Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A to Z: Uniforms

Uniforms have likely been in existence as long as we've had civilization.
And it has been one of the most powerful tools for dehumanization ever since.

This entry will be one of those that falls under the category of "makes me want to spit" in the split themed
A-Z of -Things I like & I find inspiring & -Things that drive me crazy and I wish did not exist.

I will concede that there are some occasions when a uniform is useful and even a benefit, as a time saver, an identifier, to not throw the ball to the opposing team or such times as when your house is burning down it might be nice to quickly identify who is equipped to put out the fire or treat burns and who is standing around saying "wow, lookie thar".

But as a general rule I feel uniforms to be one of the worst ideas our species has ever come up with.
I would go so far as to say it represents a great evil we have enacted upon ourselves.
I have a feeling I'll have to explain that.
I'm not saying if you wear a uniform you are a bad person.
I'm saying uniforms are unnatural and a potential danger to those who wear them & our society in general.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a bad feeling about uniforms.
A distrust.  A shying away. A feeling there was something not quite right.
From the time I was a child I felt this: either a fear or disquiet of uniforms, or a feeling of appall: as if I felt the person in the uniform was being abused.  It wasn't until much later in life I put theories to this instinct.

I feel uniforms exploit deficiencies in the human psychology and manipulate human tribal instincts.

In small social bands, in a state of nature, humans group together to survive.
This requires understanding each other, solving problems and working together.
This is why we have empathy: we need to understand other people as we understand ourselves because we are tied together for survival: we are connected and need the pack to survive if the individual is to survive.
We need each other and need to care about each other.

Civilization took that need away. Or at least, it appears to have from the limited perspective of the average person. With abundance of goods and population came a decrease in empathy: too many people to know, too difficult to see the connection between people.
Civilization had problems because of this lack of empathy: the root of all the problems we face as a species come from a short coming of empathy with others.
But instead of trying to solve this, the solution chosen was to attack the side effects, to further distance people, subdivide them into roles to create order.

This made things worse, not better, for it only aggravates the root of the problem:
It decreases empathy.

A uniform tells the person wearing it:
"You are not Bob. You are Police." or -Soldier, or -Waiter or -Prisoner.

It is a dehumanizing process.  It creates distance between those in the uniform and those without it or with another.  You might say 'But often we need that." To a degree, but is the benefit worth the problems it creates?  I think it isn't.  You might say "But people do good things in uniforms too." Yes, there has been a lot of good done by those in uniforms, but I don't think this was aided by or made easier to be done because of uniforms. The majority of that would be there without them.
There must be a way to retain the small advantages without being vulnerable to the problems this causes.

Uniforms can take away the individual and makes them one of a group-role.
Why else does the military shave the head of all recruits and give them uniforms?
There is no threat that they would be confused as an enemy soldier, because it is training: there are no enemy soldiers.  It is so that their individuality will be stripped away and replaced with a new identity: one of a group, a role.  I have heard defenders of this say that it is required, or they won't learn to be soldiers and that it will save their life.  But what about Partisans? The French Resistance in World War II? These groups fought well without the need for uniforms.
So why do we have them?  Because it is easier to control people when they are not Bob and Jane, but when they are Private and Corporal. People question, soldiers obey.. it is their role to obey.  If those who give orders don't lose their humanity there may be no problems, but we've seen in history that it happens more often than we'd like.

Even when no orders are given, any reduction in humanity can add to the chances of inhuman acts.

There is an instinct in every human for tribalization: the "Us/Them" instinct.
But this is not one of our more noble characteristics.  It encourages us to shut down empathy, to see others as inferior or even not as human beings at all, as the Nazis labeled the Jews.
Uniforms don't cause this, but they can aid this dark instinct by putting a further layer between us and others and by giving the wearer of a uniform a fabricated identity: a role that is not their individual nature.

It isn't just military uniforms that do this of course, nearly all uniforms do.

I have heard from people who wear uniforms that it comes with a feeling of power and authority.
I have no doubt, because it does.  It does because people in the society give it that power.

