Reminiscent of attempts in the 1960s and 70s to ban long hair and other accoutrements of youth culture, Florida and Arkansas have adopted "Pull Your Pants Up" laws outlawing sagging pants in school. Many cities and towns have passed similar ordinances that apply in schools or in public generally, and saggy pants prohibitions are currently under consideration in Chicago and other major cities. While such laws have been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union as an unconstitutional restriction of First Amendment expression, and by civil rights groups, including the NAACP, as a targeting minority students, neither the Florida nor the Arkansas statute has been challenged constitutionally. And while most such laws have been struck down when challenged, the real scourge here is the continuing effort of state legislatures, municipalities, and school administrators to control adolescent social mores. Though an eyesore to adults, no more deaths are attributable to the sight of a young man wearing his pants low than were caused by, say, the long hair that the sponsors of such laws may have sported in their own adolescence.
The issue highlights the dark and pervasive tendency of adults to bridle at, and attempt to eradicate, aspects of youth culture that stray too far from the customs of prior generations. Even when youth culture embodies a measure of contempt for adult standards, we should meet such behavior with the same tolerance we show with expressions of opinion that differ, sometimes radically, from our own: we disagree, but will defend the right of free expression. (And the aging proponents of such bans, many of whose bottoms are partially exposed as they garden on the weekends, better watch what they ask for.)
Indeed, as sociologists and psychologists have long recognized, the collective construction of social customs that are the hallmark of each generation, including novel tastes in music, art, and dress, serve an important function in the social and psychological development of young adults. The process of individuation allows individuals and groups to achieve an identity independent of the individuals and the generation that raised them, and become holistic human beings who can think for themselves. It's a process through which young adults learn to question the assumptions that underlie the conduct of prior generations -- and history is replete with barbarous assumptions that flourished for centuries. It's a process that lies at the heart of social criticism and constructive change. While wearing pants low won't eradicate war and poverty, the bold reforms and innovations that improve life over time depend upon the ability to think critically and act independently.
Attempts to repress the features of youth culture that offend adults may actually serve the process of individuation, sharpening the lines youth must cross to achieve internal freedom. The problem with bludgeoning youth culture into submission through saggy pants laws and the like is twofold, however. First, we're modeling human tendencies that our children must resist when they reach our stage of life: pointless resistance to change, a sense of rejection when our children choose a difference path than we did, and intolerance of what we find merely displeasing, visually or otherwise. Second, such efforts are not only bound to fail, but will draw the modest rebellion against adult standards of fashion into the realm of disrespect for law. And we shouldn't be surprised when, as with the teenager who does just the opposite of what his parents tell him to, our attempts to ban the practice of wearing pants mid-buttocks extends the practice beyond its normal lifespan within the ever-changing culture of adolescents.
Jay Sterling Silver is a professor of law at St. Thomas University School of Law in South Florida whose pants have been known to creep down a few inches as he gardens.