Detroit’s Baggy Pants Fatwa

Detroit’s trying to give Saudi Arabia and Iran some competition in the fashion policing business, issuing citations to young men who make the mistake of wearing their pants hanging too low. Young people in Detroit are getting stopped by police and threatened with fines or even jail time for repeated offenses.

The ACLU has taken up their cause, viewing this as a violation of their civil rights.

The aforementioned regimes are well known for enforcing strict, puritanical dress codes on their citizenry. Saudi Arabia’s toleration of the feared muttawi‘in (“volunteers” in Arabic) is well known. These vigilantes roam the land, harassing those deemed in violation of Islamic norms of modesty. In Iran, a division of the police department exists to enforce sartorial probity, with uniformed men and women wandering like parking cops on the look out for violations.

Now, as much as I detest the low-riding pants style from an aesthetic standpoint, I’m uncomfortable with the inevitable racial and socioeconomic dynamics. While this unsightly fad is hardly limited to young black men or even urban youngsters, they will be disproportionately affected by the policy. Moreover, in light of how laissez-faire we are for the most part in America about dress standards, I am troubled by the selectivity and ultimately discriminatory nature of the edict. Society tolerates all manner of slovenly, scanty and/or eccentric manners of dress, yet many in government feel entitled to impose their fashion norms and bourgeois sensibilities on urban youth guilty of nothing more than choosing to dress their own way while going about their daily business.

Many would no doubt object to my comparison of Detroit’s crusade against boxer shorts to the blatant intolerance seen in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Detroit isn’t imposing religious values on anybody, one might retort, but in a way that’s precisely the problem. Were this about reasonably objective and/or widely held norms of modesty to which healthy religious values are often addressed, I wouldn’t find it so disturbing. Were Detroit’s finest giving tickets to Speedo-clad gentlemen terrorizing Americas beaches and public pools, I think they’d have a case. I think it’s safe to say that for most people what is ultimately repugnant about the aforementioned policies in some Islamic societies today is not their religious inspiration, but their ultimately tyrranical nature, the imposition of the opinions of one segment of society on another based on debatable and subjective reasons. Were these countries merely enforcing a culturally appropriate and humane standard of modesty in public places, we’d have little to say about the matter. We too have our red lines, as the national uproar over the Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl illustrates. (Interestingly, the $550,000 FCC fine levied on CBS for the incident was recently overruled in Federal court. According to the ruling, the FCC had overreacted to what was merely a “fleeting image of nudity.”)

With the exception of the occasional “plumber butt,” men dressing thus are rarely any less “covered” than anybody else. This isn’t really about modestly. The real offense is dressing “low class.” That in my view is a gratuitious violation of a person’s right to express themselves. Just as a woman’s face or hair pose no objective threat to public order, fleeting glimpses of fellow citizens underwear cause no demonstrable harm to society and no more warrant government meddling in people’s daily lives.