After my post on the NYT column on lawyers’ dress, there was an interesting discussion of the “minefield” it presents. Since that time, there’s also been an interesting discussion of the value of empathy on the site, which got me to thinking about the point I was trying to make in the clothes comments (which is narrower than my original post) but not making that well. I think it has some broader significance and so I'm posting on it one more time.
To start my point, here’s 3 quotes from the original NYT article on clothes:
“she said one lawyer had shown up for a jury trial in a velour outfit that looked for all the world as if she was “on her way home from the gym.””
“he had seen participants wearing “skirts so short that there’s no way they can sit down, and blouses so short there’s no way the judges wouldn’t look.””
“titillating attire was “a huge problem” and a distraction in the courtroom and that “you don’t dress in court as if it’s Saturday night and you’re going out to a party.” In the spirit of sexual equity, Judge Goldgar added that he was also unhappy with lawyers who sported loud ties, some with designs like smiley faces.”
When you read these quotes I think there are two points inherent in each speaker’s comments. First, the lawyer in question appears to have clearly and significantly violated (to borrow Patrick’s terminology) social sartorial norms. Second, the lawyer in question is deserving of some sanction or consequence for that choice, at the very least the subtle, or not so subtle, social condemnation of peers. The former appears from the examples, which are set up to make the violations appear obvious – who, after all, would think it a good idea to work out and then go to court, or look like she had? The second appears from the comments themselves – they are that form of subtle or not so subtle social pressure at work.
In a convocation address in 2005 at Kenyon College, which has recently been in the news because being published in a book, David Foster Wallace talked about a particular sort of empathy, although describing it as a matter of living a thoughtful life. And in doing so he talks about how hard empathy – which he describes largely as a matter of being able to overcome the innate human tendency to be the star of our own stories – is to do.