The Straight Edge Movement: A Rhetorical Criticism

Rhetoric functions to produce action or change.  It creates a discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action.  Beginning in the 1980’s the rhetoric of the Straight Edge movement changed the reality of punk rock enthusiasts across the country.  Through songs, zines, movies, documentaries, blogs, books, and more the leaders of Straight Edge rallied followers to adopt the clean, straight lifestyle central to the movement.  To resist peer pressure and create a better world in comparison to the corruption that characterized the punk rock scene, Straight Edge emerged as a clean living movement whose members abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

Lloyd Bitzer

Lloyd Bitzer

We know from Lloyd Bitzer that rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to the rhetorical situation.  A rhetorical situation entails three constituents: exigence, an audience, and constraints.  In the case of the Straight Edge movement, the exigence, or the problem that required change, was state of the punk rock scene.  From Collective Identity in the Straight Edge Movement, Ross Haenfler says, “Frustrated by what they viewed as punk’s self-destructive, nihilistic attitudes and behaviors, some punks took an antidrug, antialcohol stance, calling themselves ‘straight edge'” (Haenfler 786).  The moral corruption of punk rock posed an imperfection in society that some felt an urgency to change. This urgency was felt within the punk rock subculture, so Straight Edge was a subculture within a subculture itself.  These people were the audience of the rhetorical situation.  Some constraints of the situation were the well-established norms of punk rock– the booze, the drugs, and the sex– which were ever-prevalent in the scene.  Straight Edgers faced this status quo head on while observing internal constraints such as self-control.

“Frustrated by what they viewed as punk’s self-destructive, nihilistic attitudes and behaviors, some punks took an antidrug, antialcohol stance, calling themselves ‘straight edge.'”

Punk rock of the late 1970’s encouraged youth to confront the status quo and question everything about dominant society.  In their rebellion punk rockers had a self-destructive edge, lived as if there were no future and no meaning in life, and believed the world was in irreversible decline.  They lived for the moment and reveled in the excesses of drugs, sex, and alcohol.  It wasn’t until vocalist Ian MacKaye of punk rock band Minor Threat sang Straight Edge,” the song that lent its name to the movement, that people started to turn around.

Ian MacKaye

Ian MacKaye

“I’ve got the straight edge,” MacKaye sang in those early days of 1981.  Nearly thirty years later, in EDGE: The Movie: A Straight Edge Documentary, MacKaye gave a blunt summation of his views on Straight Edge: “I just don’t consider it a movement.”  Clearly, to initially create such a large base of followers then come to lose main leaders such as MacKaye, the Straight Edge movement underwent a transformation.  This transformation is explainable through a rhetorical criticism of the movement as a whole.

This analysis will take a look at exemplary artifacts of the movement through several “lenses” or forms of rhetorical criticism.  Through each lens we will see a different picture of the movement, and with each picture we will create an overall illustration of the underlying meanings behind the movement.  As a disclaimer, prepare to feel both the persuasive effects of Straight Edge rhetoric as well as the dampening effects of my rhetorical criticism.  I will critique the movement extensively and you will be left with a new impression of it, if you have a starting impression to begin with.

Kenneth Burke

Kenneth Burke

In every piece of rhetoric there is a story, or drama.  In fact, “life is a drama,” as Kenneth Burke put it.  Mass media uses dramatic structure all the time.  Although we are not aware of it, there is an Act, Agent, Scene, Agency, and Purpose in every Cheerios commercial, news broadcast, Oprah Winfrey show, and magazine advertisement we see.  These five terms are the points of Burke’s pentad, which he used to make pentadic criticisms.  The dramatistic pentad gave formal names to the simple questions of What happened? Who did it? Where did it happen? How did the Agent do it? and Why did it happen?

The Straight Edge movement is a drama.  Burke’s pentadic criticism is applicable to the rhetoric of the movement as a whole.   In it we can identify every feature of Burke’s pentad.  With Burke’s pentadic criticism, we will discover the motive of the Straight Edge movement.  The key to doing this is analyzing the ratios at which the pentadic points are weighed against each other and noting which one is dominant.

 To further develop this concept of the Straight Edge movement as a drama, we will also look at it as a story, or narrative.  The same features are in this narrative: a plot, characters, a setting, dialogue, and a theme.  It’s a form we are all familiar with, for “it is widely recognized that narrative is a human universal found in all cultures and at all times in human history,” said Robert Rowland in The Narrative Perspective (Rowland 117).