If you have any doubt this is a dehumanizing attribute then think about how uniforms are fetishized.
To be clear, a fetish is when a person has a sexual response to something that is of itself not sexual.
It is a 'middle man' of a sexual response, an association that is not there by nature.  If a person is sexually stimulated by nudity, this is not a fetish: nudity is an aspect of the sexual experience in a natural form.
A fetish is things like shoes.  If someone becomes aroused by shoes by themselves, they have a fetish.
There are all sorts and many quite strange.  One of the more common is uniforms: people who have a fetish for a maid uniform, or police or military uniforms: they are sexualizing the role of authority or lack of authority these uniforms represent.  It is not the person wearing the uniform, it is the uniform itself which arouses them.
That is just one way to show that uniforms are not about people, they are about the role and function of the position in the society, which in itself is stepping away from an individual identity and dehumanizes.

This is another aspect of dehumanizing regarding uniforms:
Those who see people in uniforms tend to dehumanize them too.  When a person sees a person who is in uniform it is easy for them to not see a person, they see the role.  This then can become cyclical: a person in a uniform can feel distanced from other people, is treated as a non-person by others, reinforcing this feeling, and acts upon this, which then causes more feelings from general population that the bearer of the uniform is not an individual and it continues.
Very dangerous.

A police officer expects to be called "Officer", a waiter introduces himself with "I'll be your server".
These are identifications to inform people that they are not interacting with them as individuals, not as people, but as dehumanized "roles".  I get a very bad feeling about this. As a species I think we're doing something very wrong when this happens.

Taken to extremes: China in the mid 1960's to 1970's pushed their Revolution to the "Cultural Revolution".
This sought to break down the old roles, but to replace them with new, even more rigid and dehumanized roles.  People were expected to wear the uniform of 'the people'.  This reinforced their role and group-think.
This is similar to what the Nazis did with the Hitler Youth: give children a uniform, break down their individuality and replace it with the identity and role that is desired for them to have.

There is a reason this has been done before: It works. 

It does change the way people think and see themselves.

This is done today to an even greater degree: the Burka
This is a uniform for a very large group: 50% of a population.
The Burka removes any semblance of humanity from the person who wears it.
I can think of no uniform which is more dehumanizing than this one, though it is on par with one I can think of: the KKK.  Showing that dehumanization works both ways: it can strip power or create power.

I met a photographer once, who had been a police officer before his career change.
I asked him what it had been like, why he changed jobs.  He told me about the culture within the police force.  How it encouraged them to think of themselves as different than other people, better than others.
He told me that while not all, many who are attracted to the job are attracted to the power, and the distance the job creates between them and 'citizens' only increases the longer you're on the job. He said he could feel it starting to affect him, change him, and he didn't like who he was becoming. So he got out.

Are all cops this way? Of course not, but many are. The job creates a power differential and the uniform is an outward sign and reinforcement of this power and 'otherness', and it is not healthy.
It takes a very empathic and emotionally strong person to avoid this trap.

I can't count the number of times I have seen people demean or even mildly look down on people in service jobs, and wonder if this wouldn't be better if the person wasn't wearing a uniform.  
It seems far too often people see a uniform, but don't see the person who wears the uniform.

In the same way I have heard people defend the concept of 'business attire' saying that a suit is 'appropriate' for business, banking, legal jobs and others.  This is a uniform too.  

Maybe something isn't working right in me, maybe I was an alien orphan left on the doorstep of Earth but I see a problem with this.  I don't care if a banker is wearing a suit or T shirt.  It is so artificial. 
If we got past this assumption I doubt anyone else would after very long either.  

And what about the uniforms of clergy?
Since the beginning of civilization priests have worn uniforms to distance themselves from average people, to aid in their claims to greater importance, power and authority. How often has this outward presentation of power gone to their heads and helped them make decisions to burn people as heretics, call for crusades and pogroms, and generally tell people what to do? 

There was a very interesting sociological experiment in 1971 at Stanford University.
You probably have heard about it. 

Student volunteers took on the role of prisoners and prison guards for two weeks.  
In very short order these roles took them over and they began to think of themselves as prisoners and guards: the prisoners lost solidarity, became scared and emotionally broken. The guards became sadistic. 
Both these groups were given uniforms. That isn't an aspect that is talked about much, but I suspect it had a very influential role in the self identity of the participants.  

