I love coincidence â€” it’s not “mere” as we would like to think, but instead useful. Just after finishing reading Chapter 5 of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity, in which he devotes space to “Educated Souls” â€” the role of education in a liberal society â€” I saw this post at sociological images, in which a young man was told he was not allowed to wear makeup at school because it was “distracting”:
A nice coincidence.
Appiah remarks that education has two purposes in a liberal society: “preparing a child for an autonomous existence” and “the promulgation of at least some of [a self-perpetuating political order’s] constitutive tenets” (199). Without recounting his entire theory of autonomy (which draws on Mills and spans parts of the previous four chapters), I’d like to point out that barring this student from wearing “goth” makeup harms his preparation for an autonomous existence. This rule is, in Lacanian terms, master discourse.
Appiah writes later “that the cultivation of individuality [is] the most social thing of all” (211), and, if we reason that autonomy and individuality (a la Appiah, Friere, Dewey) are inter-related (if not nearly the same), then the school seems to have infringed on this young man’s ability to cultivate himself.
Education and government, Appiah argues, should have a role in the soul-making of its citizens. He defines ‘soul-making’ as “the project of intervening in the process of interpretation through which each citizen develops an identity â€” and doing so with the aim of increasing her chances of living an ethically successful life” (164). Does barring this student from wearing goth makeup “increase his chances of living an ethically successful life”? Hardly. But we have to look at the school’s rationale for the decision: it was distracting to other students. “Distracting” is, of course, a term without clear meaning. Anything could be distracting to someone, so I think, as a term in and of itself, “distracting” isn’t a sound enough reason by itself to bar an appearance.
If we are concerned about the “legitimacy” of a goth identity, it isn’t “abhorrent,” a word Appiah uses for identities that are “morally, not merely ethically, impaired” (191). (Appiah uses Richard Dworkin’s distinction, that ethics “includes convictions about which kinds of lives are good or bad for a person to lead, and morality includes principles about how a person should treat other people” [Dworkin, qtd. in Appiah xiii].) The goth identity itself need not be cultivated by the school, but it is highly suspect to suppress it.
I think it would be within grounds for the school to provide tools that might lead to this youth to question his identity, but ultimately, this decision to suppress a goth identity is illiberal. Boo to this school’s administrators.