Several key structures are applicable to the narrative form.  The classic plot design of exposition, rising tension, climax, falling action, and resolution is not only applicable to literature, but to rhetoric as well.  So is the structure of the literary hero’s journey.  The hero is first called to adventure, then crosses the threshold to the unknown, faces challenges and temptations, undergoes a transformation, finds atonement, and finally returns to the known world.

A simpler structure to follow while studying the story of the Straight Edge movement are the three phases of development outlined by Leland Griffin in The Rhetoric of Historical Movements: a period of inception, a period of rhetorical crisis, and a period of consummation.  During inception, the movement sets its roots and begins to flower into public notice.  During crisis, opposing rhetoricians come to the discussion and spark conflict.  During consummation, the aggressor rhetoricians abandon their efforts and the movement either settles in defeat or victory (Griffin 11).

Each of these structures overlap and all tell the story of Straight Edge.  During the inception or exposition phase of the movement, the main characters or Agents emerged, such as frontmen Ian MacKaye and Ray Cappo, bands such as Earth Crisis, Justice League, Uniform Choice, and 7 Seconds, as well as masses of followers.  They were all called to the adventure of creating their own counterculture and defeating the dragon that was the drug, alcohol, and sex corruption of the punk rock scene.  They underwent challenges and temptations during the climax of the movement, especially when Straight Edge violence broke out in Reno and Salt Lake City in 1998.  During this crisis phase Straight Edge was met with critical opposition, even within the bounds of its own community.  Yet everyone experienced some kind of a transformation, whether it was from drug abuser to clean and sober, or carnivor to vegan, or Straight Edge adherent to sellout.  Each transformed individual emerged from the journey as masters of both worlds: Straight Edge life, and life after the movement.  Again and again through the journey of Straight Edge, the Act of endorsing Straight Edge values was emphasized over all else, for it was the only way for the Purpose of the movement to be fulfilled.  There is the unanswered question of whether the movement ever reached consummation, because it branched out into several tributaries such as Bent Edge, Youth Crew, or Krishna Hardcore.  Despite its hazy culmination, the movement has a clear beginning.  It is Minor Threat’s song, “Straight Edge.”

With a duration of just 46 seconds, Minor Threat’s song puts forward a strong message to its listeners.  “I’m a person just like you.  But I’ve got better things to do,” sings MacKaye.  It endorses taking the high road to substance abuse.  Abusers are like the “living dead.” In comparison, MacKaye is clear-headed, sober, and strong.  He is “always gonna keep in touch. Never want to use a crutch.”

How, in 46 seconds, does Minor Threat give such a strong argument that an entire movement is initiated?  This question can be answered by doing a Neo-Aristotelian criticism of the song. The focus of the Neo-Aristotelian approach to rhetorical criticism is “discovering the effects of an artifact on an audience and whether the rhetor selected the best strategies for achieving the intended effects,” says Sonja Foss in Neo-Aristotelian Criticism (Foss 71).

The context of “Straight Edge” entails a punk rock scene that is filled with drug abusers, alcoholics, and sex fiends.  Not everyone is like that, but it seems like it.  Peer pressure suppresses anyone who might have a second thought about using drugs or alcohol.  If you are into punk rock, then you automatically drink, “snort white shit up [your] nose,” and sleep around.  At the time MacKaye had witnessed his friends abusing drugs and alcohol and acting recklessly.  Repulsed, he decided against the lifestyle and went on a mission to campaign against it.

MacKaye employs internal or artistic proofs, or means of persuasion, to make his point. There are three kinds of artistic proofs: logos, ethos, and pathos.  MacKaye relies mainly on the latter two.  Ethos, or the quality of the rhetor’s character, is evident when MacKay says, “I’m just a person like you.”  He identifies  with the audience and appears to set himself at an equal level with them. But he goes on to further expand his ethos: “I’m just a person like you, but I’ve got better things to do.”  Although he initially assumes an equal status to his audience, he takes up a superior stance to those who use drugs and alcohol.  Drug users and alcohol abusers in his audience suddenly feel the pang of insult as MacKaye says this.  What makes him better than me? they ask.  When MacKaye continues on to explain why he’s above the rest, pathos comes into play.  Like a preacher condemning a sinner, MacKaye draws on the emotional response of guilt felt in the audience.  As he lists the various vices punk rock “sinners” engage in, such as “fuck[ing] around with my head,” “snort[ing] white shit up my nose,” “pass[ing] out at shows,” and “sniffing glue,” the audience realizes that they are the people MacKaye is talking about.  They are admonished by MacKaye, and by the discomfort of their guilt, they feel compelled to change.

