Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Immodesty != Manure

If you've spent any time on Facebook, you've probably run into the tendency to pass around pithy maxims in the form of images. The problem with this means of communicating one's ideas that is in translating something into a pithy maxim, truth often suffers. There's one going around at the moment which, for whatever reason, particularly annoys me:

Part of it, I think, is the "Dear Girls, ... Sincerely, Real Men" format. This sets up a hierarchy of sorts in which the "real men" instruct the "girls", who otherwise may not know what is up. It also implies that if you're a man and you disagree with the sentiments expressed, or the way they're expressed, you may not be a "real man".

For those who agree on the value of modesty, there's an immediate feeling of validation encapsulated in the statement: "Dressing immodestly is like rolling around in manure.  Yes, you'll get attention, but mostly from pigs."  So, if you're a woman, and you dress modestly, you have the virtue of not being covered in shit.  (And those vixens are actually disgusting.)  And if you're a man, and you value modesty, you're a real man and not a pig.

The problem is, although it's calibrated to make people feel a quick spurt of validation, the analogy is not at all apt.  If someone really rolled around in manure, people would find her disgusting.  But let's be honest: "real men" (taken to mean: men who put some value on modesty) don't find immodestly dressed women disgusting (at least, not if the woman in question has the goods to carry it off.) They find an immodestly dressed woman attractive just like any other man would. It's true that dressing immodestly may get a girl the wrong kind of attention, but it's certainly not because she's made herself unattractive or disgusting, it's because dressing provocatively sends certain social signals. Some guys make take that as a message that there are other things on offer as well and provide attention (wanted or not) and others may either avert their eyes or quietly absorb an eyeful while assuming that this "isn't their type". But there's no similarity to rolling in manure.

Maybe the attraction in this formulation is that it's simply more evocative than trying to make some point about objectifying or commodifying yourself through immodesty, getting the wrong kind of attention, etc. But I can't help thinking that a lot of the attraction of this formulation is simply that it makes it so easy to look down on others.

It's also unpersuasive.  If you go tell some girl you think is dressing immodestly that it's like she's rolled in manure, and she'll only attract pigs, you've got two problems.  First off, you've described her as rolling in manure, and insulting someone is usually not a good way to get her to listen to you.  Secondly, she knows perfectly well that dressing the way she's dressing does not make her disgusting to "real men".


48 comments:

bearing said...

Also, there is no way that anyone with a Y chromosome would have picked that font.

Charming Disarray said...

Yeah, I found this one really annoying, too. The weird thing is I only saw girls sharing it, which sort of put me off even getting into the whole thing.

Crude said...

Yeah, as someone who's entirely sympathetic to the desire for more modesty (not to mention, less slobbish attire in general, among men and women both), that posted bit just seems annoying. So sign me up as someone else who agrees with some 'gist' you can distill out of it, but doesn't like the execution.

A few other comments, though.

But let's be honest: "real men" (taken to mean: men who put some value on modesty) don't find immodestly dressed women disgusting (at least, not if the woman in question has the goods to carry it off.) They find an immodestly dressed woman attractive just like any other man would.

I think this really depends. Immodesty itself can be unattractive. Sure, the comparison to manure doesn't seem very apt, but I really think some guys would equate immodesty with trashiness, and trashy with unattractive. Not all guys, and not "Real Men" full stop, but it happens.

I wonder if part of the problem is that it's hard to criticize 'dressing immodestly', especially while being pithy, without being insulting. Sure, the 'dressing immodestly is like rolling in manure' thing can be taken as insulting, but it's pretty gentle all told. Very "Rotary Club" snideness.

Darwin said...

I think this really depends. Immodesty itself can be unattractive. Sure, the comparison to manure doesn't seem very apt, but I really think some guys would equate immodesty with trashiness, and trashy with unattractive.

Yeah, I'd agree on this, to an extent.

Certainly, I think a lot of guys might see a woman dressed in a way he considered highly immodest and think "clearly not my type" and thus not be attracted to her as a person. I think, though perhaps I'm extrapolating too far from personal experience, that he'd still find the spectacle visually interesting (in the sense of "strongly getting his attention") in most cases, unless we're talking not just immodest but really, incredibly weird.

Of course, the "clearly not my type but I certainly find myself watching" is very much the kind of objectification which I think underlines how immodesty is a problem, in that it causes a woman to be looked at merely for an effect on the viewer rather than as a person.

Matthew Lickona said...

Do pigs pay more attention to people covered in manure? Is manure to a pig like a good hollandaise to a person? Le merde, c'est tout? I need to go visit a farm and do some research...

Someone needs to do a Modest Proposal, only this one will be about modesty. And skirts.

Banshee said...

Pigs don't actually like manure. Given its own druthers, a pig is a very cleanly animal. Trap a pig in an outside pen in the sun with no way to keep cool, and pigs will try to find some way to live. But a pig not obliged to be in s*t is happier than a pig in s*t.

The proper comparison would be to flies, if you have to be so inelegant.

Meanwhile, it is of course injudicious to compare a woman to something ritually unclean, in a world where we are supposedly trying to convert Muslims, among others.

JMB said...

When will "real men" learn that women by and large dress for other women, not men.

mary said...

It is better to tell girls that if they dress immodestly they will turn on all types of guys, including their grandfathers.

How bizarre it is to have just returned from the beach trip with cousins where the young female cousins were dressed in string bikinis (the only "proper" attire for anyone older than 11 it seemed) while cavorting in the surf in front of their uncles and grandfathers. I noticed an uncomfortableness afoot for the older gents on occasion, but everyone else, including the parents of these girls, seemed to think it was all perfectly wholesome and normal. They are lovely girls from great families, but apparently clothing modesty is not important to them. Super super short shorts too... All the clothes...even the preppier ones are designed to be very sexy it seems.

I remember being 14 and being scandalized by the girl who wore the BLACK (very modest one-piece) bathing suit to the class beach trip. "Black" you see, was a "Racy" color.

Crude said...

It is better to tell girls that if they dress immodestly they will turn on all types of guys, including their grandfathers.

The problem is, if you so much as breathe a word in this direction, you risk setting off the "slut-shaming, rape-culture, blaming the victim" bomb. And most people are not really prepared for the heat that comes with that sort of thing, even (especially) if it has nothing to do with what's really being claimed.

