Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Where I stand on global uniforms

So where do I stand on the whole global uniform issue? Briefly: I'm for it. But so I don't look too coo-coo, let me make as strong a case I can for rejecting a global uniform.

First there is the knee-jerk: I like to pick my clothes. Like probably many of you, I don't want to be "forced" into a “uniform” even if everyone else across the globe is doing likewise.

I think this knee-jerk reaction is probably pretty typical, and not just for silly reasons. Clothing has near universal religious, and cultural significance. Practically speaking, could there be a uniform that is acceptable to stringent clothing standards for e.g. the female face-covering apparel in the Mid- and Near East, that all others could get on board with? Not likely. And it's likewise not likely that we can easily get them to adopt something quite different. This brings up an important part of the issue. In considering a global uniform, we can't just flippantly disregard the religious and cultural significance of clothing. More generally, we can't look at clothing as simply a neutral "covering", and then go about pragmatically making the most sensible covering. So—to be clear—there is nothing that is straight-forward about the proposition of a global uniform, it is rife with controversy, we seem to run into significant religious and cultural obstacles the minute we even begin to explore the possibility.

Now I move from religious and cultural significance, to a more generic social tool that clothing plays. Not only from a human encountering another human needing to make some justifiable judgments--do a sorting of sorts--perspective where the efficiency of such sorting is dramatically increased when clothing is not uniform. (You and I can have a certain expectation about what kind of interaction we will have with: a man with a new suit and tie, a woman with a long, vibrant fur coat, or a young man with no shirt, cut offs and worn out Converse All Stars.) But also from the perspective of the man with a new suit and tie, the woman with the coat, and the skater; these people can create a sort of identity, and take on a persona that is deliberate and personally fulfilling. Not only can they take on a persona--and join in the tradition of people wearing suits, fur-coats, and cut-offs, but, to put it in more common terms: they can create and express their individuality. In today's world, and the forseeable future, such expressiveness is not only a basic human right, it’s basic to human dignity. To require a global uniform is to infringe on our basic humanity. Do you want to infringe on others' basic humanity?

Response: I genuinely have the knee-jerk reaction mentioned at the outset, and I appreciate that the issue is sensitive and complex. However, that our initial response is negative, and that a solution could be difficult is not reason to abandon any effort. At a time, emancipation seemed overly difficult and unappetizing, but it was in the end (as I hope all will agree), necessary and inevitable. It does suggest, however, that a persuasive enough case be made to motivate our best efforts to making a solution.

Now a few advantages: efficiency, improving social interactions across cultures and economic status, the result of schools that have tried suggest its good. So, first, efficiency. Obviously all costs associated with clothing take a nose-dive because of economies of scale. This in turn affects interactions between groups from differing socio-economic levels and makes perhaps the most frequently used prejudice obsolete (i.e. prejudice based on clothing). Schools provide an insightful lab. Schools as you know have conducted experiments with uniforms. Talk to a parent that has a child at a school where uniforms are required, chances are they are delighted that there is a uniform, it simplifies their child’s mornings, wardrobe, school anxiety, etc. Schools that have a required uniform don’t suffer from lack of individual expressiveness, rather, that expressiveness must turn to more creative forms than simply “apparel”. I would argue that that is a good thing. Further, schools that require a uniform systematically avoid problems of prejudice that more easily arise in non-uniform-requiring schools. Granted schools aren’t society, they do have characteristics of a social system—they are a sort of microcosm of society, and inasmuch as a simple adjustment can have important beneficial effects in this microcosm of society, I think it is worth exploring the possibilities of extrapolating from that experiment to society at large. What if we find the same or similar results? I think the promise is too great to neglect the effort, notwithstanding the difficulty it presents (let's be very realistic here the work ahead will be difficult).

At a fundamental level, I disagree with a claim, or at least an unstated assumption that individuality can only be expressed if one can pick his or her clothes. I think it is narrow-minded to think that we can't express our individuality if all share a global uniform. Do you really require your clothes to express yourself? To take a page from science fiction--which in a provocative sense makes a frequent portrait of future worlds with inhabitants as it were inevitably adorning a global uniform--Star Trek showcases heroes, heroines, sidekicks, intellectuals, villains, etc. Within the confines of the starship enterprise, we meet (metaphorically at least) the full spectrum of human possibility, yet for the most part, and for all intents and purposes, all share a uniform. Undoubtedly there are contemporary stringent religious and cultural dress codes, if we are talking about a 1-2 year solution, I think global uniforms are a stupid solution. But I think the problems associated with global apparel, and therefore workable solutions are much deeper and broader than that. I think it is near-sighted to only invoke the contemporary when a solution is sought for millennia. Obviously there is a lot to debate here, I will sum up my side by saying that if we can imagine a future world where there is a global uniform--however it got there--and I think conventional imagery of the future shares this imagination, why be so irrationally tied to the present?

Perhaps the most basic questions are these: What are the advantages of a global uniform? What are the disadvantages? Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? If yes, then aren’t we obliged to explore in depth the possibility of realizing a better solution? I think they do and I think we are.


  1. As long as it is wrinkle resistant, I'm all for a global uniform.

  2. Christian, you make a great point. It sounds like you (like me--and probably like the vast majority of people) wear clothes that are in some ways annoying (e.g. not wrinkle-resistant). There is a systematic effort to make 'faulty' clothes. Now that I think about it, I don't want clothes that aren't wrinkle resistant. I don't want clothes that smell like body odor, or mildew either. Who does? Idiots? Jerks? So a global uniform could also solve the problem of annoying clothes.