Below is a brief BBC documentary of the experiment. 
There was also a good German movie inspired by it:  Das Experiment, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.

If you're curious to experience something like this yourself, you can.
karosta prison hotel checkin
Go to Karosta Prison in Latvia, where you can stay the night and see for yourself what this is like.

What do you think? Something to it or much ado about nothing?

If you've never thought about it, try to notice your own reactions and assumptions when interacting with people in uniform, see what you find

This has been an A-Z Challenge post. 
For the month of April there will be an update for each letter within the theme of: Things that influence and inspire me, or the converse: things which I find distressing or make me want to rail at the world.
Some of these will pertain to the miniatures hobby, but many will venture off to atypical territory for the duration of the challenge, then it will be back to normal with mostly minis and an occasional blithering.
You can find out more about the A-Z challenge my clicking the logo at the top left of the page. 


Paul of the Man Cave said...

Ironic too that you post this on ANZAC Day eve. I appreciate your commentary and agree that uniforms can be twisted into something ugly. Then again, maybe sometimes its the people who twist the uniforms to mean something else, rather than the other way around.

As someone who has worn an Army Uniform, a Navy uniform and a Scout Leader's uniform over the last 22 years (still wearing the latter two BTW) I see them as a means instilling pride, bearing, understanding of service, self-confidence and a means to displaying key achievements.

Like you, I despair when I see some of the examples you cite as to their misuse. That said, I am proud to wear my uniform every day. And sometimes that is also recognised by a complete stranger who approaches in public and simply says 'thank you for your service'.


Anne said...

I'm familiar with the prisoner experiment and its findings. We are very easily conditioned when dealing with behaviors that are innate. The drive to create "identifiers" is an ancient one in humans. When it first manifested itself, it was clearly an adaptive trait. Today we've taken a normal human behavior and made it maladaptive. The expanded neocortex of the human should allow us to learn to recognize this and rein it in. But as long as those in a position of power can find a way to exploit it, we appear to be stuck with it.

As per your usual standards this post in undoubtadly above par. It is both useful and timely. (That's 3 U's for you today and I may have made up the word undoubtadly).

Laughing Ferret said...

Paul: My great fear is twofold: one, that evil & manipulative people can use the power it creates to do bad things and two that the natural distance a uniform can create can limit empathy, which humans need, so that scares me.

It may be that a uniform can inspire beyond-human actions, I don't know. I have always felt that the people who do noble deeds while wearing a uniform do so because of what is inside them, not because of what they wear, but maybe that can aid that impulse as well, to make someone more likely to do good? How ironic if it had an equal effect for positive and negative? It's an interesting thought. But I feel often times people have done bad things more easily because the emotional distance created by a uniform made it more easy. But I have a suspicion that the good things people have done who wore uniforms would have been just as likely without them: good people will do good things- a handy symbol afterwards for others to have as a symbol for inspiration, but without it, they'd be just as inspired by the stories & deeds. So worst case scenario: it can weaken someone to do bad, best case scenario: a good person is going to do good regardless. Maybe I'm being overly-idealistic, but I'd like to think the best in humans is done without small helps, and the worst we do wouldn't be as bad if we didn't have extra things keeping us from our natural empathy and better impulses. Thanks for the ideas and input! I do enjoy thinking about these topics more & from different angles.

And happy Anzac day! When I was in Turkey I'd have been able to go to Gallipoli if the train hadn't been so delayed that it cost us our day of leeway :(

Laughing Ferret said...

Thanks Anne!
I find this stuff fascinating.
I notice the same thing about professional sports teams, and how fan bases tribalize around them. Clearly exploited by the franchises to sell merchandise and advertisement campaigns. The way we tap into our instincts and what we create from them is very strange. You're right: we should be able to identify what we're doing and where it comes from, but we don't seem to.

Lead Legion said...

I do agree that uniforms remove a certain aspect of indentity and make it easier for persons to engage in acts they would not normally engage in. A good example would be the "Order Police" of Nazi Germany.