Granted, if you're very particular and explain what you mean at length, you can avoid it. But there you are again, forced to be wordy (and therefore, unread) rather than pithy.

It's been mentioned that it's a bad idea to offend the person you're trying to talk to. I think that's a mistake. I suspect the most effective and reasonable way to encourage modesty is not to try to find some way to delicately stress intellectually thorough explanations of what should be considered proper attire all while being mindful of everyone's feelings.

I suspect the bullseye ignores the 'attention from men' aspect for the communicative one. "Stop dressing like you're some low-class trash." Granted, something along those lines is going to offend people. Maybe that's not a problem.

Clare said...

Dear Crude:

There are plenty of ways to talk about the value of modesty without contributing to rape culture. Many of the girls who offer all the "heat," have actually been raped, and have actually had to deal with modesty being deployed to shame, discredit in silence them. Sometimes in a court of law.

Just because you don't personally espouse a certain conclusion doesn't mean that your rhetoric doesn't imply it.

Try listening to these girls sometime. You might learn a lot.

Clare said...

Sorry, that should be "discredit and silence them."

mary said...

Clare, I am very confused by your response to Crude. I don't think Crude was saying that you would be furthering rape culture, but rather, that you would be accused of doing so incorrectly.

When I was a youth, I thought it ridiculous that women should have to wear shirts while men were not required to do so...(I was the product of a ridiculous public school system taught by socialists, and steeped in popular femminist culture that taught women that they should desire to be like men in every way). What nobody dared point out to us, was that female and male biology is vastly different, and this is a fact. Moderate modesty codes are honest; they acknowledge the power of sexuality...current styles deny this.

Darwin said...

It strikes me that there are two different types of "addressing immodesty" that one might deal with, and that they require different approaches and appropriately come from different people.

In the first case, there's actually saying something to a girl or woman about something is she wearing or is contemplating wearing. Here, I think, the list of who has standing to speak is honestly pretty short and consists entirely of very close relatives and very close friends. The type of approach would depend a lot on the relationship between the advice giver and the person being advised. Our own daughters don't have any fashion attachment to revealing clothes (being 9 and 10), they just tend to keep wearing favorite outfits even when the become short or tight, so a simply, "I think you need to pass that down to the next girl now. It's too short/tight to wear out." is fine. At a later date, I'm sure this will have to be backed up by explanation and reasons, but there's no need to engage in throwing one's rhetorical weight around in this kind of situation because there's a clear authority relationship in place and the parent's job is to explain what modest standards are and why we have them.

Perhaps because I see modesty as related to other forms of propriety, I'm rather confused by the desire I sometimes hear people express to approach women they don't know (or aren't close enough to to have any clear pull in influencing their behavior) and express shock at their fashion choices.

Once in a while one reads some mother expressing pride that her young child shouts out a fashion criticism of some woman seen in public, along the lines of, "Mom, look, that woman's immodest! You can see her breasts!" Encouraging this kind of behavior seems nothing more than a school in rudeness. If one wants to school one's children in the fine art of critiquing other's manner and appearance, the least one can do is make it clear that the full viciousness of this can never be enjoyed without keeping one's opinions from the target of them.

The second approach to addressing immodesty consists of the slogan, explanation or invocation for general consumption. In this case, you're not critiquing a specific person, but rather trying to lay down ideas, standards, rationales, etc. to spread one's opinion more widely. I'd taken the image I posted to be one of these. (I suppose someone with the appropriate relationship to the addressed "girls" could convey the slogan in person, but I don't think it would be as effective as more specific advice, in part for the reasons I listed in the post.

More generally, I think one of the problems with trying to sloganeer for modesty in a negative sense (comparing immodesty to rolling in manure, encouraging people not to dress like "low-class trash", etc.) is that either it gets taken as a general insult or (and perhaps more commonly) it's assumed that the aspersion must apply to someone else. The logic being, "Girls who dress immodesty look like cheap trash. I don't look like cheap trash. Therefore what I'm wearing obviously isn't immodest."

Crude said...

Clare,

There are plenty of ways to talk about the value of modesty without contributing to rape culture.

Yes, there are - I granted this. It is extremely difficult to pull this off with brevity, which is the problem I've been highlighting.

Prove me wrong: do so yourself. Make it brief, make it clear that modesty is valued and immodesty is a negative thing. And let me see if, after you do this, I can find a way to accuse your words of contributing to rape culture.

Many of the girls who offer all the "heat," have actually been raped, and have actually had to deal with modesty being deployed to shame, discredit in silence them. Sometimes in a court of law.

And this sort of attitude, whatever ultimately spawned it, has resulted in a climate where criticizing women for immodesty - particularly if you talk about the sort of image they project, or the attention they'll gain - opens you up to the "you're contributing to rape culture" attack. Especially if you're anything close to brief about the subject.

Just because you don't personally espouse a certain conclusion doesn't mean that your rhetoric doesn't imply it.

Indeed. And just because someone insists your rhetoric implies it, doesn't mean it really does.

Try listening to these girls sometime. You might learn a lot.

First off, "Clare", you don't know who I know, or if I have rape victims as friends or family. You certainly don't know if I've listened to either them, or the explanations behind the reactions. So kindly, you'd do well to learn something yourself before you play that card.

Second, there's another problem. I may have listened. I may well have learned. And I may have ultimately found their reasoning less than compelling. In fact, I may disagree with them about the subject of rape culture, in way upon way. This is an extremely hard lesson for people to learn, but just because someone feels passionately about something - just because they may have been raped as a matter of fact - doesn't sanctify their views or their movement, even on the very subject. Nor do their experiences automatically make them wrong.

The fact is, the culture is now at a point where telling a woman her attire makes her look immodest - let's keep using the incredibly sterilized words here - is immediately cashed out to "you're blaming the victim, you're saying she's intentionally attracting rapists, you're saying she WANTS to get raped", in some quarters. If you point out that having ten different sex partners each month is a tad excessive, perhaps something to feel bad about? You're slut-shaming, again contributing to rape culture. Same deal.

