Notes on appearances and tradition


Heading out of work the other day I observed a small group of Pakistani colleagues as they made their way to pray.  Momentarily afterwards I began to reflect about the power and significance of appearances in human life, which I will elaborate on in today’s post.  These Pakistanis sport a look that brings pleasure and comfort to the many fellow Muslims who inhabit Oman:  long beards extending well below their chin, and white Islamic caps on their heads, makes for a look well suited to the environs here.

It was their beards and caps that made a special impression on me that day.  This group of men walking in stride together exuded at that moment solidarity and strength, which of course is garnered most powerfully from the inward and the spiritual, in their commitment to be devout Muslims, but also based on their felt need to be in unison for their outward appearance to the world.  I recalled days in high school when I thought that punk rock styles were something I wanted to emulate.  Mohawks, ripped jeans, leather jackets, and combat boots:  saying to the world that they could care less about conventional norms and etiquette.  These bands of similarly decked out individuals, punks, muslims, whoever, sends forth the message all for one and one for all, let’s stand together and stand together strong.  

The appearance we assemble together in the morning before heading out on the scene of life has all sorts of subtle and stark ways in which impressions are made and people are influenced.  Some cultures do quite well in continuing to collectively wear the traditional clothing of their heritage and ancestors.  Perseverance may also be a part of the picture.  Perhaps they view keeping their traditions are essential as a response to a feeling that the world and its’ globalization threatens to water down who they are.  This is the case not only nationally or locally, but when particular trans-national forces enable people to feel a sense of belonging with each other.  For example, although fashions differ among Omanis and Pakistanis, when each group lays its’ eyes upon the other and sees traces of adherence to Islamic tastes and rules, nods of approval and delight may arise as a feeling of brotherhood is facilitated.

All of this fascinates me in that I see the importance that unified appearances have on group formation and solidarity, yet there has to be times when it’s better for us to cool off on our judgments of each other based on appearances.  Of course some of this is completely out of our hands:  no one is asked what color skin they want to be born with.  And although some cultures have many ways by which to inculcate the idea that we have to critically reflect on our biases, even punk rockers, who rebel against collectivized mindsets and looks, end up looking more or less alike to one another.

To a certain extent there lies an underlying element of simply being human in life, in the sense that we’re comforted and sometimes delighted to see that other people, especially outside of our culture, choose willingly to adopt something from our set of beliefs, lifestyle, and fashion.  

The key is how to balance the ethic of celebrating diversity and everyone’s right to uphold a particular tradition (or follow another one), while also giving due consideration to the importance appearances and heritages have for people’s identities and group solidarities.


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