I have avoided jumping in on the fray (parts one, two, and three) over at Greta Christina’s blog. The reason is that I generally do not care about fashion, and so I didn’t feel motivated enough to add my thoughts. The other reason is that another person I know, with whom I tend to agree on many things, already had jumped in.
I am one of those people who thinks that judging a person by what they wear, even if it is inevitable, is problematic and shallow. I think that there are things you can tell about a person by what they generally wear, and there is a very loose sort of language (I agree that body language is a better analogy than language per se) that comes along with clothing. I would like to see the role of fashion in our culture mitigated somewhat, but I don’t think it’s a problem that is damaging enough to spend significant time thinking about. As far as I remember, this is the first time I’ve ever written about this topic. It very well may be the last time as well.
So, when I first saw Greta Christina writing about it, I read the piece because she generally has good insight about things. I figured I would have something to learn. It was not one of her better pieces, in my opinion, but it didn’t bother me too much and simply put it out of mind. And then the second one came around, and I realized I had missed some interesting conversation in the comments, which I initially ignored out of lack of interest. After having gone back and read the comments and the subsequent posts with their comments, I found myself a little disappointed, honestly, that Greta became so offended and affected by what some people said. Considering her directness and highly critical comments on religion (which I tend to agree with and like), I would have expected her to have a thicker skin. I think that her taking offense at someone demonstrating why fashion is shallow, vain, and trivial is, frankly, irrational and misses the point he was trying to make.
(full disclosure, “Wes” is someone I know personally, and is, in fact, my fiance’s boyfriend).
So, using these posts and subsequent comments as a springboard, I wanted to make a point or two about words like “shallow,” a point that I believe resonates with what Wes was trying to say over at Greta’s and which was misunderstood by Greta Christina and generally missed by people in our culture. And it is simply this; being shallow is not a bad thing in itself. We all have shallow interests, and “owning” this is a part of being adults. The truth is important, even if that truth points to shallow aspects of ourselves.
We are shallow about all sorts of things. My like of hockey is shallow. My care about if my hair looks nice today is shallow. When I do actually make an effort to wear nicer clothes, I am being shallow in doing so. And there is nothing wrong with any of that, so long as I am aware that it is less important than other aspects of my personality and that I don’t pretend that it isn’t true. Now, if I were to spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about these things, especially to the detriment of more profound things (such as improving my emotional maturity, being a virtuous person, etc), then there would be a problem. I cannot spend all of my time in self-improvement and dealing with weighty philosophical, political, and cultural issues. Sometimes I have to play a video game, get a hair cut, or buy a new pair of shoes. These are things that should not matter as much as dealing with poverty, maintaining relationships, or trying to educate people about the inherent dangers of faith and anti-intellectualism (which may be somewhat trivial, in relation to some other things), but they do matter a little. The fact that they matter less, that they have less depth of meaning in our lives, does not strip them of meaning completely.
They are just relatively shallow.
Now, many may respond saying that the word “shallow” has a different connotation than this use. That referring to something as “shallow” is not merely saying the trivial thing that it is not particularly important or deep in comparison to other things. It is really a dig, an insult, and should not be tolerated in a civil conversation. But I think that this is too simplistic. I, for example, do not think that Greta Christina is a shallow person. Her thoughts and efforts in the skeptical and atheist community have demonstrated that she is a person of great breadth and depth, and I have held her in very high esteem for her writing and observations on culture, religion, etc. She was, in fact, the very first blogger I remember recommending to my fiance, and I have read her blog consistently for about 2 years now.
Her interest in fashion, however, is an exception to this rule. It is a shallow and human thing that fills her out as a rounded person, and if she claimed to have no such interests I’d assume she was lying. Because she’s human. I don’t fault her for having this interest, nor do I think I should. It is obviously something she cares about, and it is one of many interests that she has which fills her out as a person, most of which is deep, considered, and important. Hell, even her discussion of fashion is deeper than other conversations of fashion I have heard before.
I think that Greta, as well as many other people in our culture, need to take a second look at the word “shallow” and see if it really is an insult. The same goes for “trivial” and “vain.” These terms are not all bad, and in fact may not be bad at all.
Take, for example, the word “slut.” In most of our culture, the word “slut” has a negative connotation. It is an insult for most people, especially women. But I, as well as many women I know, use the word as a positive one. I proudly identify as a slut, and prefer to date sluts. Why? Because the insult of the term is predicated upon being sexually promiscuous and not ashamed of it as a bad thing. If what the word “slut” refers to are not actually bad, then the term is not bad. Similarly, “shallow” is considered an insult because it is assumed that to be interested in things without intellectual or cultural depth is a flaw. But what is overlooked here is that what is bad (if anything is bad here) is a person who is predominantly or solely interested in shallow pursuits, not merely having any shallow pursuits. Pointing out that an interest, like fashion, that someone has as being shallow is not an insult per se. It is not an indictment of the whole person.
Now, whether a person is interested in predominantly shallow things is bad or not is a question that I will not tackle here. I think it is a character flaw, but whether it’s bad…that’s a conversation I’m willing to have.
But for now, I am satisfied having addressed these points..
4 thoughts on “Fashion is shallow…not that there is anything wrong with that”
Now, many may respond saying that the word “shallow” has a different connotation than this use. That referring to something as “shallow” is not merely saying the trivial thing that it is not particularly important or deep in comparison to other things. It is really a dig, an insult, and should not be tolerated in a civil conversation.
This issue is compounded by the fact that *she* was the one to use the word “shallow” in her original post. Her whole point was that an interest in fashion was not shallow (or trivial or vain). I could see taking offense if someone had called it shallow out of the blue (although it would still be accurate), but her post was about it NOT being shallow. I think it was rather silly of her to be offended by someone saying “yes it is.”
I think that the points that you’re making about the connotations of “shallow” actually share significant logical points with Greta Christina’s arguments about what fashion and style can communicate. Words have dictionary meanings, but they also have connotations based on the context and cultural usage of those words; clothing functions much the same way. Greta brought up “shallow” in the negative sense, as a dismissive insult, and I think it’s a little disingenuous to say that because you think that “shallow” should be a value-neutral word, everyone else must interpret it that way when you use it in conversation.
Additionally, I think that a person’s choice of adornment communicates something to their community and the world around them. Personally, I think that communicating what I mean to communicate in a way that can be understood by others as easily as possible is always a worthwhile goal, no matter what the medium is.
I said in my post that I agree that to some limited extent fashion has language-like properties. My argument has little to do with that issue. I do think that the “language” of fashion is very limited, but certainly what you wear can communicate something, even if it may not be communicated to all people clearly, and there will be disagreements.
But I think you misunderstood my essential point. My point is not merely that the term shallow (and other words with negative connotations, like slut) should be neutral, it is that what makes terms like shallow negative in the first place does not hold up under analysis. That is, what is negative comes from what the word points to–in this case superficiality or lack of intellectual complexity. But what I’m saying is that this is not necessarily bad, especially in context with other interests which a person has that have the intellectual complexity and “depth” that fills out a person who is not wholly superficial.
In other words, I forgive shallowness in the interests of people who also have deep interests. I may also forgive it in people who don’t, although I am certainly less interested in talking with them.
If a person has shallow interests that matter to them, they should own it and not pretend or argue absurdly that it is not shallow because they have some emotional reaction to having any interests that are considered shallow. I don’t judge Greta badly for caring about fashion, but she has judged having shallow interests badly. She has, essentially, judged herself badly and then tried to rationalize it by pretending it isn’t true.
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