This topic is a landmine now, plain and simple. The sort of linguistic dance one is required to engage in to point out someone's immodesty, to point out that the immodesty is viewed (I suppose, through the patriarchy's lenses) as a bad thing, etc, has gotten ridiculous. You are now, I think, far more likely to be criticized for dressing TOO modestly (what a prude!) than for dressing immodestly, in many quarters. I don't think this situation is right. The fact that some woman (or man!) feels very strongly that it is - the fact that they may well be reduced to tears by what I am writing here, or at the mere experience of disagreement - does not persuade me otherwise in and of itself.

But it doesn't matter. The culture is what it is right now, and most people - when faced with anyone shrieking loudly, especially in a group - find it easier to cave and go along with the mores, so cave they will.

And so we're back to square one. How do you discourage immodesty effectively and pithily, without running risk of triggering an explosion? If anyone here figures out a way, please let me know. Maybe it can be done. I simply haven't seen it done yet.

enness said...

I'm weary of glib memes in general. Friends act shocked when I comment, but I think they'd be more shocked if they knew how long it takes me to comment: it's usually after I've seen the thing pop up four or five times already and am really sick of it.

I think a lot of women (men too) simply are not aware of their worth and their dignity. Or they like the power their sexuality gives them, but have no more sinister design beyond that. Still, they need to know that this kind of manipulation is unfair and disrespectful, without needing to think that they deserve to have bad things happen to them.

How would you deport yourself if you believed you were the daughter of a king? Maybe worse, but maybe better also. How would you deport yourself if you believed that the people you meet are also princes and princesses regardless of how they act at a given time? Modesty demonstrates respect for self and for others; respect isn't only conveyed by what we think, but by what we do.

Clare said...

Crude, I assumed you hadn't been listening because it seemed like the most charitable starting point.

It's not a ridiculous dance to acknowledge and try to rectify the fact that the way we talk about modesty often objectifies and hurts women. For example:

-The women who called her mother to tell her about her rape, and was asked "what were you wearing?"

-The latina girl who got immediately pegged as a "slut" because by the nice, WASP, J-Crew skirted girls because the clothes she had access to made her look like "low class trash,"

-The girls who cut, burned and starved themselves after unbearable constant judgement and scrutiny of their bodies in conservative circles.

-The girl who is still a bulimic because she's convinced that if she had fewer curves for her rapist to see, she would not have been raped.
She also now wears huge baggy clothes to hide her increasingly gaunt form, and has effectively cloistered herself.

-The girl who still has panic attacks every time she sees her attacker on campus, but will not prosecute nor involve the school because she's seen too many other girls names dragged through the mud as soon as they make an accusation.

-The girls who have been told so long that men only see them as sex objects, and it's their uphill battle to minimize that gaze, that they've stopped trying to be anything else.

-The girls who live in fear all the time, fear of their own bodies, fear of female scrutiny, fear of male lust.

All of these examples are concrete women I have encountered, either in the conservative circles in which I grew up, or in my work as a sexual abuse peer counselor at school.

Make no mistake, a lot of the modesty rhetoric casually thrown around by culture warriors has absolutely debilitating implications and consequences for real women. So if you want to criticize what women wear, go ahead. But realize that if you get pushback on the way you do it, you're not being attacked, it's not unfair,and you're not necessarily being the reasonable one in the conversation.

If you want to see a serious treatment of modesty that takes the problem of rape culture very seriously, check over at my blog some time in the next few days. I'm working on one now.

Crude said...

Clare,

Crude, I assumed you hadn't been listening because it seemed like the most charitable starting point.

See, here's a problem with your approach: you didn't ask, "Crude, what are your experiences with this subject? What is your knowledge? Who do you know?" For you, the 'charitable starting point' if someone seems to disagree with you, is to assume their utter ignorance, and lecture them. "Asking them for more details about what they think" doesn't register. "Suspecting that they may be well aware of the subject, and disagree" is somehow less charitable. Indeed, it's not clear it's a live possibility for you.

Is legitimate, informed disagreement possible in your world? Because so far, it seems not.

It's not a ridiculous dance to acknowledge and try to rectify the fact that the way we talk about modesty often objectifies and hurts women.

Nor is it ridiculous to believe that sometimes, a woman - or a man - who feels hurt, or shame, or embarrassment, or self-consciousness, is not being victimized. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't.

By the way - interesting list. I could criticize some aspects of it, but I won't right now. I'll simply say that yes, people can be bullied - including men, by the way. Nor is it a "conservative" thing, since frankly liberals are the undisputed champions of mocking and degrading women, and then turning a blind eye to it. See Mr Maher. See Mr Clinton.

But sometimes? People overreact. A man who completely freaks out and sequesters himself from society was not necessarily the victim of a heinous crime - he may well just be quite nuts. And the lesson there is that feeling passionately about something, or even having a bad experience, does not sanctify one's reactions or responses. There is no iron-clad rule for these things.

If you want to see a serious treatment of modesty that takes the problem of rape culture very seriously, check over at my blog some time in the next few days. I'm working on one now.

Okay, you apparently haven't read what I said. I do not doubt that you can construct a sizable article that manages to address this topic in a sufficiently or near-sufficiently gentle way. Doing so pithily, shortly, in the space of a sentence - like the OP - is extremely difficult. Telling me, "Well, I'm going to be working on an article for a few days" is not a sign that you're going to prove me wrong. It's a sign that you're going to support my claim, perhaps unwittingly.

So if you want to criticize what women wear, go ahead. But realize that if you get pushback on the way you do it, you're not being attacked, it's not unfair,and you're not necessarily being the reasonable one in the conversation.

Curious. It's never an attack? It's never unfair? Wouldn't it depend on the way the criticism is delivered? Or have you just told me that criticizing women for how they (immodestly) dress, or how they (sexually) behave, always merits a harsh response, and that said response is always right and deserved?

Preposterous, you can't be saying that. You're just not thinking through your responses.

Anonymous said...

Clare, what kind of clothing did the 'latina' wear that deemed her low class trash according to some mean girls?

Katharine M said...

Perhaps a way around the rape issue when bringing up grandfathers and uncles being aroused is just to be clear that when we dress immodestly we aren't just turning on hot, rich, nice, romantic, intelligent or famous guys. Fat guys, old guys, ugly guys, evil guys, stupid guys, perverts will also be caught in the net of our immodesty.

