Call it what you like — a movement, a culture, or even a gang — there is no denying that the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle has grown dramatically and embedded itself in modern society. And with its increased presence and visibility has come attention, both positive and negative. From discussions of the positive choices youths make in the face of peer-pressure to the violence that hardcore crews perpetrate at shows, a large portion of society is now aware of the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle in one way or another. Interestingly, and paradoxically, regardless of the growth in awareness of this lifestyle a general acceptance and understanding of a once “counter-culture” movement has yet to come. Anecdotally, it appears that people who commit to the lifestyle are still generally misunderstood. It is the goal of this piece to address a few of the most common misconceptions about those who choose the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle and show how dispelling those myths can lead to shared understandings and a better society as whole
Myth #1: Straight Edge/Drug Free people cannot be friends or have relationships with those who are not of the same persuasion.
One of the most common myths about Straight Edge/Drug Free people is that they cannot be friends with people who do not live the same way as they do. On both sides of the fence, people seem to think that the choice to be drug free is so extreme that normal bonds of friendship cannot exist. This is simply untrue. The misperception that being drug free is an extreme break from the norm contributes to this myth. The reality is, being drug free is not that far from the norm. Let’s define the norm really quickly. In order to be friends or build a relationship with someone, you need to have something in common. The more you have in common, the closer your bond often is. For the most part, a large majority of human beings in a society share many common values and thus can live together harmoniously. In general, in the case of friendships and relationships, I would like to think that those bonds are built on the idea that there is value to life, there is a need for mutual respect, and that we all should be free to pursue our individual happiness with those first two things in mind. Each person’s individual personality and beliefs pushes them to one side and further away from the center of the most common and agreed upon ideas and values. It is those people who do not share the major common beliefs that have trouble getting along with others and thus have trouble making friends and building relationships. If you consider behavior within a society on a spectrum where the center is normal in regards to agreeing with the above principles and the ends on either side are “less-than-normal,” we could—as an example—put murders and violent criminals way out to one end. They are not near the center of agreed upon normal behavior, do not share many major common beliefs with a majority of society, and generally don’t play well with others. Now move in from the edge of the spectrum towards the middle. Someone who is an alcoholic or a drug addict is not quite near the norm and on this spectrum they probably aren’t totally in the middle, but they still share almost all of the same common beliefs as everyone else. They make take some actions that a portion of society would not condone or agree with and thus do not fall right in the middle of normal behavior, yet they are much closer to the middle than a murderer. Then, take a step to an even less severe version of this example: a person who drinks, smokes, or does recreational drugs. They probably share many, if not all, of the same values as a majority of people in society and therefore would be placed right next to or on the middle of the spectrum of normalcy in society (keeping in mind my definition of normalcy). So on a spectrum, those who drink and do drugs are barely out from center or are even right at the center in regards to societal norms. I would think those people would not have trouble having friends and building relationships with others near the center.
In regards to the normalcy concept, the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle is often mislabeled as an extreme choice that is far outside of the norms of society and, on our spectrum, way out at the fringes. That characterization of “extreme” is detrimental to the culture of Straight Edge/Drug Free in that in often leads people to believe they are unable to develop a relationship or be friends with someone so far away from the center of normalcy. But, if we think back to the idea of what constitutes a normal functioning person in society, those who choose the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle are not really that far away from the center of the spectrum. Straight Edge/Drug Free people also believe in the value of life, mutual respect, and basic freedoms. It is certainly incorrect to think that people who make Straight Edge/Drug Free choices don’t believe in those ideas or that they only believe in those ideas if they are applied to like-minded people. Those who drink or smoke do not believe that those who do not partake are less human and it stands to reason that those who do not partake do not think that those who drink or smoke are less human either. And as such, being Straight Edge/Drug Free does not push a person that far away from the center of the spectrum either—just a little bit to one side. Both groups of people are very near the center of the spectrum, just slightly to the opposite side of each other. The distance between each group passes over the center and is very short in reality when compared to those with “extreme” behavior out at the fringes.
