends a lot ont he overall nature of the mainstream culture. Here in the U.S., where there is a very heterogenous cultural and religious mix, large non-political minorities tend not to have to confront dominant majority mainstream viewpoints (except when the occasional tragedy causes all public figures to ignore all those who do not subscribe to middle eastern faiths...), and are relatively free to form their own cultural subgroups (subcultures) with their own mainstream and outer fringes.

When a subset of the population who are not mainstreamed manage to find each other and form their own distinct social group, a similar phenomena to what happens in the population at large will occur. The only difference might be that sometimes, enough of the members have been used to being "outcasts" for long enough that they are aware of it and sensitive to it, making their subculture's mainstream broader and perhaps even more accepting of fringe minorities close to their "reason for being apart."

And sometimes they aren't. Much of gay culture makes a great effort, with varying success, to be inclusive; whereas religious sub-cults tend to be even more excluding and dogmatic than their respective "mainstream" faith organizations.


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© Huw Powell

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