BYU is often ridiculed for its dress and grooming code. The basic argument is that it is silly. It places undue emphasis on essentially trivial issues of facial hair and hemlines. A more telling critique claims that by focusing on trivialities it actually affirmatively stunts real moral development.
I think that all of these criticisms, while perhaps true, miss the REAL genius of the BYU Dress and Grooming Code. Their basic mistake is that they assume that the purpose of the Code is for students to follow it, when, in reality, the whole raison d’etre of the Code is to be violated!
Kids entering college are in a naturally rebellious mood. They are getting their first taste of real independence and are as of yet unencumbered by real, adult responsiblities. In short, this is the time to violate social norms!
The problem is that many social norms serve important functions and their violation can be self-destructive. Thus, college kids who act out against recieved wisdom and the pressures of society by using drugs, engaging in binge drinking, or indulging in anonymous, half-sober sexual “hook ups,” frequently find themselves facing the tragic consequences of such behavior.
Yet the norm-violating energy must go some place. An this is the cunning genius of the BYU Dress and Grooming Code. It provides a big, pointless, ham-fisted norm against essentially harmless activity. For example, while I was at BYU I would regularly engage in such wild misbehaviors as going to my freshman dorm cafeteria in running shorts that were TOO SHORT! I would sometimes skip shaving, particularlly during finals, brazenly walking past the honor code police in the library with two days worth of post-adolescent scruff. Needless to say, I felt that I was quite the daring individualist. And I know that my behavior was not isolated. I dare say that there were many readers of this very blog who took a secret (and not so secret) pleasure in pushing the envelope of the Code. We were young. We were crazy. We were rebels with a cause: scruffiness and true moral awareness!
We were also utterly harmless. What was the result of all of this rebelliousness on our part? What horrific consequences did I suffer as a result of my flirtations with social anarchy? Why nothing at all. I, and many of my friends, were able to largely exhaust our purile post-high school rebelliousness on…not shaving for two days!
The cunning of it!!