Imagine a young punk rocker listening to “Straight Edge” at a show.  He has already conformed to a standard that is the complete opposite of what MacKaye sings about.  He walks the walk and talks the talk of a typical punk rocker: dark clothing, moshing at shows, drugs, alcohol, sex.  The conservative message of his parents to avoid drugs and alcohol has been preached so often that he is desensitized and numb to it.  It’s not “cool” to be clean anyway.  Yet choosing to be bad wasn’t entirely his own choice.  He was peer pressured into it to begin with, and he has to maintain the reputation he was given.  There’s a possibility that he has come to resent who he is as a punk rocker.  MacKaye’s message pulls at his heart strings, gives him a new purpose to fight for, a revolution to champion, and instills in him a call to action.

Action is the ultimate goal of this song.  Although it is slightly passive-aggressive, sung as though MacKaye is turning up his nose at the corrupted punk rock scene, Minor Threat is actually inviting its audience to join the crusade.  “I’m a person just like you, but better. You can be like me,” is the message presented.  It doesn’t matter who you are or how you do it, but there is a new Purpose to satisfy.  It doesn’t matter where you are in life; change your ways. And do it now.  Act on the call.

Straight Edge converts saw the movement as a revolution. Come to think of it, there has been a reoccurring culture of revolution throughout the history of the nation.  The American Revolution was a rebellion against the dominant British government. The civil right’s movement was a rebellion against the established racism against colored people.  The hippie counterculture was a rebellion against “The Man.”  It seems like there has been a revolution in every generation of our history.  The appeal of radical change is irresistible to a youth that is uncomfortable with dominant society.  Youth of Today‘s song, “Make a Change” sums up the sentiment:

I see it on the streets
as we walk by
what little value we place on human lives
but it’s time we get priorities
won’t turn away any longer
it’s time we make a change

Jesus Christ

In our culture we have several myths that tell “master stories describing exceptional people doing exceptional things and serving as moral guides to proper action,” say Roderick Hart and Suzanne Daughton in Cultural Criticism (Hart and Daughton 236).  Take the story of Jesus Christ, for example.  Jesus can be said to be the ultimate revolutionary of history.  There is a whole religion focused on his rebellion against dominant society.  Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, the founding fathers, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela… the list of revolutionaries through history is endless.  The myth of the revolutionary is told and replicated again and again.  “A myth’s serviceability is judged by its evocative potential, its capacity to impress upon an audience the ‘Truth’ of an event, not by its facticity,” say Hart and Daughton.  This “Truth” presented by the myth of the revolutionary is a story that says one person can make a difference and  triumph in the face of great adversity.

We can do a cultural criticism of “Make a Change,” by Youth of Today.  The cultural critic analyzes the emotional power of myths in rhetoric and looks at the audience’s response to a rhetor’s choice in mythic strategy.  No mention of the myth of the revolutionary is made in Youth of Today’s song.  However, we can tell that it is speaking to stir the revolutionary spirit in its listener.  As we look at the state of society today, punk rock culture specifically, we see “what little value we place on human lives.”  Punk rockers are so self-destructive, they must not value human life at all.  Seeing the poor state we are in, we feel that “it’s time for change.”  Revolution is defined as a sudden, complete or marked change in something.  We “won’t turn away any longer.” Instead we will face our trouble and change it.

Hart and Daughton say that myths heighten our sense of authority, continuity, coherence, community, choice, and agreement (Hart and Daughton 243-244). Each of these is appealed to in the song.  Straight Edgers have a divine authority in that they can and must change the world by adopting a clean lifestyle.  Their revolution gives meaning to the present and future.  The coherence a Straight Edger feels with the “ancestral ghosts” of revolutionaries past empowers them.  They feel a communion with other Straight Edgers in the movement as well. Here they choose between good and evil– Straight Edge and non-Straight Edge.  Finally, the revolution seems too pure to disagree with.