These were men -mostly older men, normally less easily influenced that younger men (it's why the army and police like to get you young, younger people are more malleable) from all walks of German society.

They were not particularly imbued with Nazi philosophy. They had been drafted into the Order Police because they were too old, too unfit or too ideologically questionable to be considered for the Wehrmacht or S.S. They received only 45 minutes of political orinatation a week, much lesser than the average for even a civilian in WWII Germany.

Yet these ordinary German men massacred Jews wherever they went. They weren't Nazi's, just ordinary Germans who murdered millions of Jewish men and women because they felt it was the right thing to do.

One officer of Order Battalion 109 thought nothing of murdering hundred of Jews a day -even going to so far as to lock them in a Synagogue and burn it to the ground with hundred of Polish Jews alive inside- simply because it was more expedient than shooting them.

However, when asked to sign a sworn declaeration that he and his men would not steal or loot from ordinary, non-Jewish Polish citizens, he refused. On "moral" grounds. This murdering scum-bag, NOT even a fanatic Nazi, just an ordinary German, considered the order to sign this statement an affront to his upstanding moral character. So much so that he even went so far as to record his refusal to obey this order in a written statement sent to his superiors.

It's an oversimplofication to say that wearing the uniform of the Order Police was enough to change these ordinary Germans into something monstrous, but it was certainly a contributing factor.

And yet, without uniforms, how do we know that Police Constable at the door is actually a policeman? How do we know that stranger is actually here to read our gas meter rather than rob our home? How do we know who we're suppossed to be shooting at if someone like the Order Police comes into our town and starts to round people up for slaughter.

Yes, uniforms have a profound effect on the collective consciousness. But until the (unlikely) event that someone comes up with something better, they are a neccessary evil.

As a final addendum: I too left the police because I didn't like what the police culture was doing to me. However, I would NOT put that down to wearing the uniform four four years. I wore a military uniform for seven years prior to that and never felt that the institution I belonged to made me feel better than other people. If anything, it reinforced that ordinary people -cvilians- were the people I had chosen to protect. I never even began to develop a contempt for civilians during my army service. I can't say the same for the four years I was with the police. In fact, I too felt myself becoming more and more contemptuous of ordinary people as time went by. It was evident simply in the way my colleagues said the word "Civilian", or, more commonly, "civvies."

That, I would have to say from my personal imperical experience, was the result of the police culture itself, rather than wearing a police uniform. Certainly, I never felt any contempt for civilians while I was an officer in the Army. Mounting fraustration with civilian ignorance of military-political affairs, yes. But never contempt.

Sorry for the long post -and the terrible spelling. I was a little rushed.

The Angry Lurker said...

I agree but up to a point and as I sit here in my contractor security uniform which identifies me to staff and others and to the service I provide!

Thomas Grimstad said...

Interestingly I think the uniform is part of our desire to be able to size things up instantly. When people first meet new people we want to know where we fit in, how everyone else is related, who we could best if we needed to. The uniform removes the "mental guesswork" and allows us to make the associations we (or the designers of the uniform more precisely)want. It is about making things simple, black and white. Life is easier without the shades of gray, but that doesn't make it better. I would view uniforms as a tool rather than an evil. Just as a knife can be used for preparing food, cutting rope, etc. It can also be used to kill and injure. I would view uniforms as tools similar to weapons, often they get used for the wrong thing, but they serve a purpose.

S. L. Hennessy said...

In some ways I agree with you. I DO think uniforms can act as a de-humanizer. But I also have spent a lot of time in them (as an athlete) and I think there's also an interesting sense of unity. It does create a decidedly us/them mentality, but it brings groups of individuals together as a team as well. There's a positive side as well as the negative.

Joshua said...

Returning to the business uniform. I very much understand that feeling. And quite often it isn't just the clothing, but other things that must be uniform. Hair must be a certain way, no ear-rings, no rings, no visible tattoos and others. I've never been fond of my "monkey suit", and even just the way one must wear it is so incredibly controlling.

School uniforms by far are the most appalling offender, methinks. Because while adults can still be changed by various markers in their lives, children are still learning how to interpret social queues, and the effects of uniforming them only stunts their mental development further.

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