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The political significance of beards

March 12, 2019   3 mins

At the end of last month, MIT Technology Review featured a story entitled “The hipster effect: Why anti-conformists always end up looking the same.” Plenty to get stuck into there, but it’s what happened next that caught people’s attention.

The article was accompanied by a stock photo of a hipsterish-looking individual (beard, check shirt, you know the sort of thing). According to Gideon Lichfield, this elicited a “furious email” to MIT Technology Review from someone who claimed to be the man in the photo – and objected to being the face of the article.

The irony was that, upon investigation, it was found that the model was somebody else. As Lichfield remarked, the episode just “proved the story we ran… Hipsters look so much alike that they can’t even tell themselves apart from each other.”

So, an everyday story of post-modern folk, which of course went viral. However, I hope people also read the original article, which is a write-up of a fascinating piece of research by Jonathan Touboul of Brandeis University:

“Touboul is a mathematician who studies the way the transmission of information through society influences the behavior of people within it. He focuses in particular on a society composed of conformists who copy the majority and anticonformists, or hipsters, who do the opposite…

“He does this by creating a computer model that simulates how agents interact when some follow the majority and the rest oppose it.”

New ideas about lifestyle and fashion – or just about anything else – are never communicated instantly or uniformly. Some people are ahead of the curve and thus can boast about ‘having been into X before it was cool’.

“People do not react instantly when a new, highly fashionable pair of shoes becomes available. Instead, the information spreads slowly via fashion websites, word of mouth, and so on. This propagation delay is different for individuals, some of whom may follow fashion blogs religiously while others have no access to them and have to rely on word of mouth.”

Touboul’s model incorporates this “propagation delay” – which, it appears, is crucial to the results:

“In general, Touboul says, the population of hipsters initially act randomly but then undergo a phase transition into a synchronized state. He finds that this happens for a wide range of parameters…”

Of course, it’s a computer simulation of a human society, and thus inevitably a simplification. Nevertheless, the patterns produced do seem to accord with real life.

In theory, there are endless ways of distinguishing oneself from the mainstream – if one is minded to make such a statement. But in practice, it is easier to copy someone who has made the statement before you. The more people who copy a particular example, the more visible it will be to others, thus getting the attention of a larger number of potential imitators. Unless halted by some external constraint, it’s a circular process that generates its own momentum.

The French philosopher René Girard argued that human societies are fundamentally about copying. We are hardwired as a species to want what other people want. Indeed, the reason why something was wanted in the first place – in this context, the desire to be different – is often forgotten.

Even when we wish to consciously reject mainstream society, the ‘mimetic’ instinct remains and finds another way to express itself – i.e. by copying other rejectionists. Hence the paradoxical uniformity of non-conformism.

Given our attraction to what other people are attracted to, the intensive copying taking place within the non-conformist group is noticed by the mainstream and they join in too – the mainstreaming of the hipster beard being a recent example.

The upshot is that what began as a statement of non-conformity no longer works on that level. The trend, which evolved from ‘before it was cool’ to ‘cool’, is now ‘not cool’ – and thus provides the basis for a new cycle of rejection, differentiation and imitation. The hipster beard is doomed to join the mullet in the fashion hall of shame.

This process is as relevant to politics as it is to hairstyles – because as well as wanting things just because other people want them, we are also driven to believe things just because other people believe them. That is why, in this age of electronic communication, political rallies are still so important.

That doesn’t mean one can’t arrive at a belief out of reasoned consideration, heartfelt conviction or loyalty to tradition, but, in terms of propagating change across a population, mimetic politics works a lot faster – especially on social media where communication and imitation are as one.

We live in a time of deep unhappiness with mainstream politics; therefore it’s not surprising to see so many alternative political movements gaining traction. They’re a mixed bag to say the least – interesting ideas and new perspectives mingling with madcap notions and ancient hatreds. But, if Touboul’s model is any guide, what should worry us most is not the proliferation of alternatives, but the possibility of a “phase transition into a synchronised state”.

When politics is turned upside-down by a figure like Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn, people look for rational explanations. Fair enough, but it may be that when public anger coalesces around a particular rallying point, it’s for no better reason than everyone else is doing it.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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