The purity of the Straight Edge movement may have been what initially drew people to it.  But things took a turn for the worst when Straight Edgers became more radical and militant. Ian MacKaye addressed the problem in his interview for EDGE: The Movie: A Straight Edge Documentary.  “The problem with movements is that movements start to lose sight of humanity,” he says. “I don’t want people to ever use my words, ever, to injure anybody. Ever. That is the antithesis of my desire in life,” he continues.

MacKaye could be alluding to Straight Edge violence in Salt Lake City and Reno.  In 1998, the Los Angeles Times reported on “bombings and arson attacks that targeted animal-product stores… and assaults and stabbings at punk rock concerts” in Salt Lake City (Sahagun).  A 15-year old was even murdered by individuals who identified with Straight Edge.  In Reno, Straight Edge was officially classified a gang by the Regional Gang Unit.  The Reno Gazette Journal reported that “authorities describe Straight Edge attacks as random, opportunistic, violent beatings that can be spurred by minor comments from nonmembers. Members — who sometimes use bats, shovels, knives, brass knuckles and mace — don’t engage in violence unless they can outnumber their targets” (O’Malley).

Steve Lopez, Time Magazine

In a Neo-Aristotelian criticism of a Time Magazine article titled The Mutant Brady Bunch, by Steve Lopez, we will look into both the militancy of Straight Edge, as well as its reception by outside critics.  Essentially, we will look at the crisis phase, or the climax, of the story of Straight Edge.

Lopez speaks to a broad audience that is not exclusive to the Straight Edge punk rock scene, but includes anyone who has loved ones, friends, or even acquaintances in the subculture.  He also addresses the general public who may not have a clear idea of what Straight Edge is, but who may have heard mention of it somewhere.  The subtitle packs the first punch and reads, “Meet Salt Lake City’s clean-cut, anti-drug street gang–and tremble.”

“Meet Salt Lake City’s clean-cut, anti-drug street gang–and tremble.” – Steve Lopez, Time Magazine

With dry humor, Lopez criticizes the Straight Edge scene in Utah on the sly: “Maybe it’s just that in Utah, joining a social order devoted to clean living doesn’t exactly distinguish you. Firebombing meat and leather outlets, using pipe bombs on a fur-trading office and setting minks free, however–as Straight Edgers and closely linked animal liberationists have been accused of doing over the past several years–tend to drop you from consideration for membership in the church choir.”  He says Straight Edge is a “bizarro culture in which having a beer is taboo but clubbing someone to death is A-O.K.”

The context of this article is Salt Lake City, 1999, where several instances of Straight Edge violence have broken out.  On Halloween, Bernardo Repreza Jr., 15, a Hispanic youth, was attacked with a bat, a knife and police batons.  In 1998, University of Utah student Mike Orthner was assaulted after asking a Straight Edger for a light.  “Next thing Orthner knew, he was clocked with brass knuckles, and ‘some wacko’ was waving a sword,” writes Lopez.  In 1996 Straight Edge vegan Josh Anderson bombed a McDonalds.  “We joked and said it would be neat if we burned it down,” Anderson says, “I had a Molotov cocktail. I waited until everyone was out in the car. I threw it and ran.”  Lopez writes in reaction to such violent acts, capitalizing on the outrage and confusion felt by his audience.

In criticizing The Mutant Brady Bunch we should pay attention to the arrangement or organization of the article, appeals Lopez makes, the nature of his artistic proofs, his judgment of human nature in the audience, and finally the effect of it all on his audience– both immediate and long term.

When we think of Utah or Salt Lake City, we think of its Mormon community.  That is what Lopez starts with.  “Things didn’t quite work out for Josh Anderson in the Mormon church. Nor did a nondenominational Christian upbringing light the way for Randy Haselton,” begins a description of Anderson and Haselton’s conversion to Straight Edge.  After joining, “Josh became a vegan and firebombed a McDonald’s; Randy enjoys beating the tar out of people.”

