Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why I Shaved Beard

Well kempt, clean shaven man dressed in a coat, pant, shoes, and a tie. That's the typical figure of leadership. Anarchists hate that. Feminists hate that. Why should leadership look a certain way and act a certain way? Who is excluded from the ideal image of a leader?

In medical school, for example, it was me against the white coat. I hate white coat for it is a symbol of power. For those who think there are practical advantages of white coat, I am talking about the white coat that doctors wear in out-patient consultation rooms, for photo-ops, and even for doing theory lectures. Why should doctors use this uniform of power in such situations?

They are building on stereotypes. The white coat has certain stereotypes associated with it. That built by generations of doctors who have lived earlier. By wearing a white coat they're saying - "I am a part of this legacy. The respect you have for this legacy, give me that."

But stereotypes (biases) are the reason why the world is full of problems. Sexism, casteism, racism, colonialism - everything is built on stereotypes.

How do you tap into the benefits of stereotypes on one hand (reinforcing those stereotypes while doing so) and yet fight these large issues on the other hand? It is a contradictory position. Which is why activists (anarchists, feminists) make political statements with their body. Women cut hair, men grow long hair. Those who can grow beard, grow it long. They wear chappals. They wear Burka. They show up in places where they are not expected. They show up in ways that break stereotypes. Because breaking stereotypes is a political tool.

I too found the logic that a doctor should present themselves as "smart" (by shaving clean, etc) unreasonable. Why should doctors care about the biases of the patient? More importantly, if that's the direction we go, then what about patients who are biased against women doctors, or black doctors, or Dalit doctors?

One of the biggest arguments against this all-or-nothing fight against biases is that there are things one can control and things one can't - I can't change which family I was born into, but I can shave my facial hair - and that only the biases against things one can't change need to be removed from society; that it is fair to be biased against things that are in one's control.

Fat shaming is a grey area then. Some people can't grow thin and it is out of their control. For some it might be possible, but how do we know it is possible?

What about clothing? Is it in one's control? Does everyone have access to all kinds of clothing? That's when some people say that dressing smart is not about wearing expensive clothes, but about wearing clothes smartly. They are thinking about leaders who wear cotton kurtas or saris.

Nevertheless surely, everyone can afford a shaving blade, a mirror, and some water, right? So it is in one's control? What about those who have religious beliefs against shaving?

Suffice to say, I'm not completely convinced by the separation between biases based on controllable features and uncontrollable features. For one, biases aren't always nuanced. A bias doesn't take into account the background of the person whom you're biased against/for. A bias is difficult to reason with.

To me, this is sufficient reason to fight against all biases.

But that's where pragmatism entered my life. Sure, we should fight against all biases. But, is personally breaking stereotypes the most effective form of fighting biases? Also should we only do bias-fighting? Aren't there other battles too?

When one looks at this larger picture, the problem becomes more about what our goals are and what the most ethical and effective ways to reach our goals are.

And therein I have to measure on a balance the pros and cons of using individual attributes to harvest biases vs the pros and cons of breaking stereotypes using body politics.

That's how I decided to shave beard.

PS: See also the clothing choices of BR Ambedkar and MK Gandhi

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