I think a lot of us ladies, particularly those who are usually inclined towards modesty delude ourselves into thinking we can somehow be selective with the fish we catch when we dangle the sexy bait. In some ways that is reinforced by the fact that confident men, who frequently have something to be confident about and thus appear to be our target audience, are more willing to comment or show their appreciation visibly.

That doesn't mean that for every one confident guy who flashes a smile or winks there aren't 100 less confident guys taking notice of our immodesty and enjoying the show.

Darwin said...

Perhaps this is my own peculiar hobby horse as a guy, but I'm not clear why modesty should be defined or determined by whether some guy (desirable or not) is turned on. Yes, it's true that immodest dress may "turn on" the majority of guys, but frankly there's no know what may turn on any given guy. And more to the point, it seems to me that whether a guy is turned on is fundamentally the guy's problem, not the woman's. Thinking of modesty in terms of "we don't want to turn guys on too much" or "we don't want to attract guys in the wrong way" may be practical in some basic sense, but I think it puts a woman in an unwinnable situation, and it also confuses immodesty with just being attractive.

Katharine M said...

I was trying to address a delusion that a lot of women dressing immodestly to "impress" may have. When I said "turn on" perhaps I should have referred more to what is going on in the mind of a girl or woman dressing immodestly rather than some guaranteed outcome in the males. Basically if men are going to be turned on chances are you are casting a much wider net than you may think.

I think men have to take responsibility for their eyes, minds and bodies and need to have a plan of action to maintain control. Women need to be aware that when they go out in public dressed a certain way that view is public property even if they aren't.

Crude said...

Darwin,

Perhaps this is my own peculiar hobby horse as a guy, but I'm not clear why modesty should be defined or determined by whether some guy (desirable or not) is turned on.

Sure, but modesty is, at the end of the day, all about how one person relates to others. It's not as if the tight pink t-shirt with the words "Little Slut" written on it in glitter is an issue because it causes cancer. It's about the image of oneself presented.

You can drop the turned-on issue entirely, I think - make no overt reference to it. But I think you're still going to end up with a puzzle, and with the minefield danger. "You look like you have no self-respect."? "You look like trash."? "You look tawdry"? What can be said that doesn't ultimately come down to statements like these, maybe by softening the blow with gentle language, and obscuring the point?

Thinking of modesty in terms of "we don't want to turn guys on too much" or "we don't want to attract guys in the wrong way" may be practical in some basic sense, but I think it puts a woman in an unwinnable situation, and it also confuses immodesty with just being attractive.

I'm not sure I buy this. Attractive comes in different forms. Think of it in terms of taste: a third-pounder from McDonalds is tasty. So is a lean steak with a side of seasoned vegetables. I think it's easy and valid to criticize the diet choices of the guy eating the burger in a way that doesn't amount to "Darn it, don't eat delicious food!"

So no, I don't think the message those modesty critics are trying to convey is "don't be attractive". Closer to "convey a better image of yourself, because some images are frowned upon, and damn well should be".

MrsDarwin said...

Here's a pithy aphorism:

"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away."

Jesus only told the woman caught in adultery, "Go and sin no more," after he'd shown her the mercy necessary for her to hear and accept his message. Perhaps because he looked at each person with such love that he was able to see past the sparkly "Little Slut" t-shirt to the very real person beneath it.

"Sure, but modesty is, at the end of the day, all about how one person relates to others"

It certainly is, and here's the Catechism on the subject: "It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity" (2522) Also, "it keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity." (2523) These admonitions address not only how one dresses, but how one responds to another person's dress.

Any exhortation to modesty that doesn't respect the dignity of the women to whom the exhortation is addressed -- even, oh God, the one who has had "ten different sex partners each month" -- is likely to be ignored as a judgmental and cynical nudge toward the choir. That's fine if one's goal is primarily to punish slutty women for their slutty choices. It's not so fine if the ultimate goal is to affect behavior positively and lead souls to heaven.

Darwin said...

I think the key element of modesty is dressing in a way which respects the God-given dignity of both yourself and those around you. This is why dress which is not remotely attractive can be immodest. (For instance, if a obese, hairy, middle aged man wanders into the yacht club in nothing but sandals and shorts, he's being immodest, despite the fact that no one will be attracted by his display.)

This does include not dressing in a way that is intentionally calculated to invoke lust, but it's not restricted to that, and the question of whether a woman's attire invokes lust in those who look at her is not necessarily directly related to whether she is dressed immodestly. (As in: she can be fully modest and still invoke lust in others, though no fault of her own, and she could intentionally dress provacatively/immodestly yet fail to invoke lust in those who saw her.)

Brandon said...

Modesty is about how one relates to other people only in the sense that it's about being moderate and reasonable in what one is doing with one's clothes. This is why among the Church Fathers and moral theologians the biggest attacks on immodesty have generally been directed against vainglorious clothing: i.e., deliberately dressing to impress others with how wealthy or important you are, which historically has been a far more serious problem (especially in ages and cultures where there was a big gap between the kind of clothing worn by the rich and that which could be had by the poor). Dressing to seduce gets mentioned as a form of immodesty, but almost always secondarily.

Thus, modesty is a virtue of moderation in a broad sense, and as such, it deals with what you, the agent, are doing, and with the sort of disposition of character required for that -- not with how other people respond to it. If it were about the latter, this would be tantamount to holding virtuous people hostage to the vices of others, which many discussions of modesty come dangerously near doing, and some certainly do, especially given that many interpretations of dress as oversexed are due to the interpreter's excessive inclination to look at things sexually and not to anything being done on the part of the person wearing the clothes. I think what people are usually talking about when they talk about immodesty is not immodesty at all but scandal -- but that's a very different, and massively more complicated, moral ballgame.

Crude said...

Brandon,

If it were about the latter, this would be tantamount to holding virtuous people hostage to the vices of others, which many discussions of modesty come dangerously near doing, and some certainly do, especially given that many interpretations of dress as oversexed are due to the interpreter's excessive inclination to look at things sexually and not to anything being done on the part of the person wearing the clothes.