Right away, Lopez aligns Straight Edge with violence, as if they are synonymous.  He continues with the stories of Anderson and Haselton, peppering the article with their poignant quotes that reveal telling truths about their violent acts in the name of the movement.  The irony of their religious backgrounds is a theme that Lopez often connects to Salt Lake City.  How, in this conservative town did a conservative-value-holding subculture become violent?  Lopez makes a logical appeal to the audience.  Like Mormonism and violence, Straight Edge values and violence don’t mesh.  Any Straight Edger who is violent just seems ridiculous.  Thus, The Mutant Brady Bunch is an appeal to logos, or the logic of the argument.

Lopez assumes that he and his audience share similar sentiments of irritation and bewilderment towards the violence of the Straight Edge community in Salt Lake City.  He writes as if his audience is laughing with him at the irony of Straight Edge violence.  This identification with the audience adds to Lopez’ ethos and draws on a pathos, or emotional, appeal as well.  When asking Anderson why Utah Straight Edgers are prone to violence, Anderson says, “Maybe because this isn’t the most exciting town, and a lot of kids need a cause.”  The stupidity of it all is revealed through Anderson’s naive quote.  Furthermore, Haselton makes another wise statement: “I’m not going to say we haven’t started fights.  We don’t do drugs. We get our rush from fights.” To conclude, Lopez includes a quote from the father of a Straight Edge criminal that sums it all up: “I sure wish I understood what this Straight Edge was all about.”

The immediate effect of this article on its audience is a degradation of the integrity of the Straight Edge movement in the eyes of the general public.  What some people respect as a noble cause is now a joke to Lopez’s readers.  It is an immediate, as well as a long-lasting effect that has shaped the perception of his audience permanently.

Looking at the crisis phase of the Straight Edge movement, we can see its progression into radicalism and borderline anarchy.  Action is what the founders of the movement called for, and action inevitably emerged as the basis of Straight Edge involvement.  The Straight Edger assesses the Scene of corruption within the punk rock subculture, chooses a means, or Agency, to express his Straight Edge beliefs, and fulfills the Purpose of defeating corruption by committing an Act.  Minor threat and Youth of Today did it by singing their songs.  Josh Anderson did it by bombing a McDonalds.  Randy Hasleton did it by beating up non-members.  We can see that within the dramatistic pentad, the Act feature dominates all else because action has become so central to what in means to be Straight Edge.  As the story of Straight Edge goes on, more radical and extreme Agents come to play, bringing with them repetoires of Straight Edge Acts that appalled outsiders and inside members alike.

Walter Bond

Walter Edmund Bond, also known as ALF Lone Wolf to his cyberspace following, is a vegan Straight Edge activist who is now imprisoned in the United States Penitentiary, Marion, a federal prison.  In 2010 Bond was arrested for arsons of the Sheepskin Factory in Denver, Colorado, the Tandy Leather Factory in Salt Lake City, Utah and Tiburon Restaurant in Sandy, Utah. He was also responsible for burning down a meth lab owned by a drug dealer who was selling to his brother.  The song “To Ashes” by Earth Crisis was inspired by him.  Supportwalter.org says:

Walter Bond is a Vegan Straight Edge Anarchist who opposes the deadly and genocidal culture of drug abuse in the United States. He is the subject of the song “To Ashes” by the band Earth Crisis – which was inspired by Bond’s previous incarceration from 1997 – 2001  for burning down the home and meth operation of a multi-million dollar drug dealer that was selling poison to his family and friends.

“Your brother’s fucking strung out everyday.  He’s not getting help for himself.  I couldn’t help him. His friends wouldn’t help him.  The cops wouldn’t help us.  What would you do?” says an actor portraying Bond at the opening of the song’s music video.  With savage guitars and hammering drums in the background, a crunchy, rasping voice screams out these lyrics:

Deterioration accelerates
My kin a prisoner
Now the reaper awaits
A demon encased
Inside of human skin
A profiteer that feeds
A plague of addiction
There’s no option, 
There’s no recourse
There’s no other way
Every meth lab burned
To ashes
Every meth lab burned
Crimson flames
Against the darkened sky
The ultimate act of intervention
No other option left but to retaliate
Drawn to attack the source
The origin eradicated
Confronted with reptilian coldness
If not from me
Then someone else will sell this

Never accept that this
Is just an act of fate
The angers boiling down
Into absolute hate
Crimson flames
Against the darkened sky
The ultimate act of intervention
No other option left but to retaliate
Drawn to attack the source
The origin eradicated
Doused and set ablaze
Scales of justice raised
Every meth lab burned
Crimson flames
Against the darkened sky
The ultimate act of intervention
No other option left but to retaliate
Drawn to attack the source
The origin eradicated

In the course of my criticism of select rhetorical artifacts, “To Ashes” was the most telling.  In a pentadic criticism, I identified Bond as the Agent of the drama, the corrupted, drug-abusing state of the punk rock culture as the Scene, arson as the Agency, the eradication of drug abuse as the Purpose, and Bond’s burning down of the meth lab as the Act.

