If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you are probably aware that I went to a very unusual (and experimental) college where farmers ate lunch with geneticists and painters collaborated with engineers. All this mixing and mingling had a side effect that remains one of my favourite aspects of my time there: true freedom of expression.
Sit around a table at Saga, Hampshire’s cafeteria, and you will hear stories about kids showing up to class in a wedding dress (with the wrong wedding tackle, if you know what I mean), covered in paint (like the student circus performers in the photo above), or even naked and the class proceeding as usual. A stroll through campus will yield students wearing everything from suits to 10 inch green mohawks to mud-stained overalls. A friend of mine wore butterfly wings to graduation. At Hampshire, you could do pretty much anything as long as it didn’t have a negative effect on anyone else.
As someone who has always been a bit weird and off-beat, I relished this freedom of expression. I wandered around campus in a pair of shorts and a long 18th century wool vest not because I wanted to make any sort of statement, but because it was what I felt like wearing that day. I could go tromping through fields of snow or slush through the mud of the long spring thaw without anyone looking at me funny. I could stand out in the quad and practice spinning poi or juggling devil sticks or chase my friends around while wearing a refrigerator box (there’s a video that goes with that one somewhere on my hard drive) and not only would nobody care, people would often join you.
Freedom of expression is vitally important to me. When I can’t speak my mind or be myself, I wither a little bit. Jobs with uniforms make me cringe, and I don’t even bother applying for jobs that discourage personal expression. Freedom of expression is integral to my personal happiness, and so I have typically made it a priority in my life. Unfortunately, most folks seem unaware of the importance of true freedom of expression, and end up falling under the silencing pressures of society without even being aware of it.
I have had the good fortune to mostly live in places where I have never had that freedom overtly oppressed (except maybe Korea), but even in places where it’s not overt, it often takes a quieter, more sinister form: silent disapproval.
Silent but obvious disapproval is one of society’s most vicious weapons, and one of its most effective ones. Try to walk around a conservative town with a bright blue hair and unless you have nerves of steel, all the stares and pointed fingers will eventually have you searching for a hat to wear. When I moved to the DC area, I noticed that despite the fact that there must be creative types here, I couldn’t see them. It wasn’t that there wasn’t a visible liberal presence, it’s that I saw no expressions of individuality at all. Everyone wore the same grey suit and tie that seems to be the unofficial uniform of the DC metro region. No expressions of personal sentiment, not even a uniquely colorful briefcase. I’ve learned quite a bit about working for the government while living here, and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that individuality is discouraged and that the silent voice of disapproval is loud indeed.
As I’ve lived here, I’ve learned how to see through the waves of grey wool and see the hidden signs of personality, but it makes my heart ache to know that these people feel that they can’t express themselves, or even worse, that they have lost any desire to. The problem is that humans are, at their core, social animals and if we don’t see any deviation from the herd by anyone else, we’re unlikely to deviate ourselves. I hope that someday I will walk the streets of Washington DC and see a green mohawk above the crowd of trenchcoats and hear lively debating as I pass through the park. Only when people feel free to express themselves can dialogue truly occur, and the world needs dialogue more than anything. Only when there is true freedom of expression can people truly understand eachother.
How do you express yourself in your daily life? What do you do to make sure you have that freedom? What do you think the world can do to make it easier for others to feel that same freedom?
You know, it really feels like I just got back from Korea no more than a month or two ago. Read More