It’s easy to hate someone when they say something that is so far from the norm that it causes a tidal wave of uproar. When a prominent person calls out over-weight or “not-so-cool” kids, it’s normal to wonder what is wrong with a person who would say such things. However, it is not so easy to look in the mirror and wonder if we have anything to do with it. More precisely, it is incumbent on a society to use such circumstances as a time for self-reflection.
It must be asked: what conditions give rise to such nonsense and does American really disagree with Mr. Jeffries? On the surface the answer must be an overwhelming yes, just look at the backlash. Below the surface we might find something far more terrifying than the hateful words of an old man: we do agree, if only passively. Which begs the question what is it that we are agreeing with, especially since so many seemingly disagree; more importantly what is Mr. Jeffries really saying?
On the surface it seems like he is calling over-weight and “no-so-cool” people worthless, but there is a deeper implication here. Mr. Jeffries is saying that a person’s worth can be quantified in some meaningful way. It is in this way that America agrees with the overlord of bad manners.
The next time you are at your checkout counter, glance over at the magazines and you will find only the beautiful and the famous. Take a look at television and you will find only the most athletic and talented. Our movies and music are not just populated with great actors and musicians, but with photogenic faces. Students strive for A’s, even in social work schools, to prove their value and intellectual capacity. Kids compete for entrance into elite colleges that will ensure that they have a “better” life than their peers.
America loves to categorize and quantify its people. Every moment of our culture is dedicated to ranking human life by a fictional value system and yet we are shocked when a person comes out and actually says it. Mr. Jeffries, the insensitive oaf that he is, is not guilty of discrimination, he is guilty of bad manners. Actually he is guilty of discrimination too, but he is not the only guilty party; we are all privy to this sin.
The existence of difference does not lead to a real distinction in value. Value is not inherent in the subject, it is attributed to the subject in a contextual subjective manner. Value is a determination of a difference, it necessarily comes after in the context of some limited subset of causes and conditions. In other words, it is a fabrication, it is false, and a lie in every single way that matters. There might be some usefulness in ordering people in the grand scheme of a complex society, but there is significant danger if people believe that their value is determined by others, fixed in nature, and limits them in some way.
When we cry out against Mr. Jeffries, I like to think that some part of us is responding to this point. Inside, somewhere deep down, we know that the value of a human being is immeasurable, we know that we do not want anyone limiting us in that way, and we know deep in our bones that doing so to another is wrong. But, and this is the most important part, we cannot help ourselves when we get back out into the world. We are taught to be competitive, and although we might not be as crude as Mr. Jeffries, we all contribute to this socially constructed hierarchy in some way or another. Pay close attention to your life, be very aware and you will notice these tendencies
Silver linings are all the rage lately so I humbly offer this one: Perhaps this is a great opportunity for social change because a foolish man actually said that which we are all taught to believe, but rarely admit. Maybe Mr. Jeffries, and his awful clothes, can be a sort of fun-house mirror showing us the distorted version of ourselves, forcing us to seek a more accurate representation of the what we feel inside our hearts: compassion.
We all have a little bit of Abercrombie in us, although we might not want to admit it. If we are to avoid hypocrisy than we need to learn a lesson from Mr. Jeffries, because he reflects a very real part of our society that has shaped us all. If we want to protest Abercrombie the best way is to teach our children that compassion comes before competition, that sometimes, a lifelong ambition toward perfection brings us to the ugliest of places, and that adults should recognize differences without placing an inherent value on each individual’s worth. This represents the proper way to undercut Mr. Jeffries and his company without the need of a boycott; change the conditions that give rise to his business model, out-date his mentality and he will vanish before our eyes, never to be heard again.
Written by Matthew Cohen, MSW
SJS Staff Writer
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