“Advertisers, propagandists, and hustlers of all kinds like to have us respond rapidly and uncritically to their messages.  They want us to act, without stopping to reflect deeply on the full meaning of their message,” says Andrew King in Pentadic Criticism: The Wheels of Creation (King 168).  King sums up what I interpreted as Earth Crisis’s main goal with “To Ashes.”  The song glorifies Bond’s Act as “the ultimate act of intervention.”  Since Bond burned down the meth lab for the sake of Straight Edge, the holy cause of purity, it’s justified.  Earth Crisis aims to encourage its listeners to emulate Bond and become martyrs of the movement.  By means of anarchy, destruction, and violence, Straight Edgers must Act to defeat the “plague of addiction.”

Artifacts that emphasize Act suggest realism.  Realists don’t care about what people are.  What is more important is what they do.  “We admire devotees of action, and even when doing nothing would be a sensible course, or when there is little agreement about what to do, we still admire the leader who rushes headlong into an act,” says King (King 169).  At this point in the story of Straight Edge, action is the only thing that matters.  Both Bond and Earth Crisis are adversaries of passivity.  They encourage Straight Edgers to be active, rather than posing as adherents and doing nothing to further the Straight Edge cause.

In a blog post titled, “xVx What It Means To Me xVx,” on Supportwalter.org Bond writes,

“Vegan Straight Edge, means everything to me.  It’s not the music, it’s not the tattoos and it’s not the camaraderie that makes Vegan Edge as close to me as my own heart beat.  All these things have their place but when the show is over, when the tattoos begin to fade and blend together and when friends come and go, it’s the way we live our lives that over time forms the people we are.  It’s the things we do and refuse to do, that define us.  Vegan Edge shrinks the gap between rhetoric and reality.  It’s not a school of thought and it’s not a belief (although both have evolved from it).  It’s an attempt to try and make this world a more peaceful and just place in an aggressive and forthright manner.  Starting with ourselves and reaching in ever wider circles to the world around us.  Building scenes and a community worldwide.  Screaming our manifestos as anthems to crowds of ourselves that scream them right back in our faces.  To the outside world it looks like a mosh pit or a hardcore punk concert, but for us it is not just a show, it’s an affirmation.”

Bond and Earth Crisis intend to light a fire in the hearts of their followers.  They want Straight Edgers to burn with passion for the movement, ignite action, and set fire to anyone that stands in their way.  Moral repercussions of such action are cast out the window.  The thing about emphasizing the Act above every other feature of the pentad is that it appeals to our aversion to reflection.  “We have a fear of too much reflection,” King says, “We hold Hamlet in contempt because it takes him so long to act; we love action-heroes who act without hesitation or reflection” (King 169). It’s a sign of weakness to ponder your actions in not only Straight Edge, but society as a whole.  What that goes to say for thoughtless acts of violence like Bond’s arson is another story.

At this point in the story of Straight Edge, followers no longer meditate on the core values and goals of the movement.  It is no longer a deviation from the corruption of punk rock aimed to resist peer pressure and create a better world.  It’s a teenage fad abused to vent the vicious, punk-rock-fueled angst of its culturally oppressed followers.  It has traded in its purity for mindless anarchy.  Straight Edge’s fall from grace is evident in the testimony of Raven, whose story is somewhat of a microcosm depicting the state of the disgraced Straight Edge movement.

SxE by Nathan Joinick in The Straight-Edge Monthly is an article telling the story of Joinick’s life as a member of Straight Edge.  “My name’s Nathan Joinick, but I want you to call me Raven,” he writes.  He says, “Straight Edgers are all about staying straight, clean, healthy, sober, and beating the living shit outta the smokers, stoners and alkees.”

