The Course of Reason

A Suit for the Movement

July 5, 2012

In late 2011, Republican hopeful Ron Paul had his sights set on winning Iowa. Unlike most GOP candidates, however, the bulk of his volunteers were not old white men or Christian housewives—they were college students.

Despite their youth being an asset in many ways, the campaign wasn’t under any delusions of what the stereotypical Paul-supporting college student looked like. Despite it just being a stereotype, I imagine most current university students can at least attest to some element of truth to the image of a white guy with shaggy hair, uncombed hair, an unshaven face, a dark colored t-shirt with some graphic or attention-grabbing statement, some combination of tattoos or piercings, and the aroma of a particular illicit substance.

Knowing that these were the people who would be the public face of his grassroots campaign to elderly, conservative Iowans, Paul’s team made the following orders to anyone who wished to volunteer:

“...To look, dress, shave, sound and behave in a way that will not jeopardize Mr. Paul’s chances.”

New York Times article further describes the situation at a volunteer training camp:

“Even before flying here on their own nickel, some students said they had been instructed to cover up tattoos and told that their faces should be fresh-shaved or beards neatly trimmed, wearing only nice clothes that one described as ‘business casual.’ ”

“No tats,” another volunteer, Rocco Lucente, said as he ticked off the rules after arriving at the airport Tuesday night. No liquor, no drugs and, he said, no “fraternizing in the dorms, nothing like that.”

Though those of us in college still probably see the typical Ron Paul supporter as their true pot-smoking unshowered selves (I jest), the elderly population in Iowa was able to be exposed to a shining counterexample knocking on their door this past December.

What is my point in describing this? Replace “Ron Paul supporter” with “atheist,” and fill in the rest of the applicable details. I would argue that much like the stereotypical Ron Paul supporter, we, college atheists, have an image problem, and that we need to take proactive steps to fix it.

As freethinkers, we already fail to conform to one of society’s most prevalent norms: belonging to a religion. As such, it’s unsurprising that many of us tend to embrace this nonconformity and express ourselves in other countercultural manners, such as piercings, tattoos, nerdy t-shirts, hair color one would find in a Crayola 10-pack, and for men, facial hair and hair past one’s shoulders. And that’s great. It’s great to belong to a subculture that embraces free expression physically as well as intellectually, and that puts an emphasis on self-identity. However, the fact of the matter is that despite how much people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, they do.

In the book Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, author Nick Cooney puts the point quite well:

“...isn’t judging people based on their appearance (some call it “lookism”) a social problem in and of itself? Whether or not the situation is fair, the reality is that those biases exist and will continue to exist for many years to come. If we don’t alter our appearance to be as persuasive as possible with those we’re seeking to influence on our main issue, we won’t be fighting one battle, we’ll be fighting two at the same time—and chances are we’ll lose both.’ ”

Like college-aged Ron Paul supporters, campus atheists are already in an uphill battle. Before knowing anything about us, we are already looked on with contempt for advocating an unpopular idea. And much like young Libertarians, many of us are adding insult to injury by disregarding the power that appearance has on our ability to persuade others. We owe it to both ourselves and the individuals who do not yet feel comfortable coming out to represent the movement well, even if it means working with, rather than against, some perhaps unfair societal norms. 

Within my student organization (UNIFI), several members of the leadership team have made it an explicit goal to be more accessible to those unfamiliar with the group and the movement. In one officer’s case, updating his haircut, jeans, and wearing Chuck Taylors instead of loafers has made a huge difference in how he appears to outsiders. However, this hasn’t forced him to stop expressing his individuality—he still wears a quirky graphic tee almost everyday, just as he did before. And I would never advocate losing all self-expression; I just think it’s possible, as shown in this leader’s case, to keep one’s identity while still understanding that they are the face of a movement, and that with that comes small sacrifices.

In Change of Heart, Cooney relays an anecdote about an environmentalist speaking to a young activist audience; while its truth is unknown, I think it makes a powerful point:

[The environmentalist] then shouted to the crowd, “Are you ready to get out there and fight for the environment?”
To which they answered an enthusiastic, “Yeah!”
“Are you ready to get arrested and go to jail for the environment?”
“Are you ready to give your life for the environment?”
“Are you willing to cut your hair and put on a suit for the environment?”
The crowd fell silent.

We have the power to help keep creationism out of our public schools, to fight against the oppression of women and LGBT individuals, and to see that the next Jessica Ahlquist not receive death threats. Should we really jeopardize all that so we can wear trench coats and never wash our hair?

No, we shouldn’t. We should be ready to get out there and fight. We should be willing to “put on a suit” for the movement.



About the Author: Stef McGraw

Stef McGraw's photo
Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers




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