I would absolutely agree that any topic of modesty or scandal is necessarily a two-way street - as I've said, sometimes a criticism is warranted, sometimes it's not. On the other hand, there's a danger of getting ridiculous with this kind of approach, where every perceived appearance of immodesty or scandal is treated as some flaw on the viewer's part.

For example. (For those of you who don't mind a dirty joke.)

That aside, I think - whether you're talking about modesty or scandal - there's a certain responsibility (and I'll grant it's not necessarily very clear cut, or easy) on the part of the person dressing to be mindful of how they present themselves, how what they wear will likely be taken, and so on. I can completely understand an argument which says that modesty has, first and foremost, to do with a person's attitudes, intentions and behavior first and foremost. There's just more to it than that.

To use a non-sexual example: I think it's entirely reasonable to expect people to go to certain lengths to not give the false impression that they're a police officer when they aren't one. Yeah, there's a way to go way too far with this (No mirrored sunglasses - someone might think you're a cop!), but no, dressing up as a cop is a bad idea. This shouldn't be done, and if someone mistakes you for a cop, there's a point at which it's not their fault.

Brandon said...

On the other hand, there's a danger of getting ridiculous with this kind of approach, where every perceived appearance of immodesty or scandal is treated as some flaw on the viewer's part.

Well, I think this is precisely the problem: immodesty is not about appearances that can be seen, and thus what viewers think is immodest is irrelevant. The one relevant judge is the prudent (and thus virtuous) person, and the only proper means of judging even for that person is sympathetic understanding of the other person's actual motives in acting, or in this case, dressing. Modesty is simply not a matter of what you wear but why you wear it.

Likewise, scandal always has to be considered both ways: it's putting roadblocks in the way of the pursuit of virtue, and can be as much the work of the rigorist or the hypocrite as of the laxist or the libertine. And there too the only judgment that matters is the judgment of prudent, that is, virtuous people in general, sympathetically understanding the motives of those involved. And, again, this is not an easy judgment to make at all, particularly since lots of innocent things will have the appearance of scandal to people who aren't sufficiently virtuous.

Crude said...

Brandon,

Well, I think this is precisely the problem: immodesty is not about appearances that can be seen, and thus what viewers think is immodest is irrelevant.

I disagree. It's not irrelevant if it's taken into account, or should be taken into account, by the person wearing the attire. I think in the first case, it clearly often is. I think in the second case, the reasonable stance is that yes, that should be taken into account - even if the popular sentiment is wrong, it should at least be considered and addressed.

And, again, this is not an easy judgment to make at all, particularly since lots of innocent things will have the appearance of scandal to people who aren't sufficiently virtuous.

Again, I disagree - certainly on a case by case basis. Sometimes, it really is easy for the typical person to tell that something is scandalous or immodest. To keep up with the examples, I can imagine cases in the limit where reasonable people may argue if such and such move is pornography. "What, it's just nothing but a guy licking feet. Is this a joke?" etc. Other times? You have to be deluded to not know what's going on.

MrsDarwin,

Jesus only told the woman caught in adultery, "Go and sin no more," after he'd shown her the mercy necessary for her to hear and accept his message.

If I recall right, this wasn't a case of Christ showing up and glaring at men for criticizing a prostitute for being tawdry. They were about ready to kill her. And he called her out as a sinner when showing her mercy. Christ could actually be pretty sharp-tongued with people, sinners and hypocrites alike.

Perhaps because he looked at each person with such love that he was able to see past the sparkly "Little Slut" t-shirt to the very real person beneath it.

Or perhaps He didn't think her being stoned to death was appropriate, but telling her to knock off the sinning was. Frankly, I think calling someone out for "sinning" would offend them a whole lot more, especially nowadays, than saying "Man, you kind of look like one of the Girls Gone Wild gals."

Any exhortation to modesty that doesn't respect the dignity of the women to whom the exhortation is addressed -- even, oh God, the one who has had "ten different sex partners each month" -- is likely to be ignored as a judgmental and cynical nudge toward the choir. That's fine if one's goal is primarily to punish slutty women for their slutty choices. It's not so fine if the ultimate goal is to affect behavior positively and lead souls to heaven.

There's such a thing as being way too gentle, and "respecting" someone to a fault. Again, Christ did now and then quite pointedly call people out for their sins and mistakes.

Let's flip the example: take a guy who has sex with ten different women each month. Is the concern only for his soul? Or for the ten additional souls he assists in causing some moral failings and sin with each month? Does this factor in?

What's more, you say "likely to be ignored". Alright: and what if it's not? What if making him aware of his behavior, how it reflects on him, and what others think of him for it, happens to provide him with the strength and encouragement to shape up?

No, sometimes it's important to tell the guy who drinks too much, "You're an alcoholic and you're ruining your life. You need help." Sometimes it's entirely valid to tell the thief, "No, you didn't 'borrow' anything. You're a thief." Let's not pretend that the gentle, soft, "respect people and do your damndest to never, ever try to admonish or, God forbid, punish them" move has been demonstrated as the most effective or even reasonable approach here.

Brandon said...

Crude,

Your agreement or disagreement is not relevant to the question. The notion that other people's responses are essential to immodesty is entirely inconsistent with the general tradition of theological and philosophical commentary on the subject; merely insisting on the opposite does nothing to change that. What matters with modesty, as with any other virtue, is the actual disposition of your character in acting and, as with any other virtue, that is all that is relevant. It's not wearing this or that which is immodest, but dressing vaingloriously, or for the sake of sensual pleasures, or frivolously treating clothes as more important than they are -- things like these are immodesty, these are what the best moral authorities have repeatedly identified as immodesty, and in speaking of vice and virtue how others see it is not relevant because virtue and vice are not matters of social perspective. Any notion of immodesty that is not of this sort is merely a made-up vice that no one has to pay any attention to. If it is good or bad depending on how other people see it, it is not a vice; and if it is a genuine vice, it does not depend on how other people see things. Any other account of the morality of modesty is incoherent nonsense.

Crude said...

Brandon,

Your agreement or disagreement is not relevant to the question. The notion that other people's responses are essential to immodesty is entirely inconsistent with the general tradition of theological and philosophical commentary on the subject; merely insisting on the opposite does nothing to change that.

