Thursday, March 19, 2015

Fads, Flocks, and Fanaticism (1984) [21 Nov. 2014]

Oceania was not after all at war with Eurasia.
Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally.
There was, of course, no admission that any change
had taken place. Merely it became known, with
extreme suddenness and everywhere at once,
that Eastasia and not Eurasia was the enemy.
* * *                                            
A Party member is required to have not only the right opinions,
but the right instincts. Many of the beliefs and attitudes
demanded of him are never plainly stated, and could not be […].
If he is a person naturally orthodox (in Newspeak a good-thinker),
he will in all circumstances know, without taking thought,
what is the true belief or the desirable emotion.
— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
            Somewhere in George Orwell's canon of works (I thought Nineteen Eighty-Four but couldn't find it there), there's an image of orthodox believers like a flock of starlings, changing direction all at once and all together, with a human observer unable to see which bird turns first or why they are changing course — in the case of "the True Believers," figurative changing course to follow the new Party line.
            Anyway, that's the image in my mind, and if I'm making it up, well, more power to me, but I'm pretty sure I'm stealing it, and from Orwell.
            I thought of that image when teaching College Composition at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and starting many terms with an exercise called just "Clothes," where the students would read some brief excerpts for John T. Molloy's Dress for Success (1975) and an even briefer excerpt on radically-sensible clothing customs in Sir Thomas More's Utopia (from Utopia, 1516).
            The standard advice in writing is "Write about what you know about; write about what you care about," and God knows my students knew about and cared about clothes. God knew, and the women in the class knew: it was often challenging to get the men in the class to recognized what they knew and admit how much they cared; but, then, that was a major point of the exercise. Consciousness is necessary to interesting writing, and seeing the weirdness of everyday life is useful for finding topics to write about. More important, "liberal education" is the education appropriate to free citizens, and the first step toward freedom is realizing how much our decisions are controlled and manipulated by outside forces, usually other people.
            And most of us are manipulated all the way down to decisions on clothes, with our decisions "conditioned" more subtly than the obvious point that just about everyone buys what's available in the stories.
            Well, none of my students made his or, far more likely, her clothes — or got them tailor-made — but one guy did order his clothes from a costumer in the San Francisco area, and another guy wore store-bought garments, but definitely upscale and so carefully coordinated they might as well have been tailor-made: there was a look he wanted, and with careful shopping, obsessively careful shopping by guy standards, he got that look.
            (In fact, his essay on clothes was so good I let him follow it up with an essay on how he decorated his dorm room: the guy was borderline pathological in his consciousness of his look — "presentation" is the current jargon —and/but those two essays were fascinating, in a case-study way, and, of course, written meticulously.)
            Anyway, a standard class dialog would start with students' saying they bought what was available, and then a stronger assertion from a male student, "I wear what I want." And then, ordinarily, a woman in the class would note the screamingly obvious that "It's a hell of a coincidence that you independently choose to wear what just about every other guy in this room is wearing."
            And this would move us on to why it is we want what we want, starting with how we get to want what we want in clothes.
            Okay, you want to be "comfortable," but for my generation the "comfortable" concept got brilliantly skewered in the Cathy Sunday cartoon in which Cathy tells her boyfriend Irving in the first panel that she's going to slip into something more comfortable, takes the rest of the panels save one to squeeze into her jeans, and then re-enters to Irving in the last panel saying that she's now more comfortable. Uh-huh. "Skinny jeans" are coming back, so the young-in's will know again what I'm talking about: there is nothing physically comfortable about jeans that are difficult for women to get into and potentially painful for men careless enough to bend over quickly or squat down to get something or, with the terminally fashionable, do much beyond stand against a wall making no sudden moves and hoping some sperm survive your body heat.
            Of course, between the eras of tight jeans, and continuing into the time I'm writing, the alternative fashion was loose pants: and I'm sure walking around like a toddler with a full load in his diaper is about as comfortable as, say, tight jeans or stiletto heals or — well, fill in the blank with your favorite dumb-ass and/or potentially dangerous fashion.
            "Comfortable" often means socially comfortable, which in turn usually means some combination of a bit of standing out with a lot more fitting in.
            Not just my students, but all of us follow rules for our clothing, and they are not enforced by the Fashion Police, let alone the Thought Police, but they are enforced (obviously: we usually obey them).
            One form of enforcement was checked out by one of my students.
            I'd pointed out that when backpacks came in among college students the rule soon became, "Thou shalt not wear thy backpack over both shoulders lest thou look like a Boy Scout."
