1.23.2006

conformity

We've had many discussions here about personal freedom, the relative amounts of it in the US and Canada, the melting pot vs the mosaic - or the salad bowl, an image one Canadian reader gave me. There is a lot of personal freedom in the US, more than in many places on the planet, but there is also a lot of pressure to outwardly conform. In most (though not all) places in the States, the melting pot is still the norm.

Shortly before we moved here, Allan and I met a female couple from Virginia. They are raising two daughters in a small, Southern, Christian, white-bread town. They're active in church, in their daughters' schools, in community activities. They told us they've never encountered bigotry, that everyone has been open and accepting to them and their family. This runs counter to what many people outside the US think might happen in a small Virginia town.

On the other hand, I believe their acceptance hinged on looking and acting like everyone else. They live in a conventional nuclear family, neither of them "look like dykes", they go to church, they blend right in. In this case, that's truly who these women are. They aren't remaking themselves in order to conform. What about those who don't fit in so neatly?

I read an excellent magazine article on this topic in the New York Times Magazine: "The Pressure to Cover", by Kenji Yoshino. It's a long article that you might want to print and read when you time. It's adapted from a book Yoshino just published, called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.

The author uses the term "covering" to describe behaviour that will be familiar to anyone who identifies as part of a minority. (He credits the sociologist Erving Goffman with coining the word.) A famous example of covering is FDR never being seen in his wheelchair. Everyone knew he used a wheelchair, but he couldn't afford to be perceived as disabled. From the article:
As is often the case when you learn a new idea, I began to perceive covering everywhere. Leafing through a magazine, I read that Helen Keller replaced her natural eyes (one of which protruded) with brilliant blue glass ones. On the radio, I heard that Margaret Thatcher went to a voice coach to lower the pitch of her voice. Friends began to send me e-mail. Did I know that Martin Sheen was Ramon Estevez on his birth certificate, that Ben Kingsley was Krishna Bhanji, that Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch Demsky and that Jon Stewart was Jonathan Leibowitz?

. . .

It was only when I looked for instances of covering in the law that I saw how lucky I had been. Civil rights case law is peopled with plaintiffs who were severely punished for daring to be openly different. Workers were fired for lapsing into Spanish in English-only workplaces, women were fired for behaving in stereotypically "feminine" ways and gay parents lost custody of their children for engaging in displays of same-sex affection. These cases revealed that far from being a parlor game, covering was the civil rights issue of our time.
Yoshino goes on to list a few examples (the law records are full of them) of people who were punished for refusing to cover: a Jewish man threatened with court martial from the Air Force for wearing his yarmulke, an African American airline employee who was fired for wearing cornrows.

In each instance, the court sided against the individual, drawing a distinction between "immutable conditions" and ones that are chosen. The airline employee was not fired for being black. That's illegal discrimination based on a condition she cannot change. But, according to the court, her employer had the right to dictate what hairstyle is considered professional. She couldn't "look too black".

Yoshino shows how the US legal system is biased towards assimilation - that famous melting pot again. He feels changing this bias is today's most important civil rights issue, and one that should be framed in terms of individual freedoms.
If the Supreme Court protects individuals against covering demands in the future, I believe it will do so by invoking the universal rights of people. I predict that if the court ever recognizes the right to speak a native language, it will protect that right as a liberty to which we are all entitled, rather than as a remedial concession granted to a particular national-origin group. If the court recognizes rights to grooming, like the right to wear cornrows, I believe it will do so under something akin to the German Constitution's right to personality rather than as a right attached to racial minorities. And I hope that if the court protects the right of gays to marry, it will do so by framing it as the right we all have to marry the person we love, rather than defending "gay marriage" as if it were a separate institution.
I was a little surprised at that last statement, since advocates of same-sex marriage certainly do frame the issue in those terms. It's the anti crowd who twists it into a special-interest issue.

I think Yoshino's view nicely sums up where American culture falls in the spectrum of personal freedom. The article is here, a review of his book is here.

5 comments:

Lone Primate said...

Curious. But point taken. It's a small thing, and I hardly mean to contrast it with real discrimination, but one of the tiny factors that helped nudge me in the direction I took when I changed jobs recently was... the dress code. American companies seem very, very big on dress codes. It seems to me that Canadian companies are only interested in them where there's a need: like in dealing with the public. But I am, and was, working in an office environment where outsiders were the vast exception, not the norm. Where I used to work, jeans were banished, as were shorts in summer, collarless shirts, etc. So unless it's a matter of public presentation, what was really being attempted here was attitude control. But it seems to me if you're not a professional in terms of your skill set when you're stark naked, wearing a tuxedo isn't going to make you one. And on the other hand, being comfortable in the all-too-brief Canadian summer is a prize of some value, and all other things being equal, trumps over Little Brother regimentation every time where I'm concerned. Ditto drug tests. I knew a woman in Louisiana who had to pass one... not to drive cross-country, not to fly a commerical jet, not to handle the retirement porfolios of elderly people... but just to stock shelves at (a certain well-known department store that shall remain nameless). That's going way, way too far -- which is probably why it's unconstitutional here, and in most other democracies. But not, perplexingly, in the Land of the Free, so-called.

L-girl said...

So unless it's a matter of public presentation, what was really being attempted here was attitude control.

Yes, I think that's it exactly - social control.

Drug tests for crap retail jobs! Part of the anti-drug hysteria, and the "we own your life" attitude of American corporate employers.

Daniel wbc said...

Lone Primate, I've been very curious about employment laws and regs in Canada as compared to the U.S. Drug testing is very, very common here. Also, job applications include, at an alarmingly increasing rate, draconian language where applicants must sign away the few rights they have in the U.S. (I call it economic extortion.) Although I do not partake of illegal substances, in the past I have quit a job because of a newly-instituted drug testing policy out of principle. (I think it is humiliating, an invasion of privacy, and against the idea of "innocent until proven guilty.") I have also edited job applications before I have signed them, knowing I would never be called back. But, of course, I recognize that most people do not have the luxury of doing such things. (I have a very understanding and supportive spouse.) Anyway ... can you tell me more about employment laws in Canada and/or point me in the direction of a good source on this issue (worker privacy and dignity)?

Daniel wbc said...

L-girl, I fought with the administration of the university I attended on this issue. They had been of the mind that because one could "blend in" if one chose as a gay person, that gay people did not deserve the same protection from discrimination as other minorities. I begged to differ. So, you're allowed to be different as long as you don't look or act differently? Huh?? I used an example that did not make me very popular at the time: I offered at a public meeting that it was like telling Jews they were welcome as long as they didn't wear yarmulkes (spelling?) or any other outward sign of their faith/identity. (The school I went to was 30-40% Jewish, including a visible Orthodox community.) But I stand by the comparison. You can't say we welcome differences -- as long as we can't perceive the differences and, by default, you recognize the superiority of the way of the majority.

L-girl said...

Daniel wbc, I think that's an excellent analogy, totally apt.

As for the spelling of the Jewish head-covering, I've never understood why the English transliteration is yarmulke. It's not pronounced yar-mull-key. It's pronounced yah-ma-ka (more or less). I use the ridiculous yarmulke because, well, people recognize it. Even though it's mishuga. :)

What was the university trying to get you to do? How were you supposed to not "act gay" - was it about public display of affection? Rainbow gear? Having sex in the classroom? ;-)