Oh, for the love of God, Brandon - blah, blah, blah. The general theological and philosophical commentary you speak of is barely relevant to the actual point, to steal one from you and smack you with it.

I'll steal another: clothing conveys something. It is a form of communication, and it can be done morally or immorally. YOUR agreement or disagreement makes no difference here. I am saying that how a person dresses, and how they compose themselves in general, can and should take into account the general reaction to what they do - it should, to some degree, inform their acts and attire, and that they can damn well make bad choices that are in fact bad based in part on that consideration or lack thereof. Tighten your buttcheeks, lift your chin, and do your damndest to glare at me over the internet while you inform me that what I speak of when I talk to the image and effects conveyed by acts or attire is not modesty, but rather scandal, or something else entirely. I promise you, it will be difficult for me to care less about how you prefer to categorize it.

And if you want to play the tradition game, I've got one for you: 1 Corinthians 8 and the discussion of how to deal with meat sacrificed to idols. Yes, I can hear it now - "That's not a modesty issue! Why, it's not even about clothing!". Fine, call it what you like, but it happens to be central to this conversation: keeping in mind how one's dress appears to others, what affects they have on the surrounding individuals and culture, how they lead to one being viewed, etc, is a legitimate concern, and one can be legitimately called out for it in some situations on moral grounds.

I'm sure you need to consult no less than five hundred years of theological and philosophical discourse to judge whether or not some attire may be morally questionable or that someone wearing it may be reasonably criticized on moral grounds for doing so. Some of us aren't quite that intellectually hobbled - or more likely, some of us aren't quite that animated by petty internet grudges.

Really, man. I can be an asshole, but good God, can you ever be a windbag.

MrsDarwin said...

Crude, is this precious attitude the same you plan to use to correct wayward women in tight shirts and short shorts? It's hard to imagine that you'll get much of a hearing, if the hearing is actually of more interest to you than the humiliation of naughty women.

You say above: "I am saying that how a person dresses, and how they compose themselves in general, can and should take into account the general reaction to what they do - it should, to some degree, inform their acts and attire, and that they can damn well make bad choices that are in fact bad based in part on that consideration or lack thereof." Apply this statement to your own comments here and try to see why an attitude of "Can't I shame these sluts just a little?" goes over very poorly with those of us who believe that correction of faults need not take the form of brutality, and that gentleness is not equivalent to laxity or to permissiveness.

Kristin said...

Some of us aren't quite that intellectually hobbled - or more likely, some of us aren't quite that animated by petty internet grudges.

Really? You're going to pull the "It's just internet lulz, stop arguing" card? That's the kind of stuff teenagers do when they run out of arguments about why their favorite band is the best ever.

You make a lot of good points. You don't need to resort to this.

Jenny said...

I'm not jumping into the modesty argument, but just had to say that I love this line:

The "correction of faults need not take the form of brutality"

That one is going into long-term memory.

Darwin said...

Crude,

clothing conveys something. It is a form of communication, and it can be done morally or immorally.

I don't think anyone here disputes that. (And although the t-shirt you link to doesn't look immodest in its design as a garment, the sentiment expressed can certainly be agreed to be extremely crass -- and would make one think twice about shaking hands with the wearer.)

My disagreement, a fairly strong one, is in relation to when and how one's standards in regards to dress should be conveyed to those who aren't complying with those standards. I see ever day people who don't dress in a way I would allow my daughters to, however I must confess I can think of no occasions when it would have been helpful or appropriate for me to bring up the topic with a girl or woman who wasn't close friend or family (and those who are close friends or family I like too much to provide advice in the form of "Stop dressing like you're some low-class trash.")

Though MrsD has already put it much more pithily, so I'll leave it at that.

Matthew Lickona said...

Aw, c'mon Darwins. Crude shouldn't call names, but isn't there something to what he/she says? If you want to couch it in terms of classical notions of virtue and vice, couldn't we say that deciding what to wear is a matter of Prudence, that queen of virtues? Isn't it prudence that suggests a bathing suit at the beach, but not in the office? It does not seem to me irrelevant to suggest that clothing is a form of communication (and the truth of that claim seems obvious to me). It is true that we cannot control how our communication will be received - that part indeed seems to be outside the bounds of virtue and vice. But we can consider others, and make efforts to be charitable toward them, so as not to "lead one of these little ones astray." My oldest son loves his Alien t-shirt, but I've asked him not to wear it in the house, because the image is frightening to my younger children.

As to the question of tradition - I remember when I first encountered C.S. Lewis' notion of the gluttony of delicacy. It was unlike anything I had read before on gluttony, but it made sense. Some of the olde-timey theologians weren't always the best disposed toward the ladies; this may help to account for a paucity of discussion on the subject?

Finally, if one was to be pithy on the subject of modesty, would it be enough/okay to say: "It is wise to consider what you want people to notice about you, where you want to draw their attention, and what message you want to send with your attire."

Matthew Lickona said...

Ha! A bunch of comments happened in between when I started typing and when I posted.

Darwin said...

Matthew,

Yeah, I agree that it's important to have regard for the effect of one's clothing on others. And with a house full of girls, you can bet that there are rules for what can be worn by members of the family here. My main beefs on this topic (and since I figure that basic propriety is a given around here, that's mostly what I end up talking about in regards to modest) are two:

1) While I think it's important to give thought to what effect one's dress would have on those one encounters, I think there has to be a clear and reasonable limit on how far this goes, based on what the reasonable (and reasonably virtuous) person one meets might think. Otherwise, we get all sort of odd arguments based on the claim that, "You may not fully appreciate how guys think, but let me assure you that as soon as some guys see [fill in the blank] they can't help but be completely consumed by lust." This gives us things like the absolute prohibition of pants (because by looking at pants guys might get the idea that women have legs and crotches and things like that. Horrors! Also, I don't like the general line of thinking that we men are incapable of policing ourselves and women are to blame for everything we think.

