dressing well, politeness, religion, and fraternities

I’ve been working on a big paper for the past few days so I haven’t had time to post, but was recently thinking about whether there is a value to dressing well. All my life, I thought the answer was a clear no. What does it matter what you look like? In defense of this position, I uttered all the angry anti-superficiality slogans that one often hears. What matters is on the inside, if I do a good job at work, why do I have to dress well, suits are uncomfortable…and so on. I still don’t dress well and I don’t think I will anytime in the future, but I can see now how dressing well can be valuable.

My main justification for this change of heart has to do with respect, and the analogy that dressing well has with politeness. Rules of etiquette are, in general, obsolete holdovers from aristocratic traditions of the 19th century, but rules of politeness are different. Saying thank you, you’re welcome, holding doors, and stepping out of people’s way while saying excuse me are all ways of manifesting respect for other people. I don’t know the stranger that I hold the door for and I’ve never met the shopkeeper who I say thank you to, but by taking these steps, I acknowledge their value and their worth in a simple way. I think some cynics are inclined to dismiss this argument, but I don’t think the rules of politeness can be so easily done away with. As a former waiter, I can testify that there is a huge difference between customers who treat you as a servant versus a server. When treated as the former, one is merely an object that is supposed to attend to the table without being heard or seen. There is no respect and so no politeness. When treated as the latter, one is treated a person or an identity worthy of respect, even if this identity is an subservient and helpful role. The difference between treating someone as server instead of a servant is the difference between a helpful role and a submissive one.

What does this have to do with dressing well? Well, I think in some circumstances, dressing well is a sign of respect. When you show up to a business meeting in casual clothes, it shows that you don’t care. You may care very deeply about the other participants, as some impolite people care very deeply about others, but you will not express that concern. Insofar as someone does care about meeting the other board members, or his girlfriend’s parents, or his friend’s grandfather, a clean and nice set of clothes expresses that intention and makes it manifest. Weddings and funerals are other classic examples. Showing up to a funeral without a suit smacks of indecency and unconcern.

But this is not to say that dressing well is something to obsess about or that all the instances of proper dressing in our society are manifestations of respect. They certainly are not. Some people dress well out of vanity, some dress well out of a kind of desire to awe or intimidate, and some dress well to display their wealth and separate themselves from others.

And to return to the beginning of the story, these bad reasons for dressing well is why I originally thought that dressing well was ALWAYS bad. I only picked up on the exclusionary and trivial reasons for dressing well and never took notice of the value of doing so in the right context. The lesson is general: oftentimes we miss values that are right in front of us because we only see their ugly flipside. Some people see religion (my examples are all about Christianity here) as dangerous because of its dogmas about sexuality, or the inquisition, or the crusades, or any number of other grievances, but in doing soon, one overlooks the other side of the coin. Religion (Christianity again) is responsible for orphanages, huge amounts of other types of charity, and people who are genuinely loving and open (of course I’m aware that some are just angry hypocrites, but again, good and bad is present). I think this sort of dual-nature applies to many things that there is sharp partisanship about. A trivial but I think useful example is fraternities. Some people think they are misogynistic, homophobic, exclusionary, and disruptive. Personally, I think they are, in general, all of these things. But not always and not to the exclusion of being other things too. They are also a host of other things such as fraternal (duh), fun, wild and social. They cultivate leadership, democracy, independence, and responsibility, and yes, they do some charity too (though I laugh when fraternities defend themselves in university newspapers by pointing to their charity. Gimme a break. Gimme a fucking break.) Now, this does not mean that we cannot pass judgments on things like fraternities or religions when everything is tallied up (are they the same thing?), but just to realize that genuine value can be concealed by disvalue and vice versa.


2 Responses to “dressing well, politeness, religion, and fraternities”

  1. 1 chris
    April 19, 2010 at 1:01 am

    This is a great post because it clearly illustrates a simple point that affects the way we all think. I often think about the religion example when I get mad at any particular religion or when I am forced to go to church for something. I wish that people would be good to one another, open up orphanages, volunteer in medical clinics, etc. without needing some religious motivation, because it seems to me like the negative impacts of religion as a whole outweigh the positive impacts. But, like your posts suggests, I almost never think through these assumptions and rigorously evaluate whether or not they are true.

    I think this is partly a result of the thinking person’s incredible capacity for rationalization of his or her own actions and desires. I have some vague idea that there is a benefit to dressing nicely because of respect, or professionalism, or whatever. But I almost never want to dress nicely, and so my mind thinks up a lot of really good reasons why I don’t need to dress nicely. Naturally I spend more time thinking about these reasons than about the reasons that might be in favor of dressing nicely. Eventually I end up with a “cognitive bias” that leads me to think that it’s obviously true that dressing nicely is stupid and there aren’t many good reasons to do it.

    Ex post facto rationalization is even more powerful. I have never really gone to church or been religious, so for many years I have been able to think about reasons that justify my not having been religious, many of which involve the negative impact religion has on people’s lives (ie priests raping children, fundamentalists flying planes into buildings, etc). This makes me feel a lot better, and it makes it so that I don’t have to feel stressed out and worried about the fact that I’m not going to church this Sunday, or the fact that I missed that review session for my anatomy class last night.

    Being objective seems like an impossible task.

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