A Reversal of Personal Opinion and Appearance

November 1, 2011

Political Theory


Freedom of expression often walks a fine line with offensive and hateful acts. When the form of expression is permanent ink on your body numerous conflicts of rights and repercussions can emerge. The story of Byron Winder is one where an expression of opinion had lasting effects. Winder was a skinhead gang member who tattooed his entire body, including his head and face, with hateful white supremacist images. After his change in opinion and reform to get out of the white power way of life Winder was left with tattoos that no longer showed his true feelings and only brought about perceptions of him as a menace. He was automatically judged from his appearance and shunned by society. His willingness to endure the long and excruciatingly painful process to remove the tattoos shows his commitment to his reform, but it can also be interpreted as a result of society’s negative reaction to his portrayal of past opinions.

We have read several pieces on protection of freedom of expression. Mill’s aim was to protect the voices of the minority from oppression of larger groups. Winder’s opinions were of a small minority, and perceived by the majority as harsh, hateful and ultimately wrong. Did he have the right to express this opinion and be protected? Personally I don’t think he could be stopped from putting these tattoos on his body, but he certainly should have had to suffer the consequences that resulted. His expressions of opinion crossed the line into hate speech. Not only were his opinions hate speech, they were a permanent mark of hate.  While it may be said not to judge a book by its cover, this cover revealed the contents (though previous) of the book and offended many. 

We have also discussed in class issues of identity. Winder put these tattoos on his body at a time in his life when he was creating an identity of himself as a white supremacist. Should he be punished for this identity he created? I feel as though he defined this identity for himself, which he had a right to do, but because of the severity and racist brutality of his created identity society had the right to form an opinion. What about the identity of the groups Winder was hateful towards? Their identity was compromised by his hate and in my opinion they have every right to resent the way he presented himself.

After Winder spent time in jail he changed his opinions, but the marks remained. He found it difficult to obtain a steady job or to be seen as the loving father he was. Once he decided to change he made a commitment to endure whatever was necessary to remove the tattoos. I commend Winder on his ideological and physical change. How do you feel about what he endured? Was it worth it for him to go through such immense pain to change the way he was perceived? Should he have had to?

Was it right for Winder to be treated like an outcast because of his tattoos? Where do we draw the line between what is considered a person’s expression of ideas and opinions and what is considered offensive and hateful language and action? This is more than an issue of body art it, is an issue of the repercussions sometimes faced by expressions of personal opinions and the outward representation of identity.

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3 Comments on “A Reversal of Personal Opinion and Appearance”

  1. ianbaker2041 Says:

    I remember that as I moved up in grade level and in social freedom growing up, I was always reminded that “as you gain freedom, so you gain responsibility and must accept the consequences of your actions.” This case serves as a perfect example of this principle.

    Byron had complete freedom to do as he wanted with his body. That’s a great thing; after all, it is his business and should be left to him to decide. However, if he (or anybody else) chooses to adorn his or her body with hateful tattoos, then he or she should subsequently expect society to treat him or her differently in light of this expression. No one should say “well, hey, let’s treat Byron the same as everyone else.” No, that’s not how it works. He chose to express his views in this way, and he must live with the consequences of his action. The beauty of freedom is that it allows us to do whatever we want to become the people that we want to be, but the bad part is that hasty decisions made young in life can be haunting.

    With that said, I think it’s awesome that he decided to remove the tattoos. I know a girl who is currently having a tattoo removed from her ankle and another from her back, and she says that the treatment is excruciating. Seeing as I’m too chicken to even get a tattoo in the first place, I can only imagine myself crying in pain as they seared the thing out of my skin. Byron’s decision to go to such lengths to make society see him as the “normal,” non-racist person that he has become shows how the human spirit to do good still does triumph. I don’t, however, think that his decision should be worthy of praise. He is only undoing a bad mistake in his past, not really making any sort of progress beyond where he would have been had he never gotten the tattoos in the first place.

    From a political standpoint, however, I think that you’re getting at the idea of society judging others. It’s going to happen; it’s completely unavoidable. Even though we like to act like we don’t “judge” others, think about it. When you walk across the diag and see people, you instantly, almost subconsciously, categorize and judge them in some way, shape, or form. While these judgements may or may not be accurate, they are nonetheless inevitable because they’re just the result of human nature. To expect society not to judge others based on their outward appearances is somewhat ridiculous. If Byron doesn’t want to be categorized as a racist, then it only makes sense that he should remove the tattoos.

    • springsteen1 Says:

      This is a great concept.

      Case in point — last year, I shaved my head for St. Baldrick’s, the cancer charity. It was a fraternity-sponsored event, and though I wasn’t a member, I liked the idea so I decided to particpate. Not thinking that they had 3 or 4 different options for blade sizes, I immediately asked for it all gone. Bald. This caused pain for a week or two as the unknowingness provided me with a sense of “what the hell did I do?” and “why are all these people looking at me like that?”

      I began to track things. To write them down. Mill would be proud. People want everything for themselves. They want to know how they look; the only value you provide them is a mechanism for self-reflection. Here, Hobbes would be proud too. I have never gone to religous or political events of one side without attending the other — it’s strange and unique, but I always thoguht that even if I vehemently disagree, I have to be educated on both sides of a divided or partisan issue, so this has always been the case, even on political campaigns.

      People at both the political groups and religous groups began to tell me I looked like a uneducated gang banger. Dressed in a shirt, tie, and slacks, this was surprising. It was the hair. One religous group (which I am not a member of, but again, this is for education / knowledge purposes)told me to put a hat on and / or cover it up, or I could not enter. This wasn’t because they require head-coverings (like some do) but because I “didn’t look like the standard they required.”

      What standards do we require? What if I had been undergoing chemo? What would they have said then?

  2. Connor Baharozian Says:

    Unfortunately, I believe most people still judge the book by its cover. Though I hate to say it, I would have had a preconceived notion in my head that Mr. Winder was a bad and hateful person upon seeing his tattoos. Society has made much progress regarding judging people by how they look, but it still heavily exists. We have social stereotypes and link people in our minds to past experiences. Though we have greatly reduced racism and prejudices, do you think they will ever go away?
    In regard to Mr. Winder specifically, his body image was so shocking that its a scenario that is different from almost every other. His appearance is so different and the tattoos on his body were so graphic that it seems near impossible to me not to see him in a certain light. I believe, for his own self-interest, he did the right thing by having the tattoos removed. I’m sure the process was very painful, but for society to see him as he wished, his tattoos needed to be removed. It would be interesting to ask Mr. Winder how he felt society looked at hime with his tattoos and without them. By removing his tattoos, Mr. Winder not only was going through a physical transformation, but was showing society that he truly wanted to/had changed.

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