2) While agreeing that it is quite possible for a woman to actively try to incite lust through how she dresses, I don't think the line of thinking that goes, "Now that we've established it's wrong, can't I please, please be really rude to that woman so she'll see how bad she is? Or even just a bit rude? How about just forceful?" I think the vast, vast majority of the time this urge finds its root not in a real desire (much less ability) to help or improve the person dressing immorally, but rather out of a strong desire to mark out the difference between that person and oneself. So I just don't see that as a virtuous urge. Sure, Christ could be pretty hard on people at times (the argument goes). But then, given Christ was perfect I'm pretty confident that he was acting with the best interests of the other in mind. I'm less confident in the rest of us in that regard.

Brandon said...

I'll steal another: clothing conveys something. It is a form of communication, and it can be done morally or immorally.

Yes, Crude, obviously, and by placing your argument on this ground, you've merely strengthened the argument against you. Whether communication is moral or not does not depend on how other people interpret it but on the disposition of the communicator's character in interpreting it. Any other criticism of communication has nothing to do with the morality of communication. The most such criticism could be is either (a) a purely political criticism, solely in terms of widespread negative consequences that in some way threaten the peace and order of society, which does not reflect on the character of the person being criticized unless they are deliberately intending to contribute to those consequences; or (b) a purely aesthetic criticism, solely in terms of bad taste, with no moral implications at all. If, however, these are the criticisms, it needs to be made clear and not muddled together with moral terms. The only other thing that is left is that the criticism is merely the claim that a communication happens to be unfortunate; but the fact that something done just happens to be unfortunate is not something for which anyone can actually be criticized.

The irony of it all is that we both know that you regularly engage in communication that certain segments of society would consider morally offensive (and that this consequence is easily foreseeable), but your argument directly implies that you are morally wrong to do so, whereas mine doesn't, because your argument makes the morality of communications dependent on how other people interpret them. Mine, on the other hand, does not: since I actually have a coherent account of virtue and vice, accepting as I do the traditional account, I am not committed to anything of the sort, since what matters is actual disposition of character in communication, not whether anyone is offended. If, as your defense of standard criticisms of immodesty implies, (1) the real problem with immodesty is vicious communication; and (2) whether something is vicious depends on how people other than the communicator interpret it, rather than on what the communicator is deliberately doing in communicating; then that gets us into an account of what's moral and immoral in communication that I really don't think you want to be committing yourself to.

Brandon said...

Whether communication is moral or not does not depend on how other people interpret it but on the disposition of the communicator's character in interpreting it.

Sorry, that should be 'disposition of the communicator's character in communicating it'.

Maiki said...

I think people are right about clothing is communication, but I don't think therefore the right approach is to shame a woman by saying: x dress makes you a slut or something.

Instead, it is important to emphasize the value of truth, and teach women real current social communication queues. As such, a woman who values truth and knows what clothing communicates will dress in a way that expresses her inner self.

Not all women who dress immodestly are ignorant of this -- some are expressing something real about their interior disposition. You cannot change *that* just by tossing a sweater on her.

Brandon said...

Matthew,

Since everything is a matter of prudence, I would agree that it's relevant. But if we put it in terms of prudence itself, the game gets even more complicated. Something's being prudent doesn't imply that its opposite is imprudent, and something's being less prudent doesn't imply that it's wrong. This is pretty well established -- the Church condemned, for good reason, rigorism, which eliminated the primary work of prudence by holding that only the most morally safe actions were acceptable (in effect, that our actions must always be the most prudent actions possible). Thus it's entirely possible to say that for some reason it's better not to wear X without also saying that it is morally wrong to wear X.

Tony said...

mrsdarwin wrote:

"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away."


I was waiting for the "blame the victim" meme to surface.

As a man, God made me visual. Women know this. When they dress in provocative ways, they make it difficult for me to remain chaste.

The attitude seems to be: "I can dress like I want and of you don't like it it's your problem." Sure, it's my problem. But it is supremely uncharitable to make yourself a near occasion for sin for me. Maybe I'll get more purgatory points for fighting the good fight. But in any event, it's cruel.

We had an interesting discussion last weekend. One of our female friends asked what the protocol was if a host was dropped down some woman's cleavage. There were the obvious jokes: "You call the priest to retrieve it!", but I said: "If women dressed modestly it wouldn't be a problem." I then launched into "dressing modestly at the firing range to avoid the 'hot brass dance' when one of the ejected shells drops down your shirt".

Anariel said...

I think one thing most of us are forgetting here is that what is considered sexual and what is not is entirely cultural. Indeed, there are biological differences between men and women, and indeed both men and women are sexual creatures. But look at the case of certain rural African tribes, and women of countless indigenous peoples - they always go topless. Are they being immodest? I say no. In their culture, they are seen as perfectly modest, because the breast is not over-sexualized. Breasts feed babies, and while breasts are indeed wonderful for much more than feeding babies, I posit that they are no more inherently sexual than the lotus foot of Chinese historical culture. Immodest dress causing such a hullaballoo is really just a symptom of a much larger problem: the over-sexualization of the female form in Western culture. Nay, specifically American culture. In Europe it's not a big deal to be nude, because it's just a body. It's a person, not a sexual object. Honestly, overemphasis on modesty has almost a similar objectifying effect, psychologically. It says "I am a woman, and as such, my body is just a sexual thing. I had better cover it up quick before I get used like one." Really, our culture is doing an equal disservice to men by telling them "You are a man, you are inherently visual and sex obsessed, and you can't help that." When really, men are just people too. Of course they are different than women, but I find it really creates a lot of problems when you get too dogmatic about what is "inherently" male and what is "inherently" female. It's all cultural. In the Middle East manly men kiss and hug one another. In ancient Greece manly men cried at every little thing. Men in our culture are only sex obsessed because that's what our culture tells them to be. I don't have a solution - this is too far-reaching of a problem. But let's look at it for what it is.

Josh said...

Well put and charitable. Thanks. There are a lot of posts and comment threads these days re: modesty and so much of it is hysterical or intolerably boring. Fussing over what is or isn't modest is pedantic no matter which side of the debate you're on. Your comment is a refreshing and inspiring perspective.

Clare said...

Crude--
The point is not that you can't construct a good modesty argument pithily. You can't. It's a complex subject that doesn't lend itself to sound bites. The point is that if you are really worried about how hindered you are in your pithy arguments by all these women and their rape stories, then the problem is huge, and entirely yours.

