Freedoms: Expression

September 27, 2010  |  Featured, No Sidebar, Personal

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?

[Photos by Me, Jackson Carson]


  1. I found your blog while looking for travel writing to calm me down (I’m getting the antsy travel bug) & I am totally in love with your writing.
    I agree with everything you say here. I’ve applied for jobs with strict dress code policies with the hopes that my interviewer would be charming, only to feel like they were mocking me through the entire process. It really makes me sad that some people honestly and truly cannot value skills over someone’s appearance. I can’t believe that this kind of narrow mindedness not only exists; it’s alive and kicking!
    A year ago, I moved from Halifax, NS (one of the best places to be yourself, imho) to a small city in the Prairies & the difference between the vibes are insane. It’s like how you see a sea of grey wool suits in DC. It’s much harder to find your way & kindred spirits in a place where everyone’s voice is repressed.
    Sorry for the long blab; you inspired it!

    • “I agree with everything you say here. I’ve applied for jobs with strict dress code policies with the hopes that my interviewer would be charming, only to feel like they were mocking me through the entire process. It really makes me sad that some people honestly and truly cannot value skills over someone’s appearance. I can’t believe that this kind of narrow mindedness not only exists; it’s alive and kicking!”

      I have encountered the same thing, which is the source of part of my resentment. It continues to amaze me that people cannot see how their opinions are shaped by society, rather than by themselves, and how they let that affect how they view other people. Sure, it’s virtually impossible to be completely “pure” in your opinions, but knowing your biases and where they come from goes a long way toward fixing the problem, and most people aren’t even introspective enough to make it that far.

  2. You might want to check out this past week’s season premiere of “The Simpsons.” It’s like this episode was written just for you. Mime was even highlighted.

    You can find a recap here: After building up the great life of the “Artist” in their song and camp counselor routine, Lisa decides to visit the duo at their hip address in the Big Apple burg of Springfield and is shocked to see that the reality of their life isn’t quite what they had billed in their song.

  3. So my LJ lost this update so I just now saw this.

    While I do despise DC sometimes because of the 9-5 workday/uniform feel, and do agree there, after I worked in Gallery Place/Chinatown for over a year, I feel like I’ve found a lot more individuality displayed here than over in the Kstreet or Capitol Hill area.

    I wouldn’t ever wear a suit to work over here and noone else in my office would (except my higher level bosses when they have a client meeting or two a year, or are interviewing)…

    I think a lot of people in DC would think someone with a green mohawk would be a tourist. I think that since most of us who actually live here want to show the status of living here and not being a tourist. I know I have some stubborn pride in being a DC-ite and not a tourist.

    I think what bothers me about the “uniform” is that it shows pride and artificial status. However, I know that bit of pride I feel too, and I also know that when I was unemployed I wanted to be wearing that suit to show off that I was employed. But that was when I was quite depressed about my situtation…

    But today I feel even more pride when I stand next to someone in uncomfortable stilettos and panty hose, and I’m just in my cargo pants. I get to be proud that I get to be more an individual than said person and still have a job.

    And in general Chinatown I feel has a bit too much individuality when I’m accosted by the teenagers, tourists, and many many street sellers and cause pushers… It’s a crazy place.

    • “I think what bothers me about the “uniform” is that it shows pride and artificial status. However, I know that bit of pride I feel too, and I also know that when I was unemployed I wanted to be wearing that suit to show off that I was employed. But that was when I was quite depressed about my situtation…”

      And that’s what’s sad to me. People equate so much of themselves with what they wear, no matter what it is. But instead of valuing all clothing (expression) equally, we have arbitrarily elevated certain items to a higher status. You are an incredible designer and work very hard at your job in your cargo pants, but I bet that the lady next to you in stilettos and panty hose just thinks that you’re some unemployed student, all because of the way you dress. My wish for society is that some day, those types of thoughts won’t even occur to people, and that individuals will be judged on their actions, abilities, and thoughts alone, not superficial determinants such as clothing, hairstyle, etc.

  4. I have to say, when I read this post it rubbed me the wrong way and I thought about it for a few days and figured out why: you are equating freedom of expression with surface level things like clothing. Freedom of expression to me is about voicing your opinions, thoughts, and beliefs freely.

    I have a friend who goes off every single day in a suit and tie. His job? He does work in developing nations providing access to contraceptives. He expresses his political viewpoint and his hopes for the future through his job.

    I dress pretty typically for a teacher. But my nickname in grad school? The Subversive One. I get into conversations with my students–conversations about race, class, and gender–that my coworkers avoid. I truly think my students need it and they learn and grow. Hopefully, it will encourage some of them to be agents of change as adults. I teach them to express themselves, to be unafraid to open their mouths, to be able to back up their opinions and passions so that other people who listen to them and be influenced by them. And part of how I’m able to do what I do? I dress the part. People view me as competent at my job and trust me to do it well.

    I think you’re doing “freedom of expression” a grave disservice when you only equate it to clothing (decorations, surface-level trappings) and ignore the work someone does with their hands, the words that come out of someone’s mouth, or the ideas they put into writing.

