Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Occupy Protesters' fashion signals

I have been following some of the Occupy protests with some interest when I’m not overwhelmed by other duties. The practice of protesting and the use of fashion to illustrate the content of the protest have been joined for a very long time. I think of the original British colonists on the eastern shore of America (which at the time of course was partly comprised of a British set of colonies) who protested against the taxation from the British crown. In protest, they dressed themselves in the traditional clothing of the Native American tribes while dumping British tea into the harbors – their attire proclaiming that they identify with the growing, independent sense of America and its new interests and less so with the old British colonial enterprise. The Native American garb during this protest act was not and never was intended to be a disguise in any sense. It was what social scientists call an intentional external signal, every bit as intentional as the iconic raised black glove of Tommie Smith at the Olympics in 1968.

That’s the angle (i.e., signal theory) that helps make sense of and critique the Occupy protesters. As refined and developed as human beings are, we are still products of evolution, and as such are deeply continuous with the entire biological world.

For example, take the majestic and sometimes laughably exaggerated peacock. The brilliant colors are a signal to others (typically to females) that one is worthy of mating. The general idea is that animals, including humans, use a plethora of nonverbal signals to instruct others how and where to categorize the signaler. In fact, before the (more or less) egalitarian fashion culture we now inhabit, there was a time when particular kinds of fabrics were ONLY allowed to be worn by particular social and economic classes, usually the upper classes. Crossing that fashion line was punishable by law. In that social context, it is obvious how the nonverbal donning of a mere fabric would be a signal about how and where on the class system to categorize the fabric wearer in question.

In terms of fashion in the context of political protest, the human practice of signaling goes in two directions. First, the kind of fashion (clothing, hair, accessories, skin art, etc.) sends a signal to others to communicate one’s identification with a cause or ideology, but there is an equally important second signal. That second signal is the one that is sent to oneself. This sounds strange, but it becomes less strange when we are willing to grant that self-knowledge comes less from introspection of our own private thoughts and more from how we interpret our own observable actions. Example of observing one’s own action: Suppose I am at a grocery store, and a homeless person approaches me to ask me to buy him a meal. Let us say that I do so. As I am buying this person a meal, I am observing my own action, but I also interpret my own action and give it a meaning. The interpretation, let us say, is that “I am a generous and caring person” or something like that. In my memories of that action, I revive the same interpretation and thereby give my own moral identity its meaning. Hence, whenever I send a signal to others, I am also sending that signal to myself.

The connection with fashion in the context of this signal theory is that what one chooses to wear is a signal in both of the ways above. In the context of political protest, as a marker of the first type of signal, it is a message to others who witness the protest and fashion that the protester aligns herself with a particular ideology – for example, “unfettered corporate greed degrades humanity” or something like that. The reflective protester may even choose fashion that aligns herself more self-consciously and consistently with the anti-corporate ideology. She may intentionally wear items that are second-hand thrift shop items. She may intentionally wear hand-me-downs during the protest or other strategically designed signals to observers that highlight the distance between the protesters’ ideas and those of an allegedly greed-driven corporate America. The distance is highlighted by both the content of the message and the appearance of the protesters. In this way, the fashion is in a relationship of concord with the content of the protest.

This perspective of signal theory also opens an avenue for critique. If one searches through the many photographs of the various Occupy protests that have occurred, especially the ones in New York City, one will see protesters wearing clothing and accessories with the brands and logos of the very sort of corporate entities their protest is supposed to be criticizing! Mixed signals! One wonders about the degree to which they are sincere or perhaps just self-deluded about their convictions. Are they not picking up on their own signals? This curious situation of mixed signals has not been lost on international media. Many British news outlets have quipped that many of the New York protesters are actually engaged in a grass roots fashion parade that pretends to be a protest movement. The very fact that the British media are raising the possibility of this insincerity is because they already recognize that form (self-presentation, of which fashion is primary) should align consistently with function (content of the protest, anti-corporate message, etc.). Where there is a disconnection, there is the invitation for suspicion.

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