The following is a mostly-fictional dialogue between my primary modes of thinking when debating a course of action.
(Pragmatic Daniel is weary and wary of the world and the way it works; Naïve Daniel thinks there’s nothing that endurance and a can-do attitude can’t overcome. They both walk into the shared living room for my anthropomorphized modes of thought that I have in my mind.)
Naïve Daniel: I’ve always wanted to dye my hair a different color, especially blue. The right shade would really look nice. I’ll just see what kind of coloring products are on Amazon…
Pragmatic Daniel: NO. Stop. Why would you even do that?
Naïve Daniel: What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I—
Pragmatic Daniel: Seriously? Would you go to work with blue hair? Go to job interviews with blue hair?
Naïve Daniel: Well, it doesn’t really matter what color my hair is; or rather, it doesn’t matter that it’s dyed. Sure, someone could not like the way it looks, but they could not like the way it looks without any coloring. The act of dying it is only significant insofar as it improves my look overall (or not). It’s not important in and of itself.
Pragmatic Daniel: In a world filled with people like you, maybe. But we live on Earth. Despite what you think, people will react in potentially negative ways to blue hair. In our culture, a young man with blue hair signals irresponsibility and the tendencies of a dilettante. Keep your hair its natural shade of brown.
Naïve Daniel: People don’t have to think that way. If my hair is blue, people who know me will still respect me, and it will be an opportunity to show others that the signaling you just mentioned isn’t accurate.
Pragmatic Daniel: You make that sound easy, but in reality it’s prohibitively difficult.
Naïve Daniel: Explain.
Pragmatic Daniel sighs heavily.
Pragmatic Daniel: Let’s say you go to a job interview downtown. You have your suit all pressed, you’re prepared for the interview, and you even know someone at the company. But then you sit down with the hiring manager. Despite everything else that might be typical and professional about your appearance, your hair would be blue. If she takes exception to that, even unconsciously (and there’s a good chance she will), would you really try to justify your styling preferences in the middle of a first round interview?
Naïve Daniel: No, but that shouldn’t matter.
Pragmatic Daniel: Shouldn’t, but does. And it doesn’t have to be a job interview—the same lack-of-appropriate-time-to-justify-your-blue-hair applies all over the professional and personal world.
Naïve Daniel: Maybe, but wait a minute.
Pragmatic Daniel: Whhaaaaaaaaaaaat.
Naïve Daniel: You said, “Despite everything else that might be typical and professional about your appearance, your hair would be blue.”
Pragmatic Daniel: Yeah.
Naïve Daniel: The direct implication is that blue hair isn’t professional, specifically in an environment where one would wear a suit to an interview. I don’t think that’s correct at all!
Pragmatic Daniel: Oh please. Do you see a rainbow of hair colors at any law firm or office environment? Perhaps there are exceptions, but they prove the rule: blue hair is not professional.
Naïve Daniel: Many people dye their hair when they get older, although oftentimes they select a color close to their natural hair. Is that unprofessional?
Pragmatic Daniel: That’s fine, obviously, just like natural hair colors are fine.
Naïve Daniel: Does that mean I could dye my hair from brown to a darker brown or a natural black? Other people do indeed do that, and spin their graying hair into a silver lining—the opportunity to try a different hair color.
Pragmatic Daniel: I said that’s fine. Going from one natural hair color to another is sort of like wearing different suits to work, provided you don’t change it that often.
Naïve Daniel: So, just to be clear, infrequently changing your own hair color to another naturally-occurring human hair color is OK in the professional world?
Pragmatic Daniel: Yes, just don’t do it often. And obviously pick a color that looks nice with your skin and undertones.
Naïve Daniel: So what if I dyed my hair white?
Pragmatic Daniel: Uh, why would you?
Naïve Daniel: Answer the question. White is a naturally occurring color, and for everyone. Surely that would be appropriate.
Pragmatic Daniel: It’s not often naturally occurring in youth, it’s what happens to other natural hair colors when you get old. That’s different.
Naïve Daniel: You just moved the goalposts. First you said naturally-occurring hair colors are professional, and now you’re saying they have to be naturally-occurring hair colors that are, in at least one respect, typical?
Pragmatic Daniel: Fine, but that doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, the cultural rules of any office are that you have to stay within a particular subset of hair colors, usually the blonds, browns, and darker browns/blacks. If you want red hair, or blond hair approaching white, you’re only allowed to have it if you were born with it.
Naïve Daniel: What?? It’s better to just do your own thing and try to break that system down.
Pragmatic Daniel: But you can’t. That’s the whole point. If you have blue hair, you won’t get hired. It’s part of a larger culture of professional signaling. In our fake interview, if you had blue hair, would you wear a suit?