As a more specific example, Straight Edge/Drug Free militants would probably be way out on the edge (no pun intended) of the spectrum, but, as I will discuss later, that is another part of the Straight Edge/Drug Free mythology that should be dispelled and thus is semi-irrelevant to this argument. In the end, if we can agree that friendship and relationships are built on the ideas that there is value to life, there is a need for mutual respect, and that we all should be free to pursue our individual happiness with the first two concepts in mind, then both Straight Edge/Drug Free people and everyone else are so similar in so many ways that it is silly to think that friendships and relationships cannot be built.
Photo courtesy of Grant Castelluzzo.
Myth #2: All Straight Edge/Drug Free people are angry, hateful, and militant.
As mentioned above, if this were true, it would be really hard for Straight Edge/Drug Free people to be friends with anyone who did not believe in their lifestyle. The key word in the myth above is “all.” Though there certainly are and have been Straight Edge/Drug Free people who are all of the things listed in this myth, they are not the majority and, I would argue they are the extreme minority at this point. Without getting too deep into history: in the past Straight Edge/Drug Free people have done things to prove this myth partially correct. There is some slack to be given though as the community initially faced biased and discriminatory treatment that created a cycle of negative behavior on both sides of the spectrum. The chicken and the egg argument of what came first is irrelevant to me, but the fact remains that there was a cycle of mistreatment and conflict perpetuated by myths about the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle that helped encourage the survival of militancy and hate. Thankfully, this has become the exception to the norm. But, let’s be honest, the Straight Edge/Drug Free movement as it was in the beginning may have faced discrimination, but it was rarely on a level that justified violent action. Sadly, not everyone agreed and in the early days some of these militant mindsets grew and manifested into real action. On the spectrum, those involved in these activities definitely left the center far behind as violence is hard to justify in almost any circumstance. Those extreme actions for the most part are a thing of the past and, though this is anecdotal, are no longer the norm in Straight Edge/Drug Free culture. In my 17 years as part of the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle, I have never witnessed a violent or hateful act perpetrated in the name of the lifestyle at shows, in daily life, or in any other social circumstance. Have they happened? Yes. Are they prevalent? No. Who is to blame? All of us. There is a point where one side has to stop the cycle. And it is here that I come back to the major falsehood of this myth: “All Straight Edge/Drug Free people…” The Straight Edge/Drug Free culture is now simply too large to characterize as one homogenous group. The general concept of “live and let live” pervades almost all Straight Edge/Drug Free culture though and we can see the manifestation of that in the general lack of conflict in a society teeming with Edge and non-Edge people alike.
I cannot speak for everyone and in every place, but overall the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle has come a long way from its intemperate youth and is much closer to that center mark on the spectrum than ever before. In dispelling this myth and others, it is my hope to bring all of us, on both sides, even closer to the middle. The middle, a place of mutual respect for differences of opinion, is where we can all meet if people on the Straight Edge/Drug Free side realize they are not threatened and that “to each his own.” Now let me repeat that sentence with only one change: The middle, a place of mutual respect for differences of opinion, is where we can all meet if people on the NON-Straight Edge/Drug Free side realize they are not threatened and that “to each his own.” It took three letters to remind me that there is almost no difference between all of the people on either side of this belief system. The sooner we all realize, embrace, and perpetuate that idea, the sooner we will realize we are all humans who can exist harmoniously and without need for anger, hate, or militancy.
Myth #3: Straight Edge/Drug Free people are self-righteous and judgmental.
