Op-Ed: What it means to live in a society where the fringe becomes the center
We live in an increasingly fringeless world. Though we are used to imagining social life as easily cordoned off into centers and margins, cores and peripheries, it might be helpful for us to let go of this timeworn and erroneous assumption. Instead, our new reality on the verge of 2022 requires knowing and accepting that we live in an age without fringes, without margins, without a clear-cut partitioning of our world into center stages and rafters — for better or worse.
This notion of fringelessness captures many of our contemporary cultural experiences and the ways in which we make sense of cultural differences. I remember when we used to label things “subcultures,” but the term feels quaint and even offensive these days. When was the last time you heard anyone describe some practice as subcultural? That’s because we no longer have subcultures.
In fact, we have grown to reject the very idea that certain people’s cultural actions and beliefs should be deemed “sub” in any way. In part, that is an arguably healthy outgrowth of our attempts at humbling hubristic tendencies toward ethnocentrism. We like to think that if the folks we love and care about do or believe something, it must be good, right, superior — and certainly better than some other group’s strange behaviors or ideas.
Fringelessness isn’t the total lack of recognizable standards and trusted expectations. It is a kind of organized counter-logic to classic claims about what is “normal” or “natural.” We are living during a time of concerted pushback against forces that would seek to determine what counts as normative. Just because most people do or believe something, the argument goes, shouldn’t mean that they can simply impose their notions on others, no matter how small the number of “others” there might be on a given issue.
Much of the current version of our “culture wars” is predicated on the fact that not only do people believe different things, but we have less and less power to determine how much the erstwhile fringes can affect the most established and hallowed sectors of society.
Of course, technology and social media drive a good deal of this. No matter how obscure the belief, we are only ever a few computer keystrokes away from accessing like-minded believers all over the planet, giving us not only the ability to mobilize around even cockamamie ideas but also the impression that maybe those ideas aren’t so marginal or cockamamie after all.
With enough commitment, you can even force the most mainstream of institutions, from government to big business, including media outlets, to contend with your claims, no matter how disconnected from evidence or detrimental to our collective good. This is the version of fringlessness that manifests with, say, an obstinate faith in the claim that we have an illegitimate president residing in the White House because of a rigged election. That same fringelessness is what helps weaponize populism, transforming it from a march in Washington to a would-be government siege.
But it is also the engine driving so-called cancel culture and the ways in which a few thousand people on Twitter can either effectively topple a public figure or completely hamstring them and their agents into total damage-control mode.
This fringeless sensibility emerges from a quintessentially ego-centric perspective. When the entire world rotates around you, then the center is wherever you are located.
In and of itself, fringelessness doesn’t necessarily benefit the political right or the political left. If anything, many commentators will tell us that the “fringe” of both political parties continues to have an outsized impact on our overall political environment. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a well-known QAnon proponent, has proudly declared: “We are not the fringe; we are the base of the party.” This raises the question of whether movements such as QAnon are simply receiving inappropriate amounts of media attention or are forming a new social standard. Either way, this is one example of why it is becoming more and more misleading to call such positions fringe at all.
We live in a moment when the fringe is as big a factor in our political calculations as anything else. It drives debates about abortion as well as how we talk about racism in public school classrooms.
There may be little we can really do about this state of affairs other than monitor the extent to which we are each susceptible to an inaccurate sense of how our ideas stack up against external evidence. If nothing else, we need to recognize that the fringes are determining the central contours of social possibility for all of us.
John L. Jackson Jr., is dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the award-winning documentary “Making Sweet Tea,” about the lives of Black gay men in the South.
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