Philosophers and Straight Edge*
American Hardcore punk- particularly that of the original cohorts of bands in the 1980s- is a veritable treasure trove of philosophical positions, political activism, and fundamental debates. We have already covered the hardcore scene’s response to the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in a different instalment, so for this edition we will turn our attention to a more specific ethos from the era- Straight Edge.
Straight Edge is a set of beliefs/tenets/behaviours whose inception is attributed to figures such as Ian Mackaye from punk bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. There were several layers of beliefs and several reasons behind the movement but for the purposes of this instalment of Punk Rock Philosophy, we will be narrowing our focus to the parts around sobriety and self-development.
But how do we link this with wider philosophical traditions? Were there any philosophers who were adherents to a sober lifestyle and was it for the same reasons as the straight edgers in Reagan’s America in the 80s? Let’s have a look!
What’s Straight Edge anyways?
A good place to start would be explaining the Straight Edge movement and what it entails.
Straight Edge as a subculture of hardcore punk, sprang out of the west cost of America during the first wave of American hardcore punk. The term was taken from a song of the same name by austere punk icons Minor Threat. What started out as a few individual members of the punk scene taking a decision to abstain from alcohol and drugs, soon became a bona fide ideology that influenced adherent’s political beliefs; relationships; lifestyles and the punk scene as a whole.
Ian MacKaye is widely credited with beginning the sXe movement. He saw the nihilism and decadence demonstrated by the (largely male) members of the US punk scene as falling into the same traps as the rest of mainstream society- self destruction and self-absorption by getting drunk, taking drugs, getting laid and acting like jerks at gigs. The US hardcore scene had a reputation for violence at its gigs and this fact, and the fact that alcohol would be served at the venue, meant that many young music fans were unable to participate in the scene.
So started a sea change whereby bands agreed to play at venues where alcohol would not be served or that underage gig goers would be required to have a big black ‘X’ on their hand, so they would be guaranteed not to get served inside but could still enjoy the music. And thus the ‘X’ as a sXe symbol began- anyone adorned in that symbol would not be getting drunk.
Although it started as a movement defined by refraining from drug use or alcohol consumption, there were (and still are) a wide variety of beliefs and practices that are associated with different arms of the sXe movement. Nicotine is derided by most sXe factions but slightly less common is refraining from any intoxicating or stimulating substance (such as caffeine) and embracing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
The abstinence has two main functions:
**A one finger salute to the mass commercial companies who push their alcohol, tobacco, and processed foods to the masses, furthering their profits whilst eroding our bodies and wider environment.
**A safe space at punk gigs- no drunken brawling in the pit; no concert unfit for minors; women not being picked up like chattel for conquests at the end of the night.
Straight Edge followers adhere to what they see as the core beliefs of the punk ethos- co-operation and community responsibility; anti-capitalism and globalism and self-improvement and deviating from the mainstream.
And it is the self-improvement aspect that we will focus on as we trawl through the philosophical archives to see what our favourite philosophers would have made of Mackaye and friends……
Road to Improvement
If we take Straight Edge as an attempt to live a better life for one’s own benefit- valuing and nurturing the self- then we can see that it has this aim in common with pretty much the entire history of philosophy. What have philosophers been trying do for centuries if not figure out the secret to a happy and fulfilling life? A moral, noble, and meaningful life is the holy grail of the history of thought. And the Straight Edge scene of the 80s demonstrates that that specific quest endures.
Going way back to the ancient Greeks, philosophy poster boys like Aristotle were trying to identify the ingredients for happiness and meaning or, in his words, ‘flourishing’. For him, that meant community and being around other people. In order to live well amongst people (i.e., not hurt them or piss them off) people need to acquire virtues- good habits that promote stable, productive behaviour and inspire cooperation. He believed you could acquire these habits by practicing- conscious thoughts and decisions about what to do and how to do it that would soon become second nature. He said:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
This is exactly what Straight Edge preached- by improving yourself, you elevate the community around you and collectively you make a better world.
The idea that our communal contribution (how we influence the world around us) is an important part of our individual morality is a view shared by philosophers across the ages including David Hume, Adam Smith, and Arthur Schopenhauer. For them, altruism- doing things out of concern or love for others- is a natural state for us to be in. And whilst Straight Edge talks about the individual benefits gained from adhering to the lifestyle (clearer mind, healthier body) the main motivations behind the scene are outward looking- making a safe and inclusive environment for all, undermining damaging capitalist entities, and providing positive role models.
Not all philosophers were preaching or practising sobriety, however. Sartre injected mescaline whilst in college, Walter Benjamin wrote a book on his experience with hashish, Foucault took numerous drugs whilst partying away in Paris. For those philosophers, drugs were a means of trying to open up different parts of their minds and relay to the rest of us what they observed. Or maybe they just wanted to get high, or a combination of both.
Gilles Deleuze was a French philosopher who wrote about numerous subjects throughout the 60s and up until his death in 1995. He grappled with alcoholism throughout his life and wrote about drugs and alcohol and their impacts on the self. In his final book- What Is Philosophy? he had this to say about whether drugs can enhance an artist’s ability to create:
“The question of whether drugs help the artist to create… receives a general answer insofar as that which is composed under the influence of drugs is most often extraordinarily brittle, incapable of conserving itself, undoing itself as it’s made, or as we look at it. One can indeed admire the drawings of children, or rather be touched by them; it’s rare that they manage to stand on their own…..”
And whilst he didn’t live a life of complete sobriety himself, Nietzsche was clear on his opinion of alcohol:
‘I cannot recommend seriously enough that all spiritual natures give up alcohol entirely. Water is enough…’
Straight Edge proponents were often considered rather zealous in their attitudes towards sobriety with many members of the early punk scene in the US claiming that they were ostracised heavily (and some say violently) if they did not adhere to the code. Guilt and shame were also tactics that some claim were used to get people to follow sXe- Henry Rollins would reputedly read a list of names of people who had died from drug use to the crowd at the beginning of Black Flag gigs to demonstrate the real consequences of the ‘getting high’ lifestyle.
For philosophers such as Spinoza, this is not a helpful approach to take. For him, being ethical doesn’t mean being immune to your urges and wants (like wanting a drink or a cigarette). In fact, acknowledging you have these feelings and trying to understand where they come from is essential and does not mean you are undisciplined. A little more support and a little less judgement would be Spinoza’s way.
Sex, alcohol and stimulants are as much a part of all human history as they are now part of society. And so, humanity has always had to grapple with where they fit in terms of our views on a happy, healthy life. For Straight Edgers, the reality of substance misuse amongst their community prompted them to take a stand and as we have seen, there is certainly some sympathy for that in philosophical circles. For others, altruism and supporting yourself, your family and your community to be the best it can be is not contingent on your lifestyle alone. Instead, your intent, actions and morality will be the most significant factor in improving the world. Whichever way you stand on the issue, it has undoubtedly been a preoccupation for much of human history, to figure out how we make the world a bit better in whatever way we can. And there is a lot of hope to be found in that fact alone.
*This instalment uses excerpts from my full length blog post on Straight Edge