There are two parts to this myth. The first centers around how Straight Edge/Drug Free people feel about themselves and the second centers around how these people feel about others. Regarding the first myth: with a culture as diverse and widespread as Straight Edge/Drug Free, it is easy to hear 101 different reasons why people have committed to it. In the end, the vast majority of those who choose to live a certain way do so because they think it is the right choice for them. As with all societal actions, there are outliers, but human beings make choices that make sense for themselves and their self-preservation. At our roots, we humans are concerned with survival. First physically, then emotionally, etc.… For some, choosing a Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle makes sense in regards to preservation of their physical being. From simple health concerns to worries about the pathway to addiction, a choice is made that is about them and their survival. Others realize that they cannot control themselves subtly or otherwise, when under an influence and wish to protect their personality, their relationships, and their self-image by avoiding that loss of control. And still others make choices based on diverse past life experiences. Beneath these big ideas are multitudes of personal anecdotes, yet they can almost all be categorized as choices about self-preservation. The key word is self, not self-righteous. We are by nature selfish beings. Interestingly, the choice to be Straight Edge/Drug Free is a self-centered choice for many, if not most. Those who chose the lifestyle do so for personal reasons that center around the self. I hope the point is clear: yes, the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle is about the self, but that does not make it a moral high ground from which people judge others. Rather, it is like all other human choices: made with the self in mind in order to preserve the self.
This now begins to spill over into the second part of this myth and how these ideas about self and personal choices affect interactions with others. As stated above, those who chose the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle often believe that they have made the best possible choice for themselves. “But, you can worry about yourself and not be a smug asshole who proclaims edge or drug free every time I offer you a drink.” Agreed. Yet, the reverse of that is seen every time someone who is drinking encourages a non-drinker to join them. That person believes they are making a good choice for their life—and it may be—and they wish to share it, though it may come off as telling someone else how to live their life. If Straight Edge/Drug Free people are judgmental assholes for making a choice and being open and/or vocal about it, then those offering a drink with a bit of social pressure attached are assholes too. I think we can all agree that both people in this example are not actually assholes. They are simply sharing the choice they have made for themselves. Sadly, bad apples can give a group a bad name, and the vocal and less-than-accepting Straight Edge apples have done a good job at giving the Straight Edge/Drug Free community a bad name. But let’s not forget, there are lots of assholes in this world. So why should we hold those who choose the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle to any higher a standard than the rest of society? There are certainly Straight Edge/Drug Free assholes, but instead of being a racist asshole, or a rude asshole, or a thieving asshole, or any other sort of asshole, they come off as self-righteous assholes because the act of abstaining and being firm about it is tied to more than a choice, but rather to a self-righteousness that predates Straight Edge. To understand how the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle has become intertwined with a perceived judgmental self-righteousness, we need to take a step into larger historical issues.
History shows us that this issue is tied to something much larger and older than us. The concept of “abstaining from things” is historically tied to an abstinence from sin or moral faults. As early on as the bible, we have heard that “certain things” are “sinful” and “abstaining” is the moral and righteous thing to do. Therefore, though most Straight Edge/Drug Free people would not cite the bible as their reason for their life choice, there are many religions, moral platitudes, and societal constructions tying abstinence from something (anything) to a self-righteous moral superiority. The idea of being better than someone due to your self-control or control is an ancient one and still pervades modern society. This means that, due to simple probability, you are bound to have someone who is Straight Edge/Drug Free who thinks they are better than you. Likewise, you are likely to find someone who thinks they are better than you due to their religion, their class, their skin color, etc. In addition, you are highly likely to meet someone who thinks that anyone with a “moral high-ground” from abstaining from common societal practices is a self-righteous asshole. In the end, I concede that there is some judgment that some in the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle do pass on others, but yet again I will ask you to remember that: 1. No one and no group is perfect and therefore, there are always some bad apples in all groups and that 2. Due to our shared history, abstinence of any sort is often viewed as a self-righteous moral high ground which can spark conflict. Therefore, the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle is inherently damned to be seen as a self-righteous choice even when one realizes that self-interest in self-preservation is often the main reason for someone choosing the lifestyle.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Klugiewicz.
After all is said and done, the nature of all movements and lifestyles is that they are human constructs and thus are susceptible to the problems and imperfections of the complex and diverse people that make them up. On the other hand, movements and lifestyles are often created for the betterment of society and the people involved and it is that goal that should be the focus of the Straight Edge/Drug Free movement and its interaction with society as a whole. It is my hope that this piece opens up a dialog about the false and detrimental myths regarding the Straight Edge/Drug Free lifestyle in order to create understanding amongst diverse, yet close-knit groups. And with a clearer understanding between diverse groups in our society we can see a better functioning and more harmonious world.