Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Repressive Culture of the Necktie

A curious observation.

There is one particular freedom, like most freedoms as old as humanity itself, which keeps a suspiciously low profile in everyday concern. Like freedoms of speech and expression, of belief, association, or the fulfilment of social and economic needs, this one has been commonly ripped from us by tyrannical governments, institutonalized prejudices, social pressure, or ideologies that try to convince us it's for our own good. But unlike those other freedoms, we find ourselves far less inclined to mobilize to try and get this one back.

Why is it that in almost every land, we have allowed the complete suppression of the freedom to wear what we choose?

One piece of sundry clothing has become today's ultimate embodiment of this suppression: the necktie. From its obscure origins in early-modern European militarism and fashion, ties have since become globalized across the societies of every continent as a standard, exclusive, pan-professional marker of serious respectability.

This is repression. If you do not wear a tie, you lose respectability in the eyes of all those who judge by it – regardless of whatever be your ethical standards, your integrity of conduct, or your professionalism in your chosen fields. In some fields, such as politics, business or academia, the tie is effectively mandatory, and opportunities for work or advancement are shut in your face for the lack of that strip of cloth around your neck, no matter what your actual credentials.

In this regard it mirrors the action of stigma. No tie? Then nothing else matters: get out. Tie or No Tie, in the eyes of those so prejudiced, defines you in the absolute, and is taken as grounds to deny you participation in your society's political or economic life.

The problem here is not inherent to the ties themselves, but lies in what they represent: that is, societies imposing standards of dress upon their people. In another place or another time, the problem item may be uniforms, or feathers in hats, or veils, or masks, or restrictions against any of those; indeed, coercive laws enforcing the full covering of women in Saudi Arabia are the same nature of exercise – if not to the same scale – as coercive laws forbidding them from covering in France. Repressions against nudity, or breastfeeding in public, are also comparable. If we are not prepared to be told what to think, what to say, what to do or where to go, why do we so resign to being told what to wear? Why, substantially, is it so different?

We restrict those other freedoms – or should restrict them – when they are exercised in ways that harm others. For example, hate speech, or inciting violence, or participating in terrorist acts or organized crime: your freedom, as it is said, ends at my nose. So too might we legitimately exclude someone from a profession or setting if their conduct blatantly contradicts that setting's ethos or goals: such as a science teacher who would teach human eugenics as a legitimate discipline, or an researcher who plagiarizes work, or a doctor who discriminates against patients along racist or homophobic lines.

As such this is not a condemnation of all dress codes and uniforms everywhere. Dress standards are not repressive when they are very specific to their fields or settings, exist for good reasons within those contexts such as helping to prevent harm to people, and as such have no significant exclusionary effects or social conformity politics. It may be fair, for example, to expect that if you are a firefighter, you should wear uniforms designed for high visibility and safety in dangerous conditions. Closer to the middle of the spectrum, we may find disputable grey areas such as school uniforms or judges' wigs.

The necktie, however, lies squarely at the far extreme. There is no situation where not wearing a tie harms any person in any tangible way, nor where it compromises the credentials of the person not wearing it. There is no situation where it forms a valid pretext for excluding that person, nor for making their life even fractionally more difficult. The tie serves no inherent practical purpose, and on the contrary its far-reaching and unquestioned status across a multitude of settings in the majority of societies makes it a hazard. Indeed, it has become a weapon for imposing social conformity and drawing up lines of exclusion, in an insidious assualt on the freedom and diversity of human beings.

This is not trivial. Tie culture has become so entrenched, so powerful, so second-nature, that it has become a ubiquitous manifold engine of exclusion, discrimination and prejudice: of some of the most malignant forces, in other words, that afflict humanity today.

1) Ties symbolize, and reinforce, the concept of Normal, and the persecution of those considered “different”. The very existence of Normal, in a diverse world, is a crippling problem: indeed much of the human story can be read as the struggle between those who embrace diversity, and those who would impose conformity on us all, under any of a million ideologies by which to hound society's freethinkers, dissidents, eccentrics, whistleblowers, and the stigmatized groups of the day. Requiring an inherently meaningless neck-cloth as a condition for entry to a huge range of social and economic opportunities contributes to that struggle in the wrong direction, by slashing yet another arbitrary line of exclusion across the scarred landscape of humanity.

2) Ties are a colonial legacy. Most societies in which the aformentioned is true – ties as a standardized requirement for respectability or group entry – have no tradition of ties in the first place. Wherever in Africa, Asia, the Americas or the Pacific they serve this purpose, they were imported by colonial agendas European in origin, and supplanted pre-existing, often venerable, indigenous traditions of clothing and socio-political symbolism (though these may too have been prone to the same problem). Japan is a consummate case in point: the tie as utterly alien yet utterly absolute.

That tie culture has become so established nonetheless, is all the more surprising and suspicious considering the contemporary backlash against the cultural hegemonism of Europe and the US. Indeed, the worst offenders may be not those lands where ties originated, but those post-colonial countries in the “South” which have embraced them just as they have since subscribed to those colonizers' consummately destructive “development” models. The tie is indeed a fitting analogy for the great quandaries of development and globalization: that is, as a phenomenon overwhelming the world in the guise of universal standards of progress, but actually bound to a very particular European cultural heritage with its own priorities, symbols and values.

