Feelings don’t get the respect they deserve

Hitting children is okay. Writing a Facebook status about how ugly someone’s wedding dress is is an acceptable way to be. Judging and reprimanding a person for wearing fake designer clothing is fine. This is how we are. At least judging by my Facebook and Twitter feed in the past week.

Before I begin my moralising, let me preface my stance with the confession that the above statements were consistent with my line of thinking at some point in my life, as recently as five years ago. I not only believed them, I used to say these things out loud.

I remember arguing with my flatmate Nana when she insisted that, as soon as a child can take instruction, they should be spoken to and disciplined in other ways than exerting violence on them. I took comfort in the famous lie, “I was hit and I turned out okay’’, because sadly, when you’re indoctrinated, you don’t know that you’ve been indoctrinated.

At the time, I used to work in the fashion industry and in those years my value system was informed by the memorising of, and the adoration of, fashion designers and their seasonal collections. I still like the art of dressing but I cringe at how much Balenciaga used to matter to me; how I would judge people who wore “fake’’ designer clothing and passionately defend the rich and glamourous.

I used to think that glamour was the same as beauty. I would watch Joan Rivers’s TV show and laugh at celebrities wearing “ugly dresses’’. Indeed, I would have been one of the people defending Riky Rick’s shaming of a teenager in a clothing store for wearing “fake’’ Balenciaga Speed sneakers because he can’t afford the R8 000 “real’’ ones. I cared, you guys, never questioning the fundamental ideals of what is real and what is fake.

And then — as all sanctimonious phases go — I changed. After being challenged about my ideas, I worked at becoming less ignorant about things and developed a different value system, or returned to the core human values that are inherent in us. I came to realise that branded clothing is relatively meaningless in the greater scheme of existence and relatively wasteful in the bitter paradigm of global capitalism. There are worthier things to invest in emotionally. Things like emotions themselves.

Feelings are at the core of everything we do and yet we do not give them the intellectual, personal and public attention they deserve. To use the Riky Rick incident as an example, it was an exchange or an exertion of one’s feelings over another, his feelings of superiority and entitlement over the teenager’s feelings of desire and humiliation.

Capitalism, which underpins a lot of our social and political problems, thrives on these power plays, these activations of superiority and inferiority, desire over lack. I dare not mention the R word and its BFF, that rhymes with “bright inclemency’’.

Although some people are appalled, many people find nothing wrong with Riky’s reaction. Many people think that that kid should not have worn, and has “no right’’ to wear, “fake’’ Balenciaga sneakers if he can’t afford the “real’’ ones. Some people think that only the rich deserve to wear certain things and that poor people should stick to the narrow lanes of their financial failures.

To me, the reaction to that exchange, as light-hearted as it plays out in the viral video, is an interesting display of our society’s “emotional bassline’’. I wish this brilliant term was my invention. But it belongs to writer Junot Dìaz.

Let’s zoom in a little on the relationship between feelings and fashion. Contrary to what it may look like, a person who buys a “fake’’ designer handbag or shoes does not do so because they necessarily like the quality and handwork of a designer’s clothing. They may like a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes for their design, but one could argue that their liking could also be influenced by ubiquitous celebrities who encourage them to desire celebrity lifestyles and by influencers who plague our Instagram feeds, enticing us to like brands all day long. They may like a dress because maybe they saw an H&M advert or a Zara advert that enticed them to like it.

Quick detour: it’s funny how we will judge a kid for wearing “fake’’ designer shoes but we won’t judge retailers like Zara, H&M or Topshop for copying the original designs of designers at COS, Gucci or Chloe time after time.

Back to my moralising: so the kid’s liking and wanting of the original sneaker design by Balenciaga is not solely rooted in the design of the shoe. There are hundreds of (very powerful) cues and clues — on his television, on his playlist, on his computer, the streets on his way to school, the malls he likely hangs out at with his friends and his own cellphone screen — that suggest that he should like and desire those shoes.

This raises the question: Are we blaming the kid for wanting Balenciagas or are we blaming him for being too poor to afford them?

We need to ask why people wear “real” or “fake” labels. On a deeper level, people buy label clothing because they want to be associated with the social values that we have attributed to those physical objects. If having a “real” R100 000 Birkin bag or a pair of Levi’s jeans is associated with being “wealthy” and being wealthy is associated with feelings of happiness, success, professionalism, attractiveness, control, sexiness and “I don’t suck’’, then when a person buys a fake Birkin bag for R2 000, aren’t they likely trying to buy the associated feelings of having that bag?

When we buy label clothing, aren’t we trying to escape the social values we have attributed to being financially “poor”: sadness, failure, ugliness, tua culpa, “you suck’’. Some people say that that kid did not feel humiliated or embarrassed by a powerful rapper suggesting he take off the fake shoes and put on a cheaper brand of shoes instead.

Some people believe it was Riky’s duty to tell that kid that wearing fakes, no, that plagiarism, is wrong. Yes you guys. Because Riky Rick, that paragon of originality, cares about plagiarism.

In this case, the politics of class become personal. They cease to be played out over there in the streets and are played out over here in our intimate spaces and on our bodies. To question whether that kid felt humiliated or not is to lose sight of the value of feelings as a way to judge how we should be in our everyday lives. 

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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

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