We wear uniforms to signal that we expect to be treated – or to treat others – in a particular way. See how:
someone in street-cleaners’ uniform melts into the background, getting on with their work perhaps without interacting with other people at all;
a police officer in uniform can stop your car, arrest you, or provide certain kinds of assistance;
a business suit marks out someone who’s there to talk about the concerns arising from their work, rather than the everyday;
in a hospital the whites of the doctors distinguish them from the gowns of the patients in a way that shapes a hierarchy of care – who gets to help and prescribe and who gets to receive;
In each case the uniform provides a short-cut to a particular style of interaction while actively shaping you – your attitudes, moods, possibilities, identity – at least for as long as the uniform is on, and often for long afterwards.
Of course, you don’t have to be wearing a physical uniform at all for any of this to happen. Your office, your desk, your job title, your qualifications, the organisation you work in – all these can function as uniform.
And while the role of all these uniforms can be to point us towards certain ways of relating and talking, to open up possibilities for conversation and service to one another, very frequently the uniform becomes an invitation to treat others as something other than a full human being, to stop us from seeing one another.
executives who treat their company’s clients or customers as statistics, as commodities, as ‘consumers’ rather than as people to be served;
physicians who come to treat their patients as particular organs, or bodies to be fixed, rather than human beings who might be scared, lonely, confused, suffering;
leaders who treat the people who work with them as ‘resources’ or ‘capital’ as if they were substances or objects;
politicians who treat the people who elected them as a means to generate money, prestige or personal power;
military designers who spend their days inventing land-mines or, more recently, autonomous killing robots as if these were just interesting design projects or a way to earn a living and not targeted, in the end, at real living human beings.
Each of these requires an I-It relationship with the world: a wilful forgetting of what people are, a turning away rather than addressing whole human beings with histories, cares, hopes, dignity and relationships shaped by meaning and possibility. And each requires a forgetting of ourselves in order to orient to others in this detached way, a forgetting that can lead us to cause all kinds of suffering.
And then, at the end of the day, perhaps you get to take the uniform off and greet your loved ones – your partner, your children – as people. As full, complex, dignified, precious, cherished human beings.
And here, perhaps, is the source of some hope that we can foster a different way of relating to customers, clients, patients, colleagues, electorate, world. It takes us remembering in our uniformed state that the people we’re diminishing are people, just as our loved ones are people.
By consciously cultivating a ‘uniform off’ way of relating to others in the midst of our work, one that calls us back into our humanity, fiercely, courageously, and compassionately – and by demanding that others do the same – we’ll have a better chance of creating institutions that serve the world’s needs instead of the narrow desires and self-interest of their creators.