How Should We Understand Subcultures

The extract is about the subculture of punks and the way they express themselves through fashion with their use of the swastika which is predominately associated with Nazism. In the extract Cohen (1987) emphasises the “dangers” of applying meaning to a symbol, especially when the symbol in question already has a widely recognised significance. He demonstrates this by analysing Hebdige’s (1979) meaning of the swastika.

Hebdige is a theorist of punk and according to him and other theorists of punk, punks wore the emblem to distance “themselves from the very message the symbol is usually intended to convey” (Cohen, 1987). Hebdige (1979) argued that where there is a hegemonic cultural group, members from a less dominant culture may take a particular area of their culture and decode it with their own meaning. In this instance the swastika, which many believed was not used in a fascist way, but to rebel from their parents and ‘stick two fingers up’ at the British Government of the 1970s.

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Decoding was done within the dominant-hegemonic position. According to Cohen (1987) the “value of this new decoding work” can be extremely vague seeing that the motive why it was worn or the meaning that was being emitted would not have been apparent to those not belonging to the punk subculture. When people see the swastika being worn by individuals it is understandable for them to assume these individuals are fascist or racist. It would be unreasonable to assume otherwise because the swastika should be one of the last things used as a fashion.

Many punks themselves have admitted to wearing the swastika for shock value but whether punks were racist or not it was insensitive to use as a form of rebellion against society when it could cause so much controversy. It seems that punks of the 1970s did not have a direct relationship with Nazis but were tolerant of what they stood for. This is because it showed a complete lack of respect to those who had suffered from the Nazi regime and encouraged racists and fascists to think it was acceptable to promote Nazism.

Some punks at that time also said that although were not self confessed Nazis, the admired Hitler for his determination and success so if that meant that he had to support his views about creating a Aryan race, then they would. Cohen (1987) mentions the lyrics of certain punk songs namely “Belsen was a gas” written by Sid Vicious whereby he describes the annihilation of Jews in Belsen with no sense of compassion. There are other songs from the genre of punk rock that insinuate racism such as ‘I feel like a wog’, ‘Love in a void’ and ‘Nazi baby’.

By using derogative terms, mockery and insulting references it is obvious that some impressionable youths may have thought that some punk rockers were prejudice and why the National Front may have thought so too. Hebdige (1979) claims insist that punks showed “widespread support of the anti-Fascist movement” and he uses this as a way of “defending this particular interpretation” (Cohen, 1987). Still, Cohen argues that this is inappropriate line of reasoning and feels it is more to do with the principles behind the way these punks used the swastika, a symbol that has so much stigma, taboo and demoralising effect on those that it oppresses.

He suggests that the reason why so many punks wore the emblem on the clothing in this period of time was “simply conformity, blind ignorance or knee-jerk racism”. Meaning that whether it was worn to offend or not, it does so anyway by those that could not care less how it is perceived by others. Some wore it to fit in with others, some because of plain stupidity or lack of knowledge while others did it for all three but all of which amounts to racism – voluntary or involuntary.

Rock against Racism was a campaign set up by Red Saunders, Roger Huddle” formed because David Bowie and Eric Clapton made racist comments in public http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Rock_Against_Racism (2006). They have organised a small number of gigs but the largest was held in Victoria Park April 1978 with just under 80,000 in the audience. Many punk rock bands performed along with reggae bands and artists. This drew awareness on the issues suggesting punk rockers were racist and by the two types of music collaborating established a unity and led the ‘real’ racists and fascists (the National Front,) to separate from the punk.

These days, punks often participate in political protests regarding anti-racism and anti-sexism amongst other ethical issues. Now they will tend to wear a swastika with a cross over it http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Punk_fashion (2007). We give symbols meaning so that we have a common sense of understanding. In different cultures it is reasonable to say that a particular symbol will vary when associated with meaning but generally that would be acknowledged. Within a subculture, values and morals will vary slightly and so the use of terminology, fashion, music and expression will change.

To remain sensitive to the feelings of others and to have respect for those around you, we must be aware of whether our actions hurt, upset or insult the people around us. Concluding with Hebdige (1987) ” We must resort, then, to the most obvious of explanations – that the swastika was worn because it was guaranteed to shock… The signifier had been wilfully detached from the concept it conventionally signified and placed in an alternative context… it was exploited for an empty effect. ” Cohen (1979) still remains sceptic in the extract and questions the authenticity of the interpretation.

There is enough evidence to support the notion that man y punks in the late 1970s were racist and supported Hitler and far-right wing views. Punks thought that it was ‘cool’ to be hated like Hitler so wearing Nazi swastika emblems on their clothing and by even doing Nazi salutes constitutes in some eyes as racism. Cohen (1979) remains cynical argues that it is best to “leave the forest of symbols” to avoid confusion and “contradiction”. In that way you say what you mean and mean what you say – universally speaking.