Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The cloak of respectability

At the end of next week I'm scheduled to leave Tori and the kids for a week and fly down to Melbourne and Sydney for work. The focus of the trip is to attend the annual conference of the user group for the top-end HP computer servers that I work with.  These systems thankfully are significantly more reliable than the shonky laptops that HP seem to produce. The conference itself is not an especially exciting affair though it's an opportunity to meet up with customers and catch up with some friends and acquaintances that I don't see so often. I have a pretty high profile within this user community having until this year been president of the user group. And I'll be standing up and presenting to a room full of people on computer security at this event. As such it's important for me to put on my cloak of respectability. You have to "look the part" for some reason, though I am still not sure exactly why that is so. So to meet with the conformity expected of me at these places I visited the barber shop yesterday to lose my afro in the making and my slightly out of control sideys. Now I am a picture of conformity. My hair will be neat. I will be clean shaven. The t-shirts, shorts and thongs that I've been wearing continually for the last six months will be replaced by "business casual with dark pants" as has been condescendingly specified on the presenter requirements list. Why do dark pants in any way make a difference to what I have to say? The thoughts I have in my head and the words that I speak are completely independant of the clothes I wear. So why do people feel that to pass across my message to the audience I need to look a certain way? Clearly we humans judge people on how they look and I guess a large proportion seem unable to deal with anything that is outside of their expectation. If I turn up unshaven, wearing my purple Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, some boardies, thongs and completely wild hair, it seems that the words that I speak will not be taken seriously enough. Or people will be confronted that I look different to them. Or I will be deemed to have not shown significant respect for the occasion. Or too many girls in the audience will swoon at my gruff unkempt exterior and my inherent ability to nonconform thus making all other men in the room rage with jealousy. It's always baffled me that people put so much stock in how somebody dresses. I feel it from the other side as well when dressed in my suit which is how I have spent a portion of my working life. "You're wearing a suit so you must be a boring stiff working in an office kowtowing to some boss somewhere and probably full of shit as well". How can people sum me up by seeing me in a suit? Or seeing me in a purple t-shirt? Or with sideys? Or with short back and sides? It's just complete bollocks and always makes me laugh heartily when I meet some person who thinks that they have me pegged by meeting me on any single occasion in any one environment. Many times have I seen surprise on somebody's face when they have seen me somewhere that is "out of context" to how they thought they knew me. And I know I'm not alone. People everywhere are multi-faceted people with different interests and abilities and situations that have nothing to do with the costumes that they wear. It seems that people love to put other people in categorical boxes. And if you don't fit goddamn you, then we'll try and squeeze you in anyway. The confusion comes when bits of you stick out of the box and clearly belong in another box. Or many boxes. "How can we deal with it? Surely there's a label on a single box here somewhere that we can put you into completely". Back in the day, my sister Nat was a self-declared punk. She sported a purple mohawk, some facial piercing and all of the refinery that went along with that particular non-uniform. I'd often meet up with her to have lunch and we both enjoyed nothing more than walking together down busy Chapel street watching the looks on other people's faces. The purple haired punk chatting amiably with the suit and tied office worker. How could this be? He must be her lawyer. Or her dealer. Around that time, Nat had a boyfriend named Des. He was a very nice guy. A gentle guy, almost shy in his demeanour, but very personable. But he would dress in army fatigues, had short shaved hair and wore big steel capped black boots. Symbols of ultraviolence. One night Des was arrested by police on a trumped up charge of some sort that essentially had involved being hassled by the police because he looked different. The case went to the Magistrates court and Nat went along as the star character witness for Des. She knew how the establishment game worked and so was dressed in her cloak of respectability for the day, sporting a pretty green dress and long flowing well groomed blonde hair. The crown prosecutor was putting to her and the court that Des was a violent man and that his charge of resisting arrest and hitting a police officer was in character with his typical demeanour. He was after all a punk in army fatigues. Nat defended him and said that actually Des was a very mild-mannered guy who was gentle and kind. "How do you expect us to believe that", sneered the prosecutor. "Look at him dressed in his army uniform and bovver boots". "Well you can't always judge people by their appearance" responded Nat while simultaneously removing the blonde wig that she wore to reveal cropped short spiky bright red hair. The magistrate immediately dismissed the case against Des amid the roars of laughter emanating from the gallery. A rare victory for individual rights against the wave of societal expectation of how you must look.

People need their uniforms it seems. Many ultra conservatives in their official capacities need it and dismiss anybody who is dressed "too scruffily". They cannot be taken seriously. Many alternatives around the place need it and often distrust anybody who is wearing a suit. They represent authority to be rebelled against. So it doesn't matter which strata of society you are from. You will likely judge and be judged. Just don't include me in it. I might play the game sometimes if I have to, but I really couldn't give a shit about any of it.


spike said...

Gods Teeth! A (deceased, best) mate of mine managed to get himself arrested one night purely because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, because he was the dressed in ubiquitous UK bikerware (he rode several bike, the most noticeable being an excellently tuned Kawasaki 400 triple) of Docs/Levis/Leather/LeviCutoff. Hauled down to the local copshop, the poor wight was grilled for three hours about a possible burglary that had taken place at some earlier time on the street that he just happened to have been walking down prior to being picked up (like, he hung around?). Keeping schtumm (having a 'robust' background, like some of us), he finessed that the cops had just pounced on him as he fitted the bill for the particular crime. He was let out six hours later, with an apology from the arresting officer. Dr Jed Everitt (PhD, Experimental Physics), didn't wear the cloak. Never did. RIP

Greg Swedosh said...

Sounds like he was a great character Spike. Thanks for the story.