    • I see what you’re saying. However, I’ve found that people are less likely to speak out, to act out, to be “the subversive one” in an environment where they do not feel comfortable expressing themselves in other ways. Companies who like to keep their employees engaged in “groupthink” and keep them from thinking for themselves often employ the use of uniforms to subconsciously suggest that they belong to the company and that they should not have (or at least express) their own viewpoints. Prisons and schools do the same thing. By removing more obvious forms of expression, the hope is that the brain will pick up on that suppression and will avoid more subtle, but effective, forms of expression such as verbal dissent.

      The reason I wrote this is because I think that most people don’t really make that connection. Yes, the freedom to say and act as you wish is the core of the freedom of expression, but what I was writing about here was about how more “superficial” aspects of expression can have a very formidable effect on the more fundamental aspects of it.

    • Also – part of what I was also trying to explain is that I think that it’s ridiculous that for people to listen to you and respect you, you have to “dress a part”. By having to dress to certain standards, we are, essentially, allowing people to judge us not based on our abilities, but on our clothing. If you went to an interview in a tank top and sandals, you probably wouldn’t even make it into the chair, no matter if you were the most skilled candidate around, but a less-qualified candidate in a proper suit would be given much more consideration. Someone with blue hair will be seen as “less mature” than someone with brown hair, even if the opposite is actually true. By allowing external societal cues to dictate our actions and our appearance, we are allowing this trend to continue.

      That discrimination based on personal expression is, I feel, a barrier to truly understanding eachother as a society.

      • Also – part of what I was also trying to explain is that I think that it’s ridiculous that for people to listen to you and respect you, you have to “dress a part”.

        If I dress the part, I get to get into the job, into the trenches, and I get to influence others. If I stand outside, unable to get into the job, who am I influencing? My circle of influence is much smaller if I never get in to do my work.

        It was the same for me in Korea–I’d rather conform to social norms to a certain degree to get in there deep, to meet people, to expose others to new ideas (and also expose myself) than to sit on the outside edges of society, never influencing anyone. If, when I met my husband’s family for the first time, I had refused to act respectfully toward their culture, Mother and I would have a very different relationship right now. And I have opened up Mother’s mind by getting inside the family circle first more than I ever could have by whacking at the family circle from the outside.

        Also, the “un”uniform that people choose to wear usually identifies them as part of a group, too, even when they don’t want to admit it to themselves.

        • But the point is that you shouldn’t have to dress the part to get the job in the first place!

          • I know that’s your point. You missed my point. I’ll be very simple: I’d rather dress the part and get stuff DONE than stand around complaining about how I shouldn’t need to dress the part to get stuff done.

            Based on this post, based on my looks, you’d assume I’m not expressing myself. But you’d be completely wrong.

  5. This is a fantastic post–one that really made me think. I know how I express myself in daily life (make my hair whatever color I want, travel to places that are off the beaten path, think differently and let people know it and challenge rules/policies that I think are BS.). But I’m not sure what can be done to encourage/allow others to do the same. Often, where people work inhibits and forbids them from doing so. Back before I became an ESL teacher, I was a freelance editor and worked at some awful places. One of them didn’t allow anything personal inside the cubicles…no photos, etc. It was horrible and I felt sick working there; I got out as fast as I possibly could.

    I’m not sure what people can/should do. Perhaps it’s time for some civil (and corporate) disobedience?

    BTW….the college you attended sounds truly amazing. You’re so lucky to have gone there!

  6. Definitely an interesting discussion going on here. What these points are making me wonder is: how much does income and social status play a role in this desire for ‘freedom of expression’ as expressed through personal style (ie. clothing and hairstyles)?

    I think I’d argue that it’s pretty high on the needs hierarchy, and that the majority of the world’s population doesn’t even have the luxury (I believe it’s a luxury to have extra money for accessories like butterfly wings that don’t actually clothe you or to be able to afford hair dye, in any color whether blue or a ‘natural’ color) to think about this type of expression.

    Even being an American (and I consider myself ‘rich’ even though my income is well below the poverty line) living in the US, I realized that at the moment I just don’t have the budget to ‘express myself’ through fashion. I’ve gotten one proper haircut in the last three years, and most of my clothes are hand-me-downs or things I’ve had since college. Yes, I can browse thrift shops, but that still requires more disposable income than I’m willing to spend on clothing right now.

    Another thing that comes to mind is how our ‘freedom of expression’ (and even the desire for it) changes when we live in different cultures. As an American living in Pakistan, I didn’t want to wear clothing that would be seen as disrespectful or immodest by the local population. As a foreigner and a teacher trainer trying to fit in and to be respected in the community, I valued assimilation over being different.

    My skin color, nationality, upbringing etc. already made me stand out enough, and any way that I could relate better with my students (like by wearing Pakistani clothing) I saw as beneficial, not as oppressive or limiting. Maybe a Pakistani woman who has grown up in the society, and has the income and social class to do it, would feel more drawn to be different by say, wearing a shirt with a low-cut neckline. I never felt like I wasn’t able to ‘express myself’ just because I was trying to dress the part of a teacher/academic within that culture.

    And btw, I went to UMass Amherst from 2002-2005 – thought your description of Hampshire was great!


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