Top 10: Culture-Jamming Cheat-Sheet

Chances are if you’re a SHIFT reader, then you’re also a culture-jammer, even if you don’t know it yet!

Culture-jamming is a tactic used by social movements to disrupt or subvert cultural norms, or expose the questionable assumptions behind commercial culture. Challenging social conformity is par for the course with culture-jammers – they re-invent ‘what’s cool’, reclaim public space, or create music and art that tell an alternative story. While some culture-jammers focus on critique of political or cultural messages, others prefer to focus on the positive, with creative innovations that transcend the status quo, pushing ahead of the curve.

The phrase ‘culture-jamming’ has its roots in radio jamming – the pirating of public frequencies in order to co-opt them for independent communication. Culture-jammers sometimes mimic the tools of mass media to produce ironic or satirical commentary, providing a reality-check to those who are paying attention. Satirical news sources such as The Onion or Juice Media’s Rap News have this down to a fine art.

Jam the frequency with this cheat-sheet of SHIFT’s top 10 culture-jamming tactics – making change really can be as much fun as making mayhem!

10. Chuck in your 2 cents’ worth

Speak out on issues that matter to you because the echo chamber of your own comfort zone ain’t enough. It can be as low-stakes as writing letters to the editor or phoning in to radio shows, a full-on commitment to blogging or podcasting, or anything in between. Wherever your skills apply, it is likely you have something worth saying that people ought to hear. We’re under no illusion that words alone will change the world, but when we speak out we give people the social permission they need to come out and admit that they don’t buy into the status quo either.

9. Wear your heart on your sleeve

While so many people are sporting free advertising for the sweatshop industry and paying for the privilege to do so, you can display a very different message. First-wave punks made a point out of upcycling pre-loved clothing to make a statement against consumer culture. Expressing one’s uniqueness has always been a form of rebellion against social conformity and redefines what it means to be ‘cool’. You don’t have to go as far as ripping and safety-pinning old clothes to make a statement – you can also demonstrate your dissent with subvertising logos, retrofitting pre-loved ensembles, or sporting your own message of defiance.

8. Say no to pre-packaged entertainment

Our entertainment is largely sold to us in a pre-packaged form by defenders of the dominant global culture. Why buy what we are sold when there is so much talent in our own communities? Go local or make your own! Many of us are skilled with musical or artistic prowess, or weave the magic of the wordsmith. Honouring our local talent and rejecting celebrity culture go hand in hand, and are central to celebrating our local economies. Whether it’s basement jamming, poetry readings, or even a knitting circle, DIY is far more rewarding than swallowing the soma of the Entertainment-Industrial Complex.

7. Act out

Have loud conversations about things that matter. It’s that simple. You won’t change the world in one fell swoop with a single conversation, but you can sow some seeds of dissent in the minds of folks you might not normally have a chance to connect with. Here’s how it works: with a friend or family member who shares your perspective, act out a conversation on a controversial topic in a public place where you know you will be overheard. Even the drudgery of cruising supermarket aisles can be purposeful with a critique of sweatshop slavery and corporate greenwash, as can whiling away bus rides with not-so-small-talk about peak oil, refugee rights, and trans-continental trade deals.

6. Green your community

These days most of us live in a concrete jungle while we’re losing our carbon sinks and food sovereignty. Greening your community tackles both losses while creatively expressing your dissent with the system that undermines sustainability. Guerilla gardening might get you in trouble with your local authorities, so it’s up to you to gauge your risk level and take on only what you’re willing to cop (pun intended). You can green your community by planting on streetside verges, sprinkling seeds into cracks in the pavement, or co-opting derelict spaces for guerilla community gardens. The authorities may not appreciate your efforts, but future generations sure will.

5. Connect with your community

What better way to subvert the culture than to make connections that make a difference? The developed world, and to a large extent the developing world too, has allowed the outsourcing of many of our responsibilities to ‘caretaker’ governments.  In times of hardship when governments conveniently forget these responsibilities, we are constrained by a tendency not to bite the hand that feeds. Changing the hand that feeds enables us to reduce our dependency on governments that do not have our best interests at heart while enabling us to foster meaningful connections with those whose lives are directly interconnected with our own. Community is its own insurance, and sharing, swapping, mentoring, guiding and caring for our neighbours are all ways of jamming the frequency on Big Brother.

4. Expose the dark side of consumer culture

Why tolerate the waste of our consumer culture when we can express how we feel about it? Collecting your garbage and artfully arranging it for a photo-shoot may seem an avant-garde statement, but it sure does draw attention to our wasteful ways. By drawing attention to the darker side of our consumption we hint at taking responsibility for our ways without guilt-tripping people into making change. Who wants to continue to be a part of the problem? There are many ways you can expose the dark side of consumer culture, from photographing your own household waste, to litter-picking around your neighbourhood, to salvaging waste from supermarket dumpsters – just be sure to show the world these obvious but usually ignored consequences of consumerism.

3. Pay it forward

Random acts of kindness make the world go round. When you do something for someone in need you demonstrate to others that not only is it ok to care, but that it’s normal. In a culture where the self is prioritized and selflessness is scorned it can be daunting to go out on a limb for someone else, but demonstrating compassion breaks the cycle. Spotting a stranger a bus fare or a coffee doesn’t cost the earth, but it does make their day, and slowing down to help someone in need even when you’re in a hurry makes a big difference to them and to you as well. Taking the time to care reminds others that life needn’t be so fast, nor so self-centered.

2. Reclaim public spaces

Occupy Wall Street may be a distant memory for some, but who could forget how it rattled the powers that be? Reclaiming public spaces for democratic processes jammed the frequency and posed a threat to social conformity; barriers were broken down and rules were re-written in the grey areas. Reclaiming public spaces isn’t just for protest. We can all connect and celebrate in public spaces, show off our talents and sing for our supper, reclaiming the commons for us common-folk. Getting out into public spaces may seem like the last thing you want to do when you’re world-weary from the ills of our culture, but perhaps it’s just the medicine we need.

1. Downshift

Yes, this is jamming the frequency on our culture – big time. By downshifting you demonstrate that not only do we actually need very little in the way of material resources to live, but that we can also live extremely full and fun lives. A downshifter rejects the paradigm of the hamster wheel, subverts the notion of success, and re-casts the American dream as an unoriginal imposter on our creative space. A leap from the time-poverty of the treadmill is a leap of faith, but life in a lower gear affords abundant connection, reflection, creativity and leisure. Freedom from the trappings of commercialist consumerism and wage-slavery enables us to be the change we wish to see.

Chuck in your two cents' worth

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