            I had checked out that rule by doing a count of 100 backpackers, and 98 of 100 Miami University students I spotted on the Oxford campus wore their backpacks over one shoulder, even in the case of a guy on a high racing bike in a high wind near a dangerous highway: for high-risk behavior motivated as far as I can see only by his fashion sense. «On the one hand,» I inferred, he thought, «I might lose my balance and fall under a truck and die; on the other hand, with the backpack over both shoulders, for sure I'd look like a dork.»
            My student wanted to test enforcement, so he walked around campus with the backpack over both shoulders and got a look or two but no comments. He did get a comment when he buckled the straps at the base of the backpack: one of the undergrad "older guys" went up to him and told him the buckle part at least Was Not Done.
            Later, as men's styles juvenilized, so to speak, the rule became, "Thou shalt wear thy backpack over both shoulders, because —" well I think precisely because it made the wearer look like a Boy Scout.
            No matter.
            The point was the style had changed and it had changed more dramatically than, say, the pigmentation on moths in the north of England as the Industrial Revolution came in and tree trunks darkened with soot and other air gunk and once-numerous light-colored moths got spotted and eaten and once-rare dark-colored moths became dominant and we got to see Evolution in Action (sort of).
            But giant birds weren't picking off and eating guys carrying backpacks over one shoulder, and if now unfashionable guys were shunned by females for breeding purposes, that hadn't had time to have much effect.
            The biological analogy was closer to the starlings or a school of fish changing course, just sociological and slower and governed by much more complicated behavioral rules than birds in flight or fish in a school.
            The significant parallel is with Orwellian "good thinkers" — astute Party members — sensing the shift in the Party line.
            From shoaling and schooling fish to "murmurating" starlings to fashionable undergrads, one key element is recognizing those around us (usually "conspecifics": our people), sensing their behavior and changes therein, and reacting, ordinarily by conforming.
            Such reacting to others is necessary for social life, and too little reaction can make you a sociopath or psycho.
            With social animals like wolves and baboons and humans, this recognizing and sensing and reacting takes place in a conext of some individuality and usually strong social hierarchies: to apply another Orwellian rule, All baboons are equal, but some baboons are a whole lot more equal than others.
            With fashion, ranks can get complicated. Fashion is generally set by those who can stand out safely, which includes very high-ranking people, from whom much fashion proceeds, but fashions also come from underclass folk and those from the margins, people with little to lose: e.g., recent fashions from various ghettos, sailors, outlaws, prisoners, gays — etc.
            What happens with fashion, a student who'd studied these things told me, is that «the cool kids» — my formulation, not hers (hence those European quotation marks again) — the cool kids note that what they're currently up to has been picked up by the uncool, so the cool kids must move on. So, usually semi-consciously, the more daring of the cool look around to see if any of the out-groups are up to something interestingly outrageous and try out the style. Usually the "meme" goes nowhere — even as most mutations die out — but sometimes it catches on and the flock or shoal or herd changes directions.
            With a Party Line in a totalitarian State, the change is definitely top-down and rapid: there are established lines of communication to get the word out and serious consequences for not getting the word and falling into line with the new Party Line. Indeed if Orwell and Eric Hoffer are correct (The True Believer § XIII), the rapidity and frequent arbitrariness of changes in the Party Line are part of its function: To convince people rationally to modify a view is a sign of one's rhetorical competence; to force people to do a high-speed 180 from one absurdity to another: that is a demonstration of power, and a reinforcement of power.
            The US of A is not Orwell's Oceania (although it is Oceania in Orwell's novel), nor even Hitler's Reich or Stalin's Russian Empire; and, obviously we don't have a single Party Line or even "hegemonic" agreement on some important basic facts and principles. What we do have is half a dozen or a dozen figurative flocks or "shoals" or herds or whatever lemmings come in where semiconscious people semiconsciously watch one another for cues on proper behavior and sentiments and  beliefs.
            In its more innocent forms, this is just another area in which "High school never ends," and we're still imitating the cool kids or rebelling against them.
            ("If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let his step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away" — H.D. Thoreau. That ain't hearing the same music as everyone else and just stepping on the off beats.)
            In its less innocent forms, we have the human weakness to go with the crowds and follow the other figurative lemmings wherever they go, probably while chanting in unison on how we wear what we want and do what we want like all the other good, freedom-loving Americans or, if you're on the Left, peoples of the world.
            At its worst, we become small masses of people, but still crowds, small masses, with each little mass disagreeing with the other on this or that, but each composed of the "naturally orthodox" — good thinkers — who "will in all circumstances know, without taking thought, what is the true belief or the desirable emotion."

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