Also, no, I have never actually seen an attack (in the non-sequitur, ad hominem sense) that incorporates an understanding of rape culture. I'm not saying it's theoretically impossible, but that I've never seen it happen. What I have seen is a lot of men refusing to address what's problematic in their approach to policing women's dress because the women were just so *mean* to them, dammit.

And no, I don't think legitimate and informed disagreement is impossible. However, with some issues the moral imperative seems so clear that those who resist it must be construed as suffering from a failure of vision rather than will. This is nothing new--see the way Catholics treat abortion supporters. Again, you are really not the one being victimized here.

Your "but sometimes, people overreact" comment is a perfect example of such. Why you are so unwilling to incorporate victims' accounts of how certain ideologies made their suffering more intense and difficult to overcome, why you are so eager to insist that there are no hard and fast rules and so far from questioning what in your own arguments has drawn heated responses from those on the front lines of the intersection of culture war and violence--all this is beyond me. I am happy to argue any specific point, but as far as I deal with attitudes, presuming ignorance still seems the most charitable response.

Clare said...

Also--guess what I think when men run past me in short shorts or no shirt. I want to screw them, a lot.

But as a woman I have no cultural entitlement to whatever bodies catch my eye, nor license to critique their arousing behavior, so I guess I should just shut up and let down my skirt.

GK Chesterton said...

You know, its been a long time now since I posted here. But I want to point out that Crude has been logical and largely "uncrude" while you've totally let "Clare" derail the discussion. Why? Because she is a girl? He's never said anything (in this thread anyway) that "supported rape culture". I mean, for all of your hemming and hawing over angels and pins I'd argue that a true classicist would point out "rape culture" can't even exist as such. That is, rape as an evil is by definition uncultured. This is the level of critique that is being aimed at crude but _NOT_ the level of critique aimed at Clare.

And for those that are interested in the history of the stern correction I'd argue that St. Chrysostom takes the cake. Go read some of him (or St. Paul for that matter) before you argue for a limited application of correction. St. Paul in the agora wasn't concerned about his relation to the men there and calling them on their disordered religion.

I'm more than a little amazed that you would let "feelings" trump salvation. If the person in question is being immodest does being silent result in _any_ good (as Darwin is arguing)? I could see an argument for words, "seasoned with salt," but that is distinctly NOT what is being argued. Silence is being presented as a virtue based on relationship to the listener. That's hogwash. Nor is your comment about children blurting out things relevant. Children are immature and should not correct their elders _lest they introduce error_.

It is a sad day when we've descended to such a barbarous level that silence is better than virtue. I've been corrected by enough random old women in my life that I am thankful for the stranger offering a good word of insight (my fly is now up!). Unfortunately the young women of this world have turned any sort of correction into humiliation as presented by Clare. In such a way obedience has become a vice and women have become uncorrectable.

We have, as Crude pointed out, a positive duty not to stumble others. Yet this duty is deemed almost irrelevant by the majority of the commentariate here. Yes a man who looks at a slutty woman and develops desire is wrong, but the Fathers and even the Pagan philosophers were not lax in calling out such women and assigning them blame. Instead we've become so infected with feminism that we can't do that without endless qualifications.

So to Clare, if that Latina in question was dressed, as they'd call it in my neck of the woods, like a hoochy-moma, she has moral responsibility for that dress full stop. That no one here can voice the same (even Crude!) is sad.

The post started off good, the comment thread degenerated. Now I'll happily wander off for a few months.

Darwin said...

GK,

All other things being equal, I'm often content to let people sort out the fight they pick. In the case you cite, Crude brought up the "rape culture" concept first, saying:

The problem is, if you so much as breathe a word in this direction, you risk setting off the "slut-shaming, rape-culture, blaming the victim" bomb. And most people are not really prepared for the heat that comes with that sort of thing, even (especially) if it has nothing to do with what's really being claimed.

Clare argued with him on it, and I didn't see feel the need to intervene on either side.

Come to that, if you're going to complain about someone taking Crude to the woodshed, I'm not clear why you went after Clare rather than Brandon. Or are you only complaining about Clare because she's a girl?

I'm going to address one or two specific items you bring up here, and then I may address the more general concept you seem concerned about (the supposed moral necessity and virtue of calling out people in public over their perceived bad behavior) in a post later if I have the time.

I mean, for all of your hemming and hawing over angels and pins I'd argue that a true classicist would point out "rape culture" can't even exist as such. That is, rape as an evil is by definition uncultured. This is the level of critique that is being aimed at crude but _NOT_ the level of critique aimed at Clare.

From what I know if it (which isn't much) "rape culture" is a term developed in feminist theory for a set of cultural assumptions that suggest that under circumstances rape is, while perhaps not acceptable, a predictable result of the woman's (victim's) behavior, and thus her fault rather than that of the rapist. The idea is that the culture is at least partly responsible for the rape, in that it enforces expectations such that under certain circumstances a man can assume that "no" means "yes" and force intercourse, on the theory that some aspect of the woman's behavior (say, how she's dressed) indicates that she "wants it" regardless of what she actually says or does.

I'm not an expert on feminist theory, and I'm not sure that the term is necessarily the clearest, but I'm not clear that your objection actually takes the meaning of the term into account.

So to Clare, if that Latina in question was dressed, as they'd call it in my neck of the woods, like a hoochy-moma, she has moral responsibility for that dress full stop. That no one here can voice the same (even Crude!) is sad.

I didn't see that anyone is claiming that people are not responsible for how they themselves dress, Latina or otherwise. What Clare was objecting to was the tendency (all too common) to believe that one can classify people's moral and personal worth based on a quick assessment of their looks.

So, for instance, wearing hoop earrings and heavier make-up is by no means more immodest than any number of typically "anglo" modes of women's fashion, but there's a tendency in certain circles to equate Latina with "easy" and thus assume that if a girl looks that way she can be treated as such.

Now, you seem eager to jump to another conclusion "I bet she was dressing immodestly, and Clare's just unwilling to admit it!" but there's really no evidence here one way or another. I'd tend to take the phrase "nice, WASP, J-Crew skirted girls" in describing the accusers to mean we're just talking about cultural disconnect (and perhaps a little racial prejudice) here.