The Rise of the North Face Cult: A Millian Disgrace?
Lately, due to the lovely Michigan pre-winter weather (it gets worse), I noticed just how many people own and wear North Face down jackets, fleeces, and backpacks, I myself included. This observance reminded me of one lecture on Mill when Professor LaVaque-Manty mentioned that if the philosopher himself were around today to see the army of North Face wearing soldiers parading around campus, he would be absolutely disgraced. Although a seemingly trivial topic, I contemplated this thought more; why do we all purchase the same thing and what are our motives? And what would Mill say about this? If we were to base the act of purchasing and wearing a North Face product by the opionion that “North Face jackets are cool because everyone has one” versus “North Face jackets are the warmest and fairest priced jackets out there” then there are differing implications.
The first opinion would go against the Millian concept of accepted beliefs based upon non-refuted assumptions, and also the assumption of something being supreme because it is held by the majority. Yet the latter is in accordance with a very crucial point that “wrong opinions and practices gradually yeild to fact” and that man was able to listen to “all that could be said against him” (ChII,p602).If everyone were to have tried every possible winter jacket-making company’s products and compare those products to North Face’s, then they would be accurately making productive use of human experimentation, and make a contribution to the marketplace of ideas. Therefore, these certain North Face consumers would be aligned with Mill’s insistance upon social experimentation, and “right ideas” validated by “false ideas”.
Yet, (myself guilty as charged), people generally do not try every possible winter coat out there and deduce which one is the warmest and best purchase. Rather, since we assume many people don North Face apparel, there must be some justifiable reason why they do so, and therefore we invest our money into such products. As Mill states “it is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right” (Ch II, 602). But if there is a “variety of opinion” from many sources (i.e. a friend told them North Face was the best winter jacket) or she “studied all modes” (i.e. he owned a Patagonia jacket and the quality was worse than North Face) then she is fully justified in her opinion. He or she can then wear his North Face jacket with fullest pride. Our largest fault, in a Millian sense, is that we do not “experiment” but “deduce” from our observations of people around us; our motives, whether superficial or functional, are difficult to separate.
I realize that Mill’s theory of the liberty of man is intended to be applied to more “advanced” situations in society, rather than focusing upon material objects, but it is an interesting observation and analysis of collective human behavior. Perhaps it is a combination of the two, but our decision to purchase items is greatly based upon function and material status. The consumer has the ability to decide, but ultimately it is a question whether those decisions are totally independent of society or whether they are a component of it. All in all, the most popular products are most likely the highest quality, and by this fact we tend to conform. For now, I’m keeping my North Face (and my Ugg Boots too) despite the fact that I’ll look like an exact clone of thousands of other students simply because I do not wish to freeze.