McMullen: Don't Judge a Book by its Cover

July 23, 2013

I read an interesting column by Democrat columnist and municipal judge Deborah Mitchell the other day in which she discussed some of the questionable fashion choices made by some of the people who pass through her courtroom.

The first couple of paragraphs made me think that it was going to be a standard takedown and condemnation of some of the more nontraditional modern fashion trends. I thought it was going to be the same sort of justifications that come from the mouths of the sort of people who think that the height of one’s waistband should be a legal matter. There are communities all over the country, from Delcambre, La. to Wildwood, N.J., and many points in between that have taken steps to penalize that eternal menace known as “sagging”. It’s good to have your priorities in order.

But while she made it clear that she did not enjoy the sight of tongue-based jewelry or innuendo-laden clothing, she also made it clear that she makes every attempt to not let questionable fashion affect the outcome of her cases. She should be applauded for not letting inconsequential things like that cloud her decision making. Nobody is inherently guilty of anything just because their pants are halfway down their backside or because their face couldn’t successfully pass through a metal detector.

But even I can admit that it doesn’t reflect well when you’re wearing a shirt with a pot leaf on it while pleading not guilty to possession of the drug product that is associated with that symbol. Maybe this person just thought they were employing next-level reverse psychology tactics.

You should probably show up to court in at least business casual if at all possible. Dress for the ruling that you want, not the ruling you’re probably going to get. But that doesn’t mean that you should get docked any respectability points because you showed up in that shirt you got from an establishment with a highly suggestive name.

In court and in life we shouldn’t judge other people based on how they dress, or how they look.

Now I’ve gotten a few bits of feedback that paint a picture of intimidation. I understand that a big man with big hair, when not conjuring comparisons to Hugo “Hurley” Reyes from “Lost” (You have no idea how often I get that or just how angry it makes me. Prosopagnosia is truly an American epidemic.) can seem pretty intimidating.

There are other people who regularly take me for some kind of hippie. Sure, I’m reasonably easy going and there are a lot of tie-dye shirts in my regular shirt rotation (Hemophilia camp is the sort of event that leaves a person with a lot of tie-dyed shirts, all right?) but that doesn’t mean that I do or do not have a propensity for flowers or highly discounted love.

A medical professional once poked a little fun at me by replacing Al Sleet in George Carlin’s classic bit “The Hippie Dippie Weatherman” with yours truly. That’s when I first realized that it was even possible for someone like me to project an image like that. Perception remains a funny thing.

That guy sitting at the bar in full motorcycle leathers might be a loving father and grandfather with a heart of gold who happens to like feeling the wind in his hair or he might be every bit of that Hell’s Angel biker stereotype that you are constructing in your head upon seeing him. Maybe he’s both of those things, or neither — you’ll never know until you talk to him.

Maybe you need to use lethal force to deal with that burglar who has been plaguing your neighborhood or maybe you’ve tragically confused him with a kid in a hooded sweatshirt who just wants to get home and isn’t in the mood to put up with your crap.

That guy covered in tattoos might have just got back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. That guy in the back row of the choir might be looking at you funny. That guy at the soup kitchen might just be putting on a brave face and talking a big game.

The point here is that just like municipal judge Mitchell, we are free to feel any way we like about the way people present themselves but we should not let our preconceived notions about the elements of their style affect how we treat them.

Everyone deserves a fair shot when it comes to perception.