Revenge of the Sociologists

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Posted on on November 24, 2001

Daniel Gawthrop scratches his head over “cultural creatives”.

The language of new age, “progressive”, or “spiritual” literature can pose serious problems for people who believe in clear writing. Too much of it is steeped in sociological jargon that panders to the reader with feel-good sensibilities (“self actualization,” “essential one-ness”) that no one could possibly disagree with but which provide little, if any, useful information. Sociologists commit some of the worst abuses in the English language by following demographic trends and then coining hollow, politically correct phrases that tend to disappear from popular usage within a few years, which is probably why no serious writer ever employs these words in a published work.

One of the latest examples is “cultural creatives”. Recently a sister-in-law of mine wrote to ask for feedback on a website her brother had just launched. It was hard to give her a straight answer, as I knew she would embrace much of the language contained within the website and I was immediately turned off by its promotional copy. The site appealed directly to a category of surfer it referred to as “cultural creatives”. According to a book it quoted by sociologists Paul H Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, “cultural creatives” are people who, among other things: love nature and are “deeply concerned about” its destruction; are “strongly aware of” the problems of the whole planet (global warming, destruction of rainforests, overpopulation, lack of ecological sustainability, exploitation of people in poorer countries). They also want to see more action on issues such as limiting economic growth; would pay more taxes or pay more for consumer goods if they knew the money would go to clean up the environment and stop global warming; “place a great deal of importance on” developing and maintaining relationships; place high value on helping other people and “bringing out their unique gifts”; do volunteer work for one or more good causes; and possess a whole range of other “self-actualizing” qualities which, if we were all to be held to such high standards as a prerequisite to global citizenship, would prompt anyone with low self esteem issues to blow a hole through the back of their head.

“Cultural creatives” are good feminists who want more equality for women at work, and more women leaders in business and politics. They are “concerned about violence and abuse of women and children around the world and want politics and government spending to put more emphasis on children’s education and well-being, on rebuilding neighborhoods and communities, and on creating an ecologically sustainable future”. They’re also good social democrats who “are concerned about what the big corporations are doing in the name of making more profits: downsizing, creating environmental problems, and exploiting poorer countries”. So far, all good attributes worthy of an NDP or Green Party membership card, right?

But wait. While they “want to be involved in creating a new and better way of life” for their country, they are unhappy with both the Left and the Right in politics, and “want to find a new way that is not in the mushy middle”. Oh, and they also “care intensely about both psychological and spiritual development; see spirituality or religion as important in their lives, but are concerned about the role of the Religious Right in politics.”

And yet they “tend to be somewhat optimistic about our future” and “distrust the cynical and pessimistic view that is given by the media”. Who are these religious, Vegan, anti-mainstream media, apolitical feminist, ultra-achieving, pie-in-the-sky self-actualizers? I’ve never met anyone who identifies as a “cultural creative”, but I’m sure they’re out there. I just don’t how they hope to achieve their vision of a better world or do anything about the Religious Right by leaving party politics to the corrupt and ignoring the mainstream media. Frankly, the concept of “cultural creatives” encompasses far too many different sensibilities under the general umbrella of do-gooders and altruists to mean anything coherent, which makes it suspiciously similar to a marketing concept; a new age McDonald’s.

Less important, though no less grating, is that it’s a grammatical mess. One should always be wary of any concept that turns a perfectly good adjective (“creative”) into a noun. “Cultural creatives” is a self-congratulatory and self-righteous construction that allows any flake who opts out of the mainstream to brand himself “creative”—which, of course, we all like to believe we are. By some people’s definition, Osama bin Laden and the Unabomber are “cultural creatives”, too, but I gather that’s not what Dr. Ray and Dr. Anderson had in mind when they invented this term.

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