While I say Raven writes at the point of disgrace of the Straight Edge movement, it seems, by the way he boasts that the movement is at its height:

“Last night, this guy came up to me for a light, right, and he was all like, ‘Hey, amigo, got a light?’ I told him that no, I was Straight Edge, and he was just like, ‘What’s that shit?’ and I’m like, ‘I’ll show you that shit,’ and then I showed him that shit and kicked the living fuck outta him. I don’t care if he was my Spanish teacher; he shouldn’t be doing that kind of shit, it ain’t healthy.”

The machismo- and heavy testosterone-toned language Raven uses would have a feminist reader’s hair stand on edge.  Thus, using a feminist analysis of Raven’s testimony, we will uncover hidden sexism and gender binaries within the text.

In Raven’s testimony there is an underlying binary between Straight Edge and non-Straight Edge.  To understand binaries, think of the gender binary between male and female.  In many cultures around the world, society is organized into two opposites: masculine and feminine.  The masculine side is often held in higher regard than the feminine side.  Men are privileged while women are marginalized.  In the United States for example, there is a gender gap in earnings, also known as male-female income disparity.  According to the National Women’s Law Center, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.  Besides economic inequality, long-lasting stereotypes demeaning women and idolizing men have influenced society since the beginning of time.  The woman was the one who committed the first sin of Christian history.  She is weaker, over-emotional, a temptress, and should stay in the kitchen.  On the other hand, a man is strong, a leader and patriarch, the breadwinner… God.

What would feminism have to do with Raven’s post?  The answer lies in his language.  In his marginalization of the non-Straight Edge community, he draws an obvious binary.  Straight Edge is the masculine, non-Straight Edge is the feminine.  On his side are the strong, dominant, superior champions of the movement.  On the other are weak and immoral drug and alcohol abusers.  Raven and his Straight Edge friends embody gorilla-like masculinity: they are violent, hostile towards outsiders, and mark their territory.

A feminist reader would be enraged at Raven’s violent Acts, especially when they assault a woman:

I remember this one girl who we saw smoking a cigarette in the parking lot when we came out of The Matrix last summer. She looked at us and said “hi,” and puffed out a breath of stinky smoke in our direction. Max got so pissed he went right up to her, took her cigarette out of her skanky hand and put that shit out on her arm. Other people saw it, so he spent the night in jail for that one, and his sister had to be taken to the hospital for the burns, but it was worth it. I don’t think she’s smoked a single cigarette that wasn’t slim ever since.

Misogynistic language in Raven’s description does not come as shock amidst the rest of his profanity.  Other words that have hostile connotations towards women color the post.  Raven uses the word “fuck” six times in a ten paragraph entry.  He calls the innocent girl a “skank,” intending to degrade her to his readers and belittle her to the status of a prostitute.

Raven’s crooked perception of women is also evident in the way he sees his mother.  His mother has no idea that her son is a violent, hateful troublemaker.  He doesn’t disclose his activities with his parents.  Since his mom works for Zima Corporation and his father for Coors, he doesn’t think they’ll understand.  One night Raven pours one of his father’s beers down the drain in protest to alcohol use.  He writes, “My dad’ll freak when he finds out one of his beers is gone. He’s an alcoholic by the way. He’ll probably blame mom again like he always does and hit her and shit, but she deserves it for selling drugs that fuck people’s heads.”  We can see that his misogyny is not only fueled by the binary in Straight Edge, but by his abusive father as well.

The lack of respect of women Raven expresses through his language could be derived from his upbringing in a male-dominated household.  It could stem from a general misunderstanding of femininity.  It could also be a defense mechanism used to hide a secret insecurity Raven feels when it comes to the opposite sex.  It could be all of these things.  What the reader has to understand is that all of the discriminatory language Raven uses is not a demonstration of strength and power.  It is a social construction embedded in Raven’s mind by repeated images of male chauvinism.  He is simply repeating what examples of masculinity he has seen from his father and other Straight Edge fanatics.  Here we can clearly see the movement’s loss of its sight of humanity, which Ian MacKaye referenced to in his interview.  Raven has lost sight of the humanity of anyone outside the Straight Edge circle, as well as the humanity of the female half of the human race.

