Over the last few years, I’ve had cause to attend court on a few occasions, as a result of tiresome family issues. When it all started, I didn’t own a suit and had no choice but to attend a couple of early sessions in my usual attire. It would be disingenuous to describe myself as anything other than habitually scruffy; my guru-like detachment from material desire and a ground state of ‘Utterly Skint’ combine to ensure that I am generally found  wearing a pair of hiking boots with detaching soles, jeans with a completely authentic distress and a t-shirt that was once black but is now grey. In deference to this occasion, I’d chosen a t-shirt with no holes in. Topped off with a fleece and shell jacket that could be politely described as slightly foxed, and with shoulder length hair, I presented the epitome of ‘Keith from Shameless’ chic.

My encounters with the security at the court buildings on these occasions were thorough. I was met by unsympathetic men in G4S uniforms, who meticulously inspected the contents of my pocket as I dropped it into their Tupperware box and passed through the magic door; the magic door beeped of course, and I was rigorously wanded to determine that the button of my jeans was to blame, not my machete.

I always felt vaguely aggrieved by these encounters, but could not justify it to myself. Just doing their job, I told myself, probably this dour and methodical with everyone. Then I got a suit.

Other events that I would be frowned at if I turned up to not in a suit were looming, so having acquired one for those, it seemed silly not to make the effort to wear it to court. There were obviously matching shoes, although of such monumental inflexibility that I had used torn flesh as an excuse to swap to my ragged, comfy trainers at a friend’s wedding. I had also, for the first time in nearly 20 years, got a haircut. It was quite severe.

So, I approached the door of the court building looking significantly different, and was treated significantly differently. It was not a busy time of day, and there was no queue to be admitted. The security chap was sitting at the reception desk, dividing his attention between CCTV screens and an Evening Herald. I had my phone and my keys in my hand as I entered, ready to drop them into the box at the magic door. I did so, and the plastic clatter drew the guard’s attention; he smiled and waved me through the magic door, which beeped.

”It’s your shoes,” he said, smiling broadly, ”Carry on, sir.”

He returned to his paper, and I retrieved my belongings and trotted up the stairs with the strange suspicion one occasionally gets that one has slipped into a similar, but subtly different parallel universe. It wasn’t until I’d finished my business and left that I realised what had happened: the guard had thought I was a lawyer. More specifically, he hadn’t thought it at all; he had simply responded automatically to the set of characteristics he associated with the label ‘lawyer.’

In the 1960’s the psychologist Stanley Milgram became interested in the aftermath of the Holocaust; specifically, whether the oft used defence of lower ranked war-crime defendants that they were ‘only following orders’ bore any weight. He designed a famous and controversial experiment to test how far someone would go solely on the orders of another they perceived as an authority figure. He paid volunteers to take part in the experiment, and told them it was a memory experiment.

Each volunteer was paired with another (actually a stooge) and sham-randomly selected as the ‘teacher.’ The stooge was the ‘learner.’. The learner was taken off to another room, and the teacher was lead to believe that the learner had been attached to an electric shock generator. The teacher then had to carry out a memory test on the learner, via an intercom, and administer steadily increasing electric shocks as punishment for errors. The shocks began at a very low-level, but ramped up to currents that would deliver a fatal shock. As the current increased, the learner screamed, begged for the experiment to be stopped, banged on the wall, complained of a heart condition, and eventually fell silent. If at any point the teacher balked, or requested a halt, or a check on the learner, the experimenter sitting in the room with the teacher would respond with terse stock phrases, demanding the experiment be continued.

Milgram wanted to know how many people would continue the experiment all the way to the lethal final shock; a straw poll of colleagues and students guessed that, at most, 3% would be willing to deliver fatal shocks to another human being solely on the orders of a man in a lab coat they met twenty minutes ago. The results of the experiment were astonishing, and sobering; fully 65% of the subjects continued- not entirely willingly, but continued nonetheless- the experiment to its bitter end.

The experiment has been rerun with variations many times since, and the result remains broadly the same. In Milgram’s own words, from the article ‘The Perils of Obedience’ he states: ‘The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.’

Given that people can be persuaded to torture others to death on the perceived authority of a white coat, it is not a difficult conclusion to make that people respond to other people based on their perception of them, with little real thought about it, all the time. People also respond to others based on their perception of themselves; the concept of enclothed cognition.

In slightly less brutal experiments than Milgram’s, volunteers were given mental agility tests. Half of them were given white coats to wear, while the rest wore only their normal clothing. The group wearing lab coats performed noticeably better than the control group. In a repeat experiment, everyone was given a white coat, but half were this time told it was an artists’ smock and half told it was a doctor’s coat. This time, the ‘doctor’s coat’ group performed noticeably better.

Before he came to work the guard put on his security guard uniform, and along with it his ‘security guard’ persona. In the first instance, I had put on my normal scruff and with it adopted the ‘amiable hippy’ persona I wear so much that I believe it’s the real me. Wearing the suit I adopted a much less often used persona; busy young man in smart suit. I walked taller and exuded an air of purpose, arrogantly inspecting passers-by along the length of my nose.

When we met, the security guard responded not as Fred (or whoever) meeting Pete, but as ‘security guard’ meeting a hangdog looking fellow in clothes the PDSA didn’t want, and responded in the culturally expected manner of a security guard meeting such a person; when he met the smart young man with the big bundle of important looking papers and a damn-you-m’lad expression he did exactly the same.

It’s another blow for the human ego to realise that such a great deal of human behaviour is ruled, not by rational thought, but by culturally imprinted behaviour that we just…do. More depressing still to think that injustice from the minor (discrimination as I experienced at the court) to the extremely major (the Holocaust) could be happening simply because people react to each other based on who is wearing the uniform of authority in a particular instance. Forewarned is forearmed, however, and simply understanding these concepts can prompt us to check our own actions for rationality more often. This is known as metacognition; thinking about what you are thinking. We can, with care, go further and take deliberate steps to alter our own behaviours.

The rituals and etiquette surrounding traditional karate practice are an example of these deliberate steps. True karate seeks to instill a spirit of combat that is controlled and manageable; timidity and wild aggression are equally useless to us. Everything we do reminds us of the purpose of our training; measured, sincere bows upon entering and leaving the dojo remind us of the seriousness of what we do within; the uniform we wear is a simple japanese garment in a colour symbolic of purity and death, and when worn brings with it elements of the new persona we are seeking to imprint, calm, focussed and fearless.

Engage fully in mokuso and wear your gi with quiet pride. Bow completely and sincerely to your opponent and do them the courtesy of attacking with vigour and spirit. Shout ‘Osu!’ with feeling. Consciously adopt the role of one committed to perfection of technique and purity of spirit and it will grow within you.

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