“Clonal antibodies” was the phrase that came to mind. Which really had nothing to do with the news image I was seeing, it was just my brain doing the AD/HD-randomizer trick again.
Or, maybe the words did have something to do with the photograph. I was looking at an AP Photo by Tony Gutierrez, one of many recent photographs of the mothers from the The Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as they stood in front of the courthouse:
Clonal was in a sense true. All nine of these white women are garbed in nearly identical frocks, a rather loose-fitting style that the press is referring to as “prairie dresses”, made of plain pastel blue, lavender, teal or green fabric, with long sleeves pleated at the shoulders, bodices buttoned all the way up to the collars, and reverse-pleated ankle-length skirts. Not only that, but they all have the same long hairstyle, with the bangs combed up into the French braid that goes down the back. A couple of the women in the photo have greying hair, and there is some variation in height, but little else distinguishes one from another. Antibody was (in an odd sense) true as well, in that their archaically modest clothing was designed to obscure the body shape, and conceal all but the face, neck and hands.
But as I looked at the photograph (and other similar news pictures) I realised something unsettling: I could not tell any of them apart from one another. Aside from fresh military recruits in their uniforms and buzz cuts, I have never seen such uniformity in a group of people. (That some of them may be related to each other only adds to the similarities.)
With my faceblindness (prosopagnosia), I don’t really remember faces. I end up building up a mental gestalt of other features that I use to identify people. But when I am looking at a group of people, I can usually perceive some of the distinguishing characteristics, such as lighter or darker skin tones, longer or shorter hair, beards, glasses, unusual noses, tattoos and whatnot. If I make an especial point to mentally tell myself, “Mary has a mole on her chin,” then that helps me identify her (or it will, after I have sorted people out and figured out which names go with which bodies). But if Jessica and Ashley both have blue eyes and long blonde hair and no unusual distinguishing characteristics, then I have a lot of difficulty telling them apart until I can pattern out their respective voice and gaits and mannerisms.
One of the other distinguishing features that I use is clothing; most people have certain styles or garments that they wear on a regular basis. (I remember one researcher that frequently wore a bright yellow shirt, so he always reminded me of a goldfinch.) If everyone is wearing the same style of clothes, then I have just lost an entire layer of distinguishing characteristics. Even if their self-effacing clothing is slightly more modern than a burka or nun’s habit, it still saps the individuality from the wearer’s body shape, which removes a second layer of information. If everyone is wearing the same hairstyle, then I have lost a third layer of data. When everyone has the same range of hair and skin tones, there goes yet another layer. I have not listened to these people speak on broadcast media, but I am betting that they all have similar accents, having spent their lives in the same small community. There disappears even more potential information.
Because of my disability, I cannot easily distinguish the people around me. And because all of these particular women have had no options in the way they present themselves, I really cannot tell any of them apart. One polygamist’s wife looks like any of his other wives, and their daughters are but smaller versions of the same. Are people really that visually interchangeable to each other? I have no idea. Presumably they can tell each other apart, from life-long familiarity.
But as a faceblind person, I realise that I should avoid situations that involve lots of people in uniforms. I work in education, and suddenly the idea of school uniforms becomes very unsettling. It almost makes me queasy.
Even worse is the idea of being required to spend one’s entire day, and even the entire life, wearing the same style of garment, and looking like everyone else. It is appalling. It’s not that a person must show off or be ostentatious. It’s not that appearances are more important than the other qualities of the person. It’s that people are individuals, and should be allowed to present themselves as such. Even when people dress similarly, they should be able to choose to do so.