Is Straight Edge to blame for the violence and misogyny its members came to adopt?  Its leaders forsook the cause when it started to get ugly, so they can’t be blamed.  Should the finger be pointed at the movement’s masses of followers?  It is difficult to locate the cause of the radicalization of Straight Edge; it was an organic movement with little organization.  It just happened.  Like almost every movement in history, this movement included its own assortment of fanatics.  Walter Bond, Josh Anderson, Randy Haselton, Raven, and more took Straight Edge to the extreme.  In turn, they created a reputation for the movement that was more corrupt than the original corruption it initially sought to conquer.

In February 2013 I began my rhetorical criticism of the Straight Edge movement asking questions such as what is the Straight Edge movement? Why did it come about? Was this reversal in attitude hibernating in the hearts of punk rockers all along? Would this just be another rebellion against the status quo?  From the beginning I did not anticipate to be impressed by the Straight Edge movement.  I considered it just another teenage fad.  My expectations were both verified and contradicted as I learned more after each criticism of several rhetorical artifacts.  To be “intensely skeptical of all claims to truth” is the deconstructionalist approach to analyzing rhetoric.  In February I was indeed skeptical of the merit of the Straight Edge movement, and remain skeptical to this day.  I could not help feeling struck by the levels of extremity the movement reached, however.  Perhaps I am not impressed; I am certainly fascinated.

Something that defines the youth of any generation is their thirst to find meaning and passion in life.  With every new fad that comes around, from hippies to hipsters, we see young people adopting aesthetic styles, tastes in music, and life values to define themselves as deviants to dominant culture.  They seem like rebels, revolutionaries, but all they’re doing is conforming to a new status quo.  In their quest for identity, Straight Edge followers fell into this pattern of conformity.  Some got carried away, became the Westboro Baptist Church of Straight Edge, and resorted to the extreme to express their beliefs.

The lure of action was the bait used to catch Straight Edge followers.  By the time Straight Edge emerged, the punk rock scene had reclined into a hopeless state.  It was going no where.  The death of one movement called for the birth of a new one.  Punk rockers wanted something else to live for; they wanted a new cause and Purpose.  When Straight Edge came around it was a wake up call. Now there was actually something to do. After blundering around in the meaningless black hole of punk rock, Straight Edge converts were enlightened by the pure flame of the movement.  Ignited, they set out to prove their allegiance by committing Acts of faith– burning down fur factories, destroying restaurants, and attacking non-believers.

The Fall of Lucifer

The story of Straight Edge has a heartbreaking ending we have seen many times before.  Like Adam and Eve, Lucifer, Anakin Skywalker, or tragic heroes Macbeth and Othello, Straight Edge came from a status of pure integrity and descended into the depths of corruption.  Out of the death of this movement we can only gear up our rhetorical criticism expertise, set aside our tendencies of rapid response, and prepare for the birth of the next one.

References

Bitzer, Lloyd F. Philosophy & Rhetoric. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press,    1968. Print

Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Incorporated, 2009. Print.

Griffin, Leland F. “The Rhetoric of Historical Movements.” Readings on the Rhetoric of Social Protest. Ed. Charles Morris, Stephen Browne. 2nd ed. State College: Strata Publishing, 2006. Print

Haenfler, Ross. “COLLECTIVE IDENTITY IN THE STRAIGHT EDGE MOVEMENT: How Diffuse Movements Foster Commitment, Encourage Individualized Participation, And Promote Cultural Change.” Sociological Quarterly 45.4 (2004): 785-805. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 May 2013.

Hart, Roderick P., and Daughton, Suzanne M. Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2005. Print.

King, Andrew. “Pentadic Criticism: The Wheels of Creation.” Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. Ed. Jim Kuypers. Lexington: Lexington Books, 2009. Print.

Lopez, Steve. “The Mutant Brady Bunch.” Time 154.9 (1999): 36. MAS Ultra- School Edition. Web. 19 May 2013.

O’Malley, Jaclyn. “Reno Police Classify Straight Edge as a Gang.” Reno Gazette-Journal  30 May 2005: Digital.

Rowland, Robert. “The Narrative Perspective.” The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. Jim Kuypers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2005. Print.

Sahagun, Louis. “The Twisted World of a ‘Straight Edge’ Gang.” The LA Times 29 Jan. 2008. Digital.

Support Walter. Support Crew, 1 Sep. 2010. Blog. 19 May 2013. <supportwalter.org/SW/>.


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