Thursday, September 13, 2007

Badgery, Part II

Mark has posted a response to my badgery post, but a very perplexing one. I say so because it rather persistently refuses to engage with the actual points under contention, instead continually reasserting that "people badge" and that this is often a good thing. Given that I don't disagree that many, if not most or all, people badge, and that this is perfectly fine (when, in Mark's own words, they do it "willingly and eagerly"), there's very little point in rehashing that badging can be okay.

What still seems to be under contention, and the original point that prompted the debate, is when a covering demand is not okay. So, in writing this post, I want to pin down a simple position which I think is being elided thus far. Does Mark think covering requirements can ever have negative effects on those its demanded of? If so, does he think those effects are ever bad enough so we can legitimately say "this is an unjust requirement", and speak out against the requiring party and argue they have a moral obligation to change it? And finally, do you think there are covering requirements that can be legally proscribed, by, say, anti-discrimination law (as I argue the "women and only women must wear make-up" position by Harrah's should be?).

But unfortunately, it appears we still need to clarify terms. I cited two distinctions between badging and covering demands: that the former are done willingly and the latter reluctantly, and that the former tend to be "grassroots" and the latter sent from up on high. I can't tell what Mark thinks of these parameters--he cites them, but doesn't respond positively or negatively to the first at all and only throws out a half-hearted objection to the second (which I admitted may have exceptions anyway). I say half-hearted because one of the two examples he cites for covering that is not brought down by elites (hip-hop stylings) is actually probably a bona fide case of badging precisely because it seems to have been adopted rather organically, and the second case (circumcision)--even if it was originally from on high (and since on pure historical grounds I don't think that the Bible is the literal word of God, I think it's far more likely that circumcision was intersubjectively agreed-upon by the early Hebrew community), I certainly think the manner in which it is operationalized today by most Jews is as intersubjective communal acceptance (which is why Conservative Jews such as myself, who "no longer hear divine voices", still do it even while jettisoning many other Biblical commandments). I'll concede that khakis in a business setting are similarly organic, to a lesser degree, but I do not think the anti-kinky hair or anti-uncovered women standards can be said to be so agreed upon by the effected community.

Upon further reflection, a third distinction, somewhat more complex than it appears at first glance, needs to be added. Badging always trumpets one's affiliation in a group. When I badge, I am always trying to make it more obvious that I am a member of a certain group. In it's purest form, covering is the reverse--it tries to downplay my membership in a certain group. So the example I used of a Kippah--I put it on to badge my Judaism, I take it off in rural Minnesota to cover it. But, unfortunately for analytical clarity, covering can also speak to cases where I'm making a group membership more prevalent, not less (I believe Yoshino refers to this as "reverse covering"). A woman who cuts her hair short may be covering her femininity, while requirements that she, say, wear a push-up bra and high heels serve to trumpet it instead. Yoshino groups both as covering because they both "cover" what he calls the "authentic" presentation of self--being forced to either under- or over-identify with a group represents in some sense a coercive shift away from this authentic vision, thus covering it. Make-up, incidentally, is a tough case to call, because while it is "tagged" as accenting femininity in our society, it (quite literally) covers a woman's face, masking her identity. This is why I think it is properly analogized as a cousin to a veil or burqa, and like with both, where women are forced into covering their face, that's something we should protest against (incidentally, I wasn't accusing Mark of misogyny as much as Harrah's--that they're position is morally analogous to the Taliban requiring woman to cover their face [albeit with a different cover]. If Mark believes that we can protest the Taliban's policy, but doesn't similarly protest Harrah's, then he's simply being hypocritical. And if Mark thinks the Taliban could escape condemnation simply by agreeing that woman can leave the country whenever they want to, he's consistent but delusional). But again, if a woman wishes to do any of these things--accent (badge) her womanliness through heels, or downplay it through haircuts, or do something in between with a veil or makeup--that's fine; I just object to when it's forced. So, to return to the original point of the paragraph: covering can accent or downplay one's group membership, but badging always accents it. I'll let Mark decide whether involuntarily being forced to trumpet one's identity (e.g., the Nazi "yellow Star of David" requirement for Jews) qualifies as a badge, or just reverse covering.

Okay, hopefully we've cleared up terms. Now, we have to examine the interplay between them. As I concluded in my last post, we shouldn't reflexively condemn a badging or covering requirement, nor should we automatically sanction them. "A critical view" is the best stance to take. Sometimes, Mark argues, a requirement to cover is actually just a requirement to badge. But for someone who really seems to think badging is important, Mark's position is actually fraught with considerable peril towards badging. Take my African-American female attorney who may wish to badge her Blackness ("Black is Beautiful") by wearing her hair in a natural style. I say that a corporate policy that requires her to straighten her hair is a covering requirement (I'd also say that's it's racially discriminatory, as it imposes economically differential burdens on one race vis-a-vis another. Mark--inexplicably, given the time I've spent on it--has never addressed this gaping problem in covering/badging regimes. I'll return to that below). But from Mark's point of view, it also should be seen as an anti-badging stance. The woman is being prevented from badging her Blackness. If badging is as important as Mark says it is, this should not be something that he is so sanguine about.

