I’ve noted before that LDS speakers and writers occasionally point out that modesty is much more attitude than dress code, but whether dress code or attitude, today’s modesty probably doesn’t qualify as a virtue. Based on how they’re constructed, modesty guidelines conflate being modest with appearing modest. And since appearing modest generally satisfies communal standards, modesty falls short of a quality of character and, subsequently, a real virtue.
The emphasis on appearing modest sets modesty apart from other cherished Mormon values. Few youth leaders would teach youth that in order to be faithful they have to appear faithful. Modesty teachers, however, do follow this process. While I’ve spent a considerable time critiquing current modesty rhetoric, the main goal of this series is to establish an alternative meaning for modesty that avoids the negative elements currently attached to it. My intent in this post is to lay out a modesty that is primarily a quality of being but also gives some guidelines on appropriate dress. To do this, let’s return to what modesty meant before the English humanists radically altered its meaning.
As I noted last time, Thomas Elyot introduced modesty into English in The Boke Named the Governour, a moral manual instructing youth on how to become mature adults. Elyot explained modesty through three examples, which I’ll explain through scenarios:
1) “…he that forbears to speak, all though he can do it both wisely and eloquently, by cause neither in the time nor in the hearers he find the opportunity, so that no fruit may succeed of his speech…”
Suppose you are at a work party with a group of colleagues discussing something controversial, say politics. They all agree that the president is wrong for doing something that he didn’t actually do. You could correct them, but studying out the situation, you see that you will probably only make a tense conversation into a heated one that won’t serve anyone’s interests. Letting the discussion pass without comment displays modesty.
2) “…[he] punishes an offender less than his merits do require, having regard to the weakness of his person, or to the aptness of his amendment.”
Now suppose that you are leaving the work party, and as you walk to your car you see a boy crash into it with a skateboard leaving a small scrape on the door. The boy is profusely apologetic, and judging by his age and grubby appearance, he’s probably unable to pay for damages. Letting him leave is an exercise in modesty.
3) “…where in [giving], is had consideration as well of the condition and necessity of the person that receives, as of the benefit that comes of the gift received.”
A week after the party you go to the shoe store to get some new shoes. Coincidentally, the skater boy is sitting next to the store wearing frayed, ripped tennis shoes. After you find out his shoe size, you buy him a new pair, knowing he needs them and will likely wear them through. This is being modest.
Elyot’s modesty may seem strange, especially given the last example, which seems to have little to do with any modern notion of modesty. Today, when modesty doesn’t refer to dress, it means having subdued reactions or emotions. Elyot carefully distinguished between being subdued and being modest. He noted that be subdued is to be meek, an understanding we share today. On the other hand, modesty means making sound judgments to benefit others.
Applying Elyot’s modesty to dress guidelines, modesty paradoxically means almost the exact opposite of what contemporary modesty rhetoricians advise. Contemporary modesty requires that we dress a certain way, even if dressing that way puts us at odds with normal, community expectations. Elyot’s modesty suggests that we dress inoffensively but appropriate for the situation. For example, current modesty rhetoric would never allow a young woman to wear short shorts, but Elyot’s modesty would make them okay on, say, a picnic in August. Thus, while leaving the door open for differences of opinion, modesty is the virtue that promotes using sound judgment in ambiguous situations.
Even in LDS rhetoric we find traces of modest dress based on Elyot’s modesty. For example, LDS standards hold that uncovered shoulders for women are immodest, which, taken at face value, should rule out virtually all swimsuits. But modesty rhetoricians qualify modesty standards to allow many of these swimsuits. For LDS standards, swimwear serves as a practical exception to the rule. Understanding Modesty the way Elyot did suggests that swimwear is not an exception to modesty, but a manifestation of how modesty works: dressing appropriately for the circumstance and for the benefit of others; again, dressing inoffensively but appropriately.
A strong criticism against Elyot’s modesty (or rather, my rendition of Elyot’s modesty) is that youth often have a very different idea of what’s appropriate and inoffensive than what adults do. A large part of modesty education would have to center around teaching youth how to identify extremes and how to make reasonable judgments. Even if youth aren’t typically good at either of those, modesty education is a helpful way to introduce those kinds of judgments. And it’s a helpful way to teach youth, and adults, how to adapt to shifts in what’s appropriate and inoffensive. Where current modesty adopts arbitrary standards that eventually require further arbitrary adjustment, Elyot’s modesty teaches how to moderately adapt to shifting environs.
Elyot’s modesty still allows people to harshly judge others based on their modesty, a negative element to current modesty education. If someone acts or dresses immodestly, others will still see it, and no doubt comment on it. But taking away the strange notion that modesty directly influences chastity avoids at least some of the impetus to make false inferences about a person’s appearance. Either way, Elyot’s modesty takes the emphasis away from satisfying the guidelines of a modest appearance to developing a modest character.
[For those interested, because of time constraints, I’m indefinitely closing this series. But since the final two posts deal with a different, but related topic, this serves as a convenient stopping point anyway.]