Friday, January 21, 2011

On Social Modesty

CONSIDER THESE TWO alternative examples of social modesty:
  1. In rural Afghanistan, women wear full-body coverings that veil everything but the eyes. Modesty is enforced by police.
  2. On beaches frequented by Western tourists, women often dress as little as possible. Modesty is a matter of individual choice.
Differing opinions on the value of modesty are shown here. These imply:
  1. In Afghanistan, the burden of modesty is placed on the woman, who has to be certain that nothing in her dress attracts the attention of men.
  2. In the West, the burden of modesty is placed on the man. The sunbather does not want creepy old men looking at her.
Every culture recognizes the value of modesty, although how cultures translate modesty into specific rules varies. But consider a person with no value of modesty at all: undoubtably, they would be considered by nearly everyone as being seriously troubled, or worse. Modesty is therefore an objective value, and isn't a case of just whatever.

It is in the nature of sin that people flee from one vice only to embrace the opposite vice without finding true virtue in the middle. Western elite society is undergoing a serious flirtation with Islam (with some secularist women even adopting the veil out of choice) and God only knows where this will lead: how long until police in Paris or London will start flogging women who show too much?

So should the burden of modesty fall on the woman, or on the man? Traditionally, it is equally both, encouraging both modest dress and custody of the eyes. Proper modesty is something everyone participates in: social modesty is something that people ought to do as a part of their normal lives. Modesty is not something that we do because we fear the police, but neither ought we claim the spurious right to act immodestly. Modesty is a social good. Most men would likely prefer their wives to dress modestly in public, and most women likely would prefer that their husbands practice custody of the eyes. A society that values marriage would then value modesty — and likewise, a society that does not value marriage, like our own, will likely not value modesty much.

I would like to live in a modest culture. Now I don't claim to be particularly modest myself. Since I'm easily distracted, sometimes it takes a while for me to catch myself and practice custody of the eyes, or if I must look, then looking dispassionately. But at least I understand that what I am doing may be quite wrong. My passions, although not bad, ought to be governed by my intellect, and I do realize that I have a fallen nature. Many men (myself included) are likely unaware how the simple act of looking can harm their relationships and reputation. Likewise, many women dress immodestly because it is cute, and may not realize the effect it has on others.

Chief among the ‘difficult sayings’ of Our Lord are those which state that mere thoughts can be mortal sins, particularly those against “looking lustfully at a woman” and being angry, which are equivalent to adultery and murder. The world does not understand this, but does not an action start with a thought? Someone who acts wrongly starts by thinking wrongly. Someone who does not toy with violent thoughts will likely not commit violence, and the same goes with adultery. Society ought not encourage these thoughts, but neither should it employ psychologists to tease out “thought crimes”, rather it should start with individuals and their friends and neighbors.

Our society is quite sick in that it promotes immodesty and violence through the media and in our daily lives, while simultaneously promoting a police state, a fearsome judiciary, and the use of psychology as an instrument of social control: this is undoubtably a policy of social darwinism if not even nihilism. The world hates a culture which encourages individual virtue and social self-control, but working towards social modesty is a good start in combatting these evils.

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