Not persuaded? Well, let's take an example apparently nearer to Mark's heart: circumcision. What if the law firm prohibited circumcised males from working for it? Circumcision has no intrinsic relation to legal performance--but then, neither does kinky hair. Mark might say that people don't see circumcised penises in a legal context, so the covering requirement is unreasonable. Aside from this being a concession that some measure of reasonability can be brought to bear on covering demands, this isn't necessarily true. Many corporate firms treat (or are treated) by their clients to various jaunts and activities which may put attorney and client in close personal contact. In a gym or country club locker room, one's circumcised status may be rather easy to ascertain, and the firm may say that this doesn't present the "image" the company wishes to give off. The next objection is that it's a more extreme example than requiring a Black woman to straighten her hair. But is it? Kinkiness is a biological fact, while circumcision is (nominally, at least) a choice. While I don't know the price tag on genital reconstructive surgery, I'd be skeptical that it costs more than a life-time of buying hair straightening chemicals. Ultimately, I think we'd agree that the anti-circumcision policy is simply backdoor discrimination against Jews, and I think anti-kinky hair policies are backdoor discrimination against Blacks for the same reasons.

Mark's last argument (that I can anticipate) is that the company should be allowed to require Jews to have reconstructive surgery as a condition for working there--and if Jews don't like it, they can simply move elsewhere. Even if I believed that such a policy could be contained in isolation, I'd still oppose it as antithetical to the purpose of anti-discrimination laws. But more importantly, there is no reason to believe that such a policy would necessarily stay contained to one firm. If the market has a "taste for discrimination" (and in an anti-Semitic polity, this is not difficult to imagine), the covering burden could be replicated across the corporate sphere. Operationally, this would simply neuter anti-discrimination law--assuming Mark thinks we can prohibit companies from taking a "no Jews allowed" position, then we can't allow them to take a "no circumcised males" position either. And if Mark thinks that its a good thing that Jews wish and are able to "badge" their Jewishness, he needs to recognize the threat his current stance poses to our ability to do that.

The entire above argument can be reprised with kippahs, instead of circumcision, as the barred badge. On the one hand it makes the argument weaker--its easier to take off a kippah than it is to reattach foreskin to your penis. On the other hand, it makes the argument stronger: anyone who believes that, for a religious Jew, it is a simple demand to just take off the yarmulke is deluding themselves, and Jews would and have resisted bitterly requirements by social institutions to require them to do so. Anyone who knows anything about Jews would underestimate the severity of the demand to remove a kippah would be, and if such a demand were presented and duplicated across the market, it would pose a serious barrier to Jewish participation in the workforce.

The final issue which I'm going to continue to press until Mark deigns to give a satisfactory answer is the issue of covering/badging as differentially imposed burdens. While Mark rather patronizingly dismisses Ms. Jespersen's case (hint: while in some circumstances its flattering to call a woman a "young lady", when its in the context of dismissing the complaint of someone whose been fired from her job of 20 years, it's really just insulting), he doesn't actually grapple with the circumstances the case presented--indeed, he labors long and hard to obfuscate them in his summary of it. Hence, a 20-year employee becomes a "young lady", a uniform and absolute requirement to wear make-up becomes "dress regulations," her continued and undisputed exemplary service was dropped entirely, as was the critical fact that Harrah's literally made it more expensive to be a woman and work at their casino. All Mark has to offer against my conclusion is that Harrah's motivation wasn't internal misogyny, rather, it was a response to its perception of how its clientèle wished to see the women. How Mark thinks this helps his case eludes me--all it does is shift where the misogyny is coming from. Instead of being endemic to Harrah's, now its something the entire market demands. I don't think Harrah's can be excused for reifying societal sexism, and worse, for Mark's case, it just strengthens the "taste for discrimination" point I made above--which indicates that no matter where Ms. Jespersen goes, she'll always be dogged by the requirement to veil herself in make-up because "the market" demands its women to be covered. This makes it more critical that anti-discrimination law intervene, not less.

Mark is certainly right that badging is important. I desire to badge my Jewishness, because I am quite proud to be Jewish. But this does not mean I like the idea of being forced to wear a Yellow Star of David to mark me as a Jew. The badge of my Judaism should come from within the community, not imposed from outside. Personally, at the very least I think it's obvious that companies can and should be proscribed from initiating covering requirements that differentially burden and impose greater economic costs on certain groups. Covering requirements often fall on this differential axes, and are suspect for that reason alone. But I also believe that the psychic burdens of covering are worthy of concern too, and if Mark agrees that one's ability to badge one's group affiliations are important, he should too. I should not be put in a position where badges of my Judaism are seen as dirty or ugly or the type of thing which a good law firm hides in a back room. To take the position Mark does is, more often than not, actively hostile to most badging, and perpetually relegates minority groups like Jews and Blacks to subordinate status.

No comments: