The counter-culture has always been preoccupied with boxes. “Don’t put me in a box” is a familiar expression. Popular culture has returned to this theme obsessively. Even when boxes aren’t mentioned explicitly, the analogy of being boxed in, repressed or contained is never far away.
“Boxes” come in many forms, and as disciples of counterculture, we are encouraged to keep a look out for them. A box could be an institution like marriage or the Church, or it could be the idea of the nation state. Whatever the analogy, the message is that the box is there to harm us. At the time when the counter-culture was in its infancy, this was a new and exciting idea, with many possibilities.
In her famous song , Malvina Reynolds criticises people who live in “little boxes”, which are “all the same”. Though I have a great deal of respect for Malvina, I can’t help seeing a flaw in this outlook. Maybe it is because this idea was later developed by others; there are countless songs, films and books which encourage us to break out of our little boxes and “come together as one”. This is the message of 1960s counter-culture and it has always seemed like a noble one. However, what they are really doing is ushering us into a world of chaos, where nothing is distinct. This is a world without borders and boundaries, where nobody knows who or what they are. In this world, the strong are able to prey on those who have been divested of their identities.
In order to break out of the “box” of the repressive family unit, it was deemed necessary to form alternative communities that would be non-hierarchical, where every decision was reached by consensus. The logic seems to have been that without the patriarchal family, human beings would be free. To give the 60s generation their credit, this was not just talk. There were in fact many attempts at communal living in the late 1960s. The journalist and filmmaker Adam Curtis has documented this in his film The Trap. The results of these experiments in communal living were at times disastrous. With hierarchies and leadership banned, the dominant personalities of the groups were unrestrained. They were able to manipulate others to their way of thinking, even bullying and abusing people.
In this light, breaking out of our little boxes seems less of a good idea, and more like an experiment that has failed.
Perhaps we can appreciate the counter-cultural ideal by looking at the societies in which it came about. In the 1960s, perhaps the West really was as oppressive and stifling as the hippies said. Nowadays we know that the idea that breaking out of the box will set us free is not the whole story. Now we can have a more balanced perspective. These structures didn’t just keep us “boxed in”. They also kept us, crucially the more vulnerable of us, safe. Boxes are there to look after vulnerable people, who cannot protect themselves from the dangers of the real world.
With hindsight, perhaps we can reread Little Boxes with a more critical eye. Just because people might look the same, doesn’t mean they are the same. To assume that this is the case shows a lack of discrimination, which as the saying goes, is the root of intelligence. It also gives too much weight to the superficial, denying the existence of an individual’s inner life. To peek into someone else’s box is to get to know them a bit; to challenge your preconceptions. To destroy all the boxes also destroys all perspectives, making us truly all the same.
When I write about boxes, the main one I am thinking of is the church. Anglican churches have windows you can’t see out of, which are designed to create a separation between the church and the world outside. They create the kind of division that counter-culture cannot stand. The irony is that when you go to church, you are likely to cross paths with a whole range of people you would never normally associate with. Churches consist of people from all walks of life, and of all ages. These days, there is almost nowhere else that happens. These encounters can challenge your preconceptions, change perspectives, and make you a better person.
Another example of a box is the album, or LP. The album was a great idea because it acted as a container of songs. It could be argued that an album protected or preserved songs that would not have lasted in the voracious singles chart, or on the radio. The album formed a conceptual barrier around these songs, providing the listener with access to a recording artist’s more intense, idiosyncratic or challenging ideas. It was only when the internet destroyed the album that it became clear what a blessing the long playing album was. On the internet, albums cannot survive. As soon as they are uploaded, they are decimated. There is nothing to hold them together.
I am not suggesting that we should turn back the clock; that liberated minorities should go back in their boxes, for instance. What I am suggesting is that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The destruction of these boxes has led to atomisation, which is great for consumerism. The counter-culture led a consumerist revolution, which is still on going. The much-maligned box represents privacy, security. It is the one place where you are safe from from the ravages of commercialism. How ironic.