The societal cost of ‘cost’umes

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Megan Grossman, Staff Writer

A University student affiliated with Greek life was highly criticized for posting an Instagram photo of herself and two friends dressed as homeless people with dirt on their faces for Halloween. They held signs that read, “Homeless, feel free to take me home,” and, “I’m homeless, buy me a drink.” Many admonished the students for their insensitivity and condemned them for actions that made light of the plight of the homeless.

Although it would have been next to impossible to not have caught wind of the controversy, wishing to maintain objectivity through anonymity, I have not viewed the photo, nor do I know which students were involved. Despite Halloween being a designated time to dress as someone else and to costume oneself in an exaggerated stereotype that tells a story at a glance, when such stereotypes prove hurtful to a sector of the population, the choice to dress in this manner should be reconsidered.

I like to give society at large, and in particular the University student body, the benefit of the doubt in terms of their actions lacking malevolent intent. I think it is highly feasible that these students’ choice had little to do with making a societal statement and much to do with an easy-to-execute costume idea with an attempt at double entendre via the signs they held (which I, by the way, find equally offensive in terms of the objectification of women).

Nonetheless, many found the actions of these women to be worthy of argument. I find the decision to culturally appropriate the homeless, whether by design or inadvertently, to be reflective of the artificial university environment in which we live.

While at the University, we are privileged; we live in a community where our basic and recreational needs are not only met, but met in abundance. Our daily lives are so far removed from social realities and distorted by unified outward appearance that complacency encroaches, causing erosion in our sense of humanity and appreciation.

I wonder if it would come as a surprise to those under fire to learn that there are homeless people among us who are not garbed in tattered clothing with dirt on their faces. I feel protectively inclined towards these peers who, like each of us, face unique challenges of which it is objectionable to playfully jab. The problem with depicting a homeless person with a stereotypical persona is that people do not fit a physical mold based on social status.

Having said that, it seems prudent to consider the actions of these women in the context in which they occurred. It would be a stretch to conceive of this being a thought-out, blatant judgment against the homeless. Accusations regarding this probably inadvertent, but still defamatory, statement about the homeless population, as well as my visceral reaction to the suggestive sign verbiage, gauge the pulse of hypersensitivity in today’s society.

We are collectively too-easily offended and too reactionary in our judgment. In today’s society, there are regrettably clear-cut examples of discrimination, of which I do not deem this isolated instance to be one. Rather, it seems to me that this incident, indicative of a misguided character mindset without human attachment (like traditional Halloween “hobo,” “clown,” or “doctor” costumes), falls into the dangerous gray area described by Ray Bradbury in his novel “Fahrenheit 451.” In it, he warns of societal degeneration caused by the loss of individualism relative to society’s opposition to opinion and action.

There is surely an element of prejudice in the actions of these women. Where is the clear cut limit of satirical costuming, and at what point does it become more detrimental to take issue with it? Are nun costumes disrespectful to religion? I would be inclined to say yes. Do ghost costumes disrespect the dead? My opinion is no.

Through discussion of this topic, it was brought to my attention that I may have disrespected the Native American population by wearing a headdress in an elementary school show. Because there is meant to be an inherent emotional response to costuming, which by definition stereotypes individuals into a caricature, it is possible to offend in ignorance.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that costumes are becoming an outdated, impractical tradition as society evolves towards equality. In response to similar situations regarding the questionable political correctness of Halloween costumes, Yale University issued a cautionary statement to its students this year about costumes that make fun of societal realities. Though some would say that this crosses a line in confining expression, if it turns impulse to judgment, it is a good practice worthy of emulation on campus.

I recently read of an anti-cyberbullying software product called ReThink which detects nasty texts via coding, and blocks the message from being sent until an override button is hit by the computer. When given the added time to reconsider, 93 percent of the users were found to rewrite the text into softer language.

Life moves fast; we are hasty in our actions and reactions. How much more harmonious could our campus, our community, our nation be if we lived life according to the ReThink philosophy? We should be far less quick to thoughtlessly offend, and we should check our sensitivity levels to assure an outcry proportionate to the offense. As with most controversies in life, it is perspective that will still the waters and lead us to choices of societal benefit.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in print on Nov. 4. The online version has been updated to better reflect the views of the author.
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