Naïve Daniel: Yeah, I’d wear a suit.
Pragmatic Daniel: Why? Why should you have to wear a suit? Sure, they look nice, but they can also be very uncomfortable. Why can’t you dress more casually—just some nice jeans and a sweater?
Naïve Daniel: I, uh—well that’s clearly part of most offices’ dress code.
Pragmatic Daniel: So is hair color. The only difference is that those rules aren’t usually written down. But they also don’t write down rules like, “Don’t have sex with your boss on the floor of the break room.” Sure, there are rules that sort of say you’re not supposed to do that, and everyone knows you’ll pretty much get fired for doing it, but it’s not an explicit rule. The dress code rules hint at proper hair color choice in the same way.
Naïve Daniel: Well…but don’t you think my hair would look nice with a subtle blue applied?
Pragmatic Daniel: You mean our hair? Sure, it would look great. It would set off our eyes really well.
Naïve Daniel: Then why don’t you want to dye it??
Pragmatic Daniel: Are you…did you just…we literally just talked through the answer to that. No matter what we think about the acceptability of blue hair, it still signals negative traits that would impose social costs that aren’t worth baring for that kind of aesthetic improvement. And furthermore—
Rational Daniel appears out of a blinding white light and steps in between Pragmatic Daniel and Naïve Daniel.
Naïve Daniel: Whoa!
Pragmatic Daniel: What the hell?? Where did you come from? What was that light?
Rational Daniel: Not important. I was listening to your discussion, and I think there are some points that can be improved upon.
Pragmatic Daniel: No no no, explain where you came from.
Naïve Daniel: He said it’s not important!
Rational Daniel: I’ll explain later, maybe. Is that alright?
Pragmatic Daniel: …fine. But what is there to be improved upon? I’m right.
Rational Daniel: In some ways, yes. But Joyful Daniel has some excellent points that shouldn’t be ignored.
Pragmatic Daniel: Who is Joyful Daniel?
Rational Daniel points to Naïve Daniel.
Pragmatic Daniel: What? No he’s not.
Naïve Daniel: Actually, that’s my real name. People started calling me Naïve Daniel a while ago, and it just sort of stuck.
Pragmatic Daniel: Oh, well…ahem…what’s your point, Rational Daniel?
Rational Daniel: Joyful Daniel acknowledges true things: a subtle blue would look nice on all of us, and it would make us happy to play around with color a little bit more. I mean, have you seen our eyes? You know, in The Wizard of Oz Dorothy asked the Wizard’s attendants to “dye her eyes to match [her] gown.” Judy Garland was asking for blue eyes. We have them. Let’s use them.
Pragmatic Daniel: I didn’t really disagree with Naïve, er, Joyful Daniel, about that. But blue hair would negatively signal—
Rational Daniel: Yes, you’re right about that too.
Pragmatic Daniel: Then what is there left to be said??
Rational Daniel: Pragmatic Daniel, if you always obeyed social norms, if everyone always obeyed social norms, there could be no progress. Women wouldn’t have started wearing pants, much less voting. If Alice Paul heard you talking like this, she’d probably—
Pragmatic Daniel: Well, voting rights are different, obviously. Don’t try to put dying your hair on the same level as those. If you don’t have the right to vote, it’s worth it to buck social convention to win that right, even if it costs you dearly.
Rational Daniel: What about women wearing pants? They’re just clothes, not voting rights. Women couldn’t always wear those without social backlash.
Pragmatic Daniel: Well, maybe wait until a lot of women are wearing pants before you join in.
Rational Daniel: But someone has to be the first, even on an issue like pants. According to your rules, no one would be allowed to be first for anything other than a few rights you’ve arbitrarily selected as ones worth fighting for.
Joyful Daniel: I’LL GO GET THE DYE.
Joyful Daniel runs out of the room.
Pragmatic Daniel: Oh my god, no! Look what you’ve done! What if people at work see that?
Rational Daniel: Even for things like hair color, the fundamental issue is: should you let the expectations of others dictate what it is that you do? That covers the way you dress, the way you present yourself, the way you speak, what you think, and what you say. And it’s not as if “others” is a definitive body of people—it’s the vague, simulated notion of others’ expectations that you’ve come up with. Sometimes those correspond to reality, but many times they don’t. And why do you privilege the collective’s imagined will over your own, even if you know you’re correct? You’ve read Richard Feynman’s book, so you know his take on this: “You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”
Pragmatic Daniel: I think it’s OK to fight for issues that you believe are important, and to take a social hit to advance them, but blue hair is not the hill to die on.
Joyful Daniel sprints back into the room with a vial of blue coloring.
