Summer is a time to relax and do what you enjoy. For me, that means writing an article about expressive conduct. What is expressive conduct? It is just something that you do with the purpose of sending a message. Kneeling during an anthem is expressive conduct. So is boycotting companies that you disagree with. It’s legally-protected speech, meaning the government can’t punish you for it. But it’s also quite a broad category with a lot of different things falling under its umbrella. My favorite example is that feeding the homeless was ruled as expressive conduct, meaning the government can’t stop you from doing it. Given that this ruling affects the welfare of over 30,000 people in Florida alone (where the court’s decision was based), I hope we can all see that it’s essential to be clear about what is and isn’t expressive conduct.
So let’s talk about something entirely irrelevant to summer, but entirely relevant to expressive conduct: coats. At this point in your life you’ve probably seen all types of coats: big coats, little coats, smooth coats, rough coats, coats with furry hoods, coats with no hoods at all, brown coats, red coats, coats with buttons, coats that people wear inside other coats, etc. Each coat says something about its owner. Some people, however, take issue with the message certain coats convey. For example, a school in the UK recently took issue with one particular type of coat.
You see, the Woodchurch High School in Birkenhead, England decided that certain types of expensive coats would be banned on school premises to mitigate “poverty-shaming” among the school children, the poorest of whom would often pressure their parents into buying clothing that they were unable to afford. Vassar College could do a similar ban, if it wanted to; It is a private institute, so while expressive conduct is legally protected from government violation, Vassar is not bound by the same rules. So, would a campus-wide denouncement of decadent winter apparel be a good policy?
Normally I would argue against such a ban by appealing to your moral character and liberal ideals. I might say that just because we don’t like the message that expensive coats emit, we shouldn’t ban speech we disagree with. I’m not going to do that today, but I encourage you to think that through for yourself. Instead, I will go with a much lower brow argument for why expensive coats should NOT be banned—not an ideological argument, but instead a practical one.
My reasoning here is not personal; it is not because my family is rich (my family is not). It is not because I wear expensive coats myself; I put a dead thing from the 1950s on my back when the weather gets cold. It is because I—like most of the student body, I should hope—am a busy person. I’m anti-social, and constantly exhausted. I don’t want to deal with anything I don’t have to, and if I’m likely to have an unpleasant interaction with someone I would much prefer to avoid that interaction entirely.
This is where expensive coats are really useful. If I see a Canada Goose insignia, I’m not going to waste my time and energy by trying to engage with that person.
Sure, that may seem cruel or unfair, but I only have so much willingness to put myself out there, and I’m not going to use that on the off chance I find a decent person in under $1000 worth of goose-feathers. This is not to say I hate the wealthy either; they are, in all honesty, bankrolling my way through Vassar. And wealthy people are still just people, meaning they are a mixed bag like the rest of us. But I draw a distinction (and this comes back to the expressive conduct thing) between those who are rich, and those who want to show other people that they’re rich. With the former, I’m as likely to get along with them as any other ordinary, average person. The latter, I feel, faces much steeper odds of being in my good graces.
You may of course feel differently. Those looking for fiscal solvency later in life (i.e. a gold-digger) may actually seek out those in expensive coats, hoping for an East Egg jackpot. Maybe you feel as though coats like that represent a person who cares about quality and the finer things in life, and you want to be around people like that. That is really up to you on an individual level.
But please don’t think about banning coats, or phones, or cars, or whatever on the basis that it would make some poor kid feel bad. I’d prefer if you think that’s a bad idea, because free expression is important. Before waging war on coats, we should be reminding ourselves of Colin Kaepernick, and of the homeless people in Florida. If you think that too is a bad idea because you’re misanthropic like I am, that’s fine too.
Original images courtesy of Nelson Wu via Flickr, Qirille via Wikimedia Commons