3) Ties are a form of gendered prejudice, and further exacerbate the gender rift. This one is more complicated, but ugly in all its facets. In the first instance, the expectation to wear a tie overwhelmingly applies to – and thus discriminates against – men. This is not to say, however, that women have it any easier: if anything societies generally regulate women's attire even more obsessively than men's, and in its most contemptible manifestations this gets bound up in patriarchal terror at female sexuality and attempts to control it, or the misogynistic bigotry that blames rape survivors for bringing about their own ordeals by dressing “provocatively”, whatever that is supposed to mean.

The very standardization of different dress codes for men and women is one of the strongest everyday instruments that maintains the problem of gender – the social alienation between sexes which have more in common, on account of their shared humanity, than they do apart. It also expresses its own irony: the very fact that different societies, in different times and places, standardize gendered dress codes differently attests to the lack of any inherent connection between one's sex and the clothes one should be wearing. Humanity does not need gendered dress codes.

4) There is virtually no exit option. The bottom line of any concern of freedom, beneath all disagreements over what it means or what our rights or responsibilies are, is that you must be free to walk. If you are not at peace with how a given society or culture regulates you – so long as what you want is not the right to harm others – you have to retain a practicable option of leaving and creating your future elsewhere.

Ties, on the whole, do not afford that option by simple virtue of their nigh-global hegemony, including and especially in the most internationally connected urban societies. Sure, become as powerful as a Richard Branson or a Mark Zuckerberg and you might just get away with not wearing one, but for any of millions of people seeking to build careers at an early stage, especially in the service sector, to lack a tie is to lack a keycard for almost all the doors you would need to get through to do so. Formal dress codes, recruitment criteria, interviewer judgementalism and the opinions of your connections may all conspire against you to grind your journey into the dust before it starts, with no less effect on your life than if by not wearing a tie you were breaking the law.

For those in these tough economic times who cannot afford to leave their countries of birth, that alone could be the miserable end of that. But for those who can get away, the quandary remains of where to get away to where you could become who you want to be with no disadvantage on account of necktie hegemony. And while a lack of opportunites may stop you in your tracks, it will be the wider ambience that breaks your knees: the everyday occurrences of rows and columns of suit-and-tie clad people all around you; commuters with heads down, resigned to the miseries of a rat race existence; smug business leaders and arrogant politicians, wielding the respectability of the tie as a shield for the perniciousness of their policies; neoclassical economists vested by the tie with an air of expertise, even while plotting the extinction of the human heart. And that is not even to mention heads of state, for whom alternatives to the tie carry a reputation of being brash ideological statements backed up by ethical credentials at best dubious, at worst downright deranged: the “people's clothing” of the Kim dynasty, the shirtjacs of Forbes Burnham, the caps and flowing robes of Colonel Gaddafi or Yahya Jammeh. Butchers these may be, but their dress sense derives them a lot more popular ridicule than tie-wearing butchers like a Blair, a Putin or an Assad.

There is simply no escape, without either exceptional social dexterity or luck. Ties are not the only example of the denial of the exit option of course, nor are they the most urgent one by far, but the limitless reach of their web of exclusion has become their defining hallmark.

5) And regardless of everything else, necktie culture bloody hurts people for no reason at all. “Flexiblity” is the word most invoked by those who cannot understand a problem like this. “Why is it such a big deal? Just be more flexible,” they might say. Or “there are far more important issues in the world than this”, accompanied by a choice of sleights against the non-tie-wearer's character, priorities or postulated ego. Such people lack a conception of values, or of the integrity in keeping one's own, which is itself a despair-inducing characteristic of the constructed economics-led, scarcity-obsessed, Hobbesean-state-of-nature survival-of-the-nastiest social conditions with which we increasingly supplant reality. That is to say, a world where good outcomes, warmth and kindness and care, vanish from our concerns in a callous, cash-strapped daily struggle for survival – and where we would do anything necessary, ethics be damned, to live another day.

Precisely the kind of society, in other words, that requires us to stand up to that entire collective mass of inhumanity and say: “No. You be flexible. Because you are the problem.” Precisely the kind of society where to tear down that problem's symbols, of which the necktie is one of the foremost, has become an essential political act.

What you can do about it
The other way freedom of dress is unlike other freedoms is that, in most cases, protecting it really wouldn't take much effort if we could be bothered. Neckties are rarely if ever enforced by laws and physical coercion, relying instead on the invisible webs of stigma, exclusion and abusive power relationships that wield them as a tool of exclusion. All of us can fight these with but a modicum of courage.

(Other dress codes, of course, are coercively enforced, and require significantly greater commitments to overcome them. These cases each tend to be complex and contentious in their own right, and require more thorough treatment than I can give them in this article.)

So set an example. Do not wear a thing like the tie unless you have independently and consciously decided that you wish to do so; never because of the social pressure to, or to curry the favour of those who would judge you by it. Observe the extent to which expectations of dress have been disconnected from any real practical or aesthetic concern, and instead serve agendas built around power relations or exclusion. And fight them. Face them, like a free human.

And to those in that position to judge – especially employers, recruiters and established professionals – scour your dress codes; reflect on your assumptions; and free the structures you command from the repressive culture of the necktie. Otherwise, you may well find that you stand on the wrong side in the story of humanity.

In the end, this is just one more facet of those most basic freedoms which it is astonishing we should still have to struggle for: those which begin and end at “it's my body, not yours”. Human societies fail themselves until they recognize, and establish, that the human body and all its inherent corollaries – its name, its blood, its words, its thoughts, its labour, its emotions, its sexual sovereignty, and everything else including the choice of how it is clothed – belongs exclusively to the person who inhabits that body. And as with all those corollaries, so long as so long as there is not a question of their exercise to the tangible and demonstrable harm to others, society has no business telling people what they can or cannot wear.