March 14, 2020
Is changing one’s mind a sign of strength or of weakness? It depends on the circumstances. There are people who are at the mercy of the last person who spoke or who can be turned like a pancake by the feeblest sophist argument. There are others who are so attached to their own views that they hold on to them stubbornly even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.
According to Bertrand Russell, the rational man holds his beliefs with precisely the strength justified by the evidence in their favor. The strength of the evidence is not easy to assess, however, especially in complex matters. There are always alternative facts and there is no infallible algorithm; that mysterious quality, judgment, difficult to define but easy to recognize (especially when it is bad), is almost always necessary. Moreover, many of the questions most important to us cannot be settled by appeals to the evidence, or at least to the evidence alone.
One question on which I have changed my mind is that of dress. In my youth I thought that it mattered not at all, and that to be concerned with it was a sign of egotism and triviality of mind. I cannot point to any conversion experience after which I came to believe the opposite, but I now see my former opinion as shallow in the way that so many youthful opinions are shallow.
Let me give a concrete example, that of a man called Dominic Cummings, who is a close adviser (or éminence grise) of the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, and is even sometimes alleged to be the secret of his (electoral) success. I do not know him; he is said to be very brilliant, which I am content to believe, though the only piece of writing that I have seen by him was abominable, both verbose and hectoring. Reading it was a bit like being cornered by a drunken bore at a party who has a totally new theory of the origins of the universe.
Mr. Cummings is a man of many accomplishments, with a brilliant academic record; he comes from a prosperous background and has aristocratic connections. He is reported to be sometimes charming. He dresses (at least in public) like a thug from the slums.
If you saw him in the twilight coming down the street toward you, you would think of crossing the road to avoid him. He looks as if he might smell. The question is whether his appearance is the result of carelessness or of great care.
I think that it must be the latter. He is the Marie Antoinette de nos jours, but instead of playing shepherdess he plays the boss of a trafficking outfit in a bleak public housing estate. It is difficult to believe that he has not given a great deal of thought to this, that his appearance is spontaneous rather than the result of a conscious and very deliberate decision.
Why should anyone want to look like a typical urban thug, or at best a practitioner of rap or of that charming musical genre known as grime? Is it a case of genuine sympathy for or identification with those to whom such a mode of dress comes naturally, as if there were no other choice for them; or is it a question of packaging, so to speak? And if the latter, as seems the more likely, what is the message to the world that Mr. Cummings wishes to convey? He is said to be a revolutionary at war with the ossified, suit-and-tie-wearing establishment of his country, but if so I am, sartorially speaking, on the side of the counterrevolutionaries, though I have no particular admiration for the establishment that he is said to be at war with.
I have moved far from my former belief that it does not matter how one dresses. Of course, an overemphasis on one’s appearance is no doubt vanity, and in some men leads to dandyism (but, as the writer Arnold Bennett pointed out in a charming essay, a leaven of dandyism in a society does no harm, and is in its way an admirable effort after perfection). But I have come to the rather obvious conclusion that our mode of dress is a message to others, and taking some care over it to appear with reasonable smartness is an act of social responsibility and respect for others rather than egotism. Not to take such care is egotism, insofar as the message conveyed by the lack of care is “I am not going to make an effort just for you, mate. You have to accept me as I am.”
In fact, we cannot but convey a message by the way we dress (it is amazing how something so obvious should have escaped me for so many years). And if you walk down the street of any Western city, what you see is a society of individualists, though not of people of strong individuality.
A few days ago I walked down a street in a very well-heeled part of London. Many of the shops were of women’s clothes, in which a blouse would cost a workingman’s family budget for a week or more. I have no objection to inequality—I cannot conceive of justice without it—but what struck me unfavorably about the shop windows was how inelegant were the goods that they displayed. They were but expensive variants of slum clothes, of finer material no doubt, and better-made perhaps, but fundamentally of the same aesthetic. And looking at the people walking down the street, I saw not a single one dressed elegantly, though most of them were rich.
How is this to be explained? Is it that even the rich have been so influenced by egalitarianism that they have a bad conscience about the possession of wealth far above the median? I doubt that conscience comes into it. They have no real intention of disgorging their wealth for the sake of others, but they can at least affect the tastes of those less fortunately placed, economically, than themselves, in the hope that their wealth, and no doubt power, will escape the notice of the enviously-inclined: which is to say, the great majority of mankind.