Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
I can remember an innocent time, long ago, when the public only got angry at people they disagreed with. Those were simpler times. Today we get mad at people we agree with.
Consider Geraldo Rivera’s recent experience. Geraldo inadvertently created a controversy by stating the obvious: Our choice of clothes can influence how people treat us. That’s a view that every living human agrees upon. Most of us act upon that belief once or twice a day. When I get dressed, the first two questions I ask myself are 1) “Who is going to see me?” and 2) “What do I want them to think of me?” You probably do the same thing. If not, there’s something deeply wrong with you, or possibly you’re an engineer.
When I was twenty, I was escorted out of an office building because of my choice of clothes. It happened at one of the top accounting firms in the country, and I was there for an interview during my last semester of college. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize anyone would have a problem with me showing up with my long hair and casual clothes, college style. After all, it was no secret I was in college. It said so right on my resume. My interviewer sat down at the conference table, looked at me, and said, “Apparently you don’t know why you’re here. Let me show you the door.” And he did.
Did the interviewer make a mistake in judging me by my appearance? Arguably, he did. Apart from my wardrobe misstep, I was smart, qualified, motivated, and low maintenance. In those days, all I wanted was a chance to work hard for my employer, under the mistaken belief that doing so would benefit me in the long run. The accounting firm would have gotten a good ten years out of me before I realized my plan wasn’t working. And I clean up well, so my appearance was easily fixable.
Was I partly responsible for what I believe was the interviewer’s mistake when he judged me by my temporary appearance? Yes. I brought it on myself.
Years later, when I was working for Crocker Bank in San Francisco, in an entry level position, a Senior Vice President called me into his office to tell me my shoes were ugly. My one-and-only pair of dress shoes was scuffed and hideous. I listened to his advice and bought new shoes the next day. The Senior Vice President was a colorful character himself, and didn’t make the mistake of judging me by my appearance. But he was smart enough to know that others would. I went on to do good work for him. Clothes aren’t destiny, but they clearly have an influence on outcomes. Does anyone think Trayvon Martin would have been shot if he had been wearing a Rick Santorum sweater vest that tragic day?
We’re left to wonder if Trayvon’s choice of clothing contributed a trivial 1% to the tragedy, or something closer 20%. There’s no way to know. But if you’re being objective, you can’t rule out the possibility that the hoody contributed to the shooter’s confirmation bias.
The public fight starts when the word “responsible” enters the conversation. Responsibility isn’t a natural element of the universe. It’s a useful but artificial concept, like fairness, that society uses to control its members. If I want to exert power over you, and nudge you to do something that benefits me, I would argue that you’re responsible for doing it. When you accept responsibility without extra power to offset it, you lose. In the Trayvon Martin situation, I understand why so many people consider it repugnant to transfer a fraction of responsibility – and with it the blame, from a surviving adult to a deceased minor. It feels very wrong. But that feeling doesn’t make Geraldo inaccurate when he says clothing can influence behavior. Even the people who signed a petition to demand an apology from Geraldo agree with his point.
As a professional humorist, I think the Geraldo hoodie controversy is partly fueled by the fact that the words Geraldo and hoodie are naturally funny, and that Geraldo’s eighties-porn mustache makes him less credible on the topic of appearance. But none of that makes him wrong. In fact, the way he’s being treated probably supports his thesis.