Joyful Daniel: You mean the hill to “dye” on?
Pragmatic Daniel: Sweet Jesus.
Rational Daniel: When acting against social norms, you should always balance the goods to be gained from disobedience against the negative ramifications for the same disobedience. And I think the best default position is a hefty skepticism for entrenched social practices. Your goal should always be to diminish harmful or stupid social norms, and build up and establish their opposites. That’s the work of each and every day, not one glory-filled moment. Alice Paul didn’t just magically achieve voting rights for women in one triumphant stand—I mean, have you seen the movie Iron Jawed Angels? Good grief—
Pragmatic Daniel: Fine. FINE. I don’t deny that it’s OK to flout social convention. I agree with what you just said. But I still say: not getting a job because you have blue hair is stupid. That’s a situation where you keep your natural hair color and live to fight another day, in different ways. It’s not saying there can be no progress regarding people’s incorrect views on appropriate hair coloring. It is saying that you should wait until you’re in a position more insulated from negative ramifications before you act. Maybe wait until you have the new job, gain the respect and esteem of your peers, and then maybe try blue hair. They’ll still know you’re the same person, and they’ll adjust at that point.
Rational Daniel: Despite what you might think, Pragmatic Daniel, I don’t really draw a distinction between voting rights and hair color like you do. Voting rights are important, obviously. But why don’t you think choosing how to live your daily life is as well? What color your hair can be is part of the overall “acceptable ways to look” set of social norms. This same category prescribes clothes, jewelry, taste, and individual expression, among many other things. That being said, I actually do agree with the form of your analysis just now—that was a good example of identifying the negative social norm and seeing the best way to take it down in a specific context. It balanced your need of remunerative employment and the necessity of dismantling a bad social norm. Sometimes you can and should be a bomb-thrower, but sometimes the slower progress is OK.
Pragmatic Daniel: So you DO agree with me!
Rational Daniel: Actually, by producing that analysis, you agree with me.
Joyful Daniel uncorks the vial of blue coloring.
Pragmatic Daniel: How is that, exactly?
Rational Daniel: When I first got here my position was that social norms should be floutable. You’re the one who thought blue hair should never exist in a professional environment. You were even constructing an elaborate cognitive schema for determining professionally appropriate hair color for individuals based on at least two factors, all to proscribe blue hair.
Pragmatic Daniel: …
Rational Daniel: …
Joyful Daniel: This. Is. Going. To. Look. AMAZING.
Pragmatic Daniel: I just…I still don’t think hair color is that important.
Rational Daniel: By itself, in particular contexts, it’s not. But in our world, hair color is attached to a superstructure of stupid, arbitrary social norms dictating the way we’re allowed to walk out of the house every day. It should be chipped away always, and shattered when possible. Besides, in our particular context, we can absolutely sustain any negative reaction to blue hair. I don’t even think there will be any. Actually, Pragmatic Daniel, now that I think about it, you never said in detail why it wasn’t good for us to get blue hair. You dove into a hypothetical situation about job interviews that wasn’t applicable. Is it perhaps the case that you’re just a little hesitant to make a bold assertion of individuality, even if it’s only hair color?
Pragmatic Daniel: Well, I…you know what, fine. FINE. Joyful Daniel, do your thing! It’ll look great, and I don’t care what other people think (assuming that means I’m performing a background analysis of social costs and benefits, and I determine that any backlash is worth the happiness we derive from a pretty color we like and the exercise of individual autonomy in the face of a collective we disagree with).
Joyful Daniel upends the vial of blue coloring onto his head and starts working it into his hair.
Pragmatic Daniel: OK, now you have to explain where you came from.
Rational Daniel: Ehhh, do I though?
Rational Daniel starts to shimmer and glow.
Pragmatic Daniel: Hey! Don’t do that! Explain where you came from! This defies current human knowledge of physics!
Rational Daniel: I was inside you the whole time. All you had to do was look for me.
Joyful Daniel: I knew it!
Pragmatic Daniel: Are you serious? That’s a figurative description of what is clearly a literal process happening right in front of my eyes. WHERE DID YOU LITERALLY COME FROM??
Rational Daniel: Oh it’s actually pretty cool. Like, you wouldn’t even believe it at first. Maybe you can visit sometime.
Pragmatic Daniel lunges toward the glowing, fading frame of Rational Daniel. Just as they meet, Rational Daniel is gone in a burst of white light. Pragmatic Daniel sighs heavily, but then turns toward Joyful Daniel, who is admiring his new blue hair in a mirror.
Joyful Daniel: Dorothy Gale can eat her heart out. I look so good!
Pragmatic Daniel, smiling for the first time: Yeah. It really does look nice.
This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.