Just lately, in the non-stop melee of Freedom of Speech but Not Freedom from Consequences of Speech, we are experiencing a complete disconnect in rationality.
The Rage Profiteers are apoplectic to point out that racists and Nazis organizing and protesting may be free speech but that outing them online and getting them fired is the fair consequence of this free speech while the Slobbering Masses of the Right declare that a kid wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt to his job at Subway is free speech, it is the natural consequence of that free speech when he gets fired for airing politics on the job.
They're both right.
What we wear—our fashion sense and decisions to purchase clothing from Hot Topic or Eddie Bauer or the local thrift store—has consequences, as well. The case made that these consequences are unfair as subjective as those of the Rage Profiteers on both ends of the sociopolitical spectrum: fair has nothing to do with it. We judge each other visually first almost every single time.
In some cases, it doesn't really matter. In others, like when the prejudger is an officer of the law equipped with authority, a pistol and the lack of accountability reserved for those hired to protect our property over our lives, the consequences of prejudgment based on the uniforms we choose to display can be deadly.
I'm looking for a job. I land an interview at a prestigious downtown office. I am fully, if not bit over, qualified and the job is a perfect match for my skills. I make the choice to show up for the interview wearing a pair of Speedo underwear, a tee-shirt that says "Ride My Mustache, Baby!" and orange flip-flops.
My clothing is my choice. And I'd pretty much guarantee that the consequence for that choice is that I'm not getting hired. Even my privileges as a white male won't matter.
"I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it." — Garrison Keillor
Everything we do is predicated by our perception of things. We flirt with people whom we perceive to be attractive and open to the flirtation. We approach others or shun them based on our initial perception of who they are without having anything to guide us but the way that person presents him or herself.
Himmel and I walk into a bar in Texas wearing nothing but chaps and pink T-shirts that read: "Kiss me, I'm Gay." And I'm wearing orange flip-flops.
Right or wrong (and there's no question that if we get beaten by rednecks that they are 100 percent in the wrong), the reality is that by our choice of dress we have exponentially increased our chances of being gay-bashed and dragged behind a pick-up by a bungee cord.
"Perception is everything. Your perception determines your reality. Not reality, just your version of reality. The problem arises when your version of reality and actual reality collide." — Mr. Prophett
In the simple stone throwing that we all engage in when confronted with this prejudging of pretty much everyone around us, it's easy to forget a couple of salient points. First, we all have our built-in prejudices—stereotypes exist as a quick reference guide to us all in a world with too many people in it. Second, while not all prejudices are necessarily negative, they rarely reflect the absolute reality of most people.
Our biggest difficulty in dealing with this is that those of us who believe that these perceptions ultimately do not reflect reality tend to think that if we force the issue and brazenly flaunt the stereotype it is a form of educational empowerment to the drooling, bigoted masses. It doesn't always work and when it doesn't the consequences are usually catastrophic.
Janice and Ted don't know each other but both attend a local nightclub. Janice is wearing the sexiest outfit she can put together, which includes a pair of short-shorts, baby doll midriff-baring t-shirt that says "Man Candy" on it, stiletto heels, glitter makeup and both a thong peeking out of her shorts and her push-up bra slyly visible. Ted arrives wearing a pair of tight jeans, a muscle shirt that says "Available and Willing" on it, a gangsta ballcap turned to the side, a gold necklace with a dollar bill pendant and a gold-toothed grill. Neither hook up because she thinks he looks skeevy and he thinks she looks like a slut.
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." — Philip K. Dick
Don't believe me?
Scroll down and check out each picture. Each person photographed has made a conscious choice to present him or herself a very specific way. Each reaction that you have is based solely on the external dress and pose of individuals who may be completely different than your snap judgment.
So, what's my point with all of this?
Simple. How you present yourself is your personal choice and expressing oneself with appearance is both very powerful and empowering. How you present yourself also carries with it consequences and the responsibility for the setting of those consequences belong to he or she making the choices, not those who react to them. As I tell actors, the audience always gets it. If they don't, it's because you aren't communicating clearly.
Choose wisely, assess risk realistically, and blame no one else for the choices you make. The only solution to this set of circumstances is to reframe how we decide to perceive one another. Because, just like the choice to wear orange flip flops, how I decide to perceive someone else is a choice.
If I choose to assume that the homeless dude with no teeth who rummages through the trash and tosses it all over the street was once a pediatrician with three kids who no longer bear any responsibility for him, my reaction to him is changed. If I choose to assume that the black teenager with the Gangsta Rap t-shirt and gold teeth is an honor student who volunteers on Saturdays at the local animal shelter, my reaction to him is improved. The woman with the midriff t-shirt from Hooters and booty shorts has a PhD in biophysics. The guy with the Marine tattoo and the handlebar mustache councils young boys to understand their masculinity.
And I also choose to avoid orange flip flops at all times because those fucking things are just inexcusable.