Popularity contests.

There's something tickling the back of my head about this: the Medicine Hat Police Service is now requiring all its officers to conceal tattoos, piercings, and artificial hair colours.

On one hand, whatever. A dress code is nothing new, and especially not for the police, and there must be millions of waiters, cashiers, clerks, priests, and teachers out there who are asked to wear long-sleeved shirts to work.

And there are practical reasons, of course - I don't think it would be wise for an officer to wear a chain connecting his ear to his nose, for the same reason that it's not wise for him or her to wear a necktie. If you're in a fight, why give the other person an easy target?

But the reason they give is a simpler one: a public opinion poll suggested that the community would be more comfortable if they didn't have to look at tattooed and pierced officers. And that's a bit depressing.

Once again, I understand the Police Service's position: they want to be seen as friends of the community, not thuggish enforcers. That makes perfect sense. But this decision also sheds a bit of light on some of the problems of populism.

First of all, populist decisions have to be made with a full understanding of the populace, and polls don't reflect that. If I ask you "Would a tattooed police officer make you uncomfortable?", the question itself is designed to make you think about disconcerting tattoos. You'll imagine an officer with flaming skulls on his knuckles, which is going to be more intimidating that one with a clef note on the back of the neck. (Unless it's a bass clef. Then you know that dude is cold.)

So, when asked this question, chances are good that the respondent is going to skew towards the extreme, and the poll didn't take those differences into consideration (I should know; I was one of those polled).

But even that answer supposes that there are lines between acceptable and unacceptable tattoos -- that there are some which are just totally outside the bounds of society... and that's where the second problem to populism is revealed.

Go back to the link in the second paragraph -- there are six million people in Canada with tattoos, and the people of Medicine Hat asked the police not to remind them about it. We're telling the police that we don't want people "like that" around our kids, without caring about who those people are.

That's just embarrassing.

Perhaps, rather than asking people to not make us less comfortable, we should just become more comfortable with those people?  It seems like there's a lesson in there somewhere, which goes a little further than just sleeve tattoos and pierced noses.

And there's only one way to teach that lesson: by example.

See you at the Pride Festival.

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.