The deep disagreements between the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Foucault can be summarized in the question: Freud or Nietzsche? The German Critical Theorists thought that the scientific analytics of both Marx and Freud could liberate us from the dual domination of ideology and repression. Being the Nietzschean that he was, Foucault’s response to all such hopes was a pointed “tu quoque”: the Marxist and Freudian disciplines merely replace one form of domination with another of their own making. Thus, while Habermas frames his own social theory in terms of a collective (Kohlbergian) moral development over which we gradually acquire greater control through discursive enlightenment, Foucault sees social history in terms of an unguided, almost Darwinian reconfiguration of (rather than liberation from) power relations. It is for this reason that Habermas dismisses all such Nietzscheans as “young conservatives”.
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.
Barnabe Rich was a pioneer moralist. In 1613 he wrote a book explaining the roles that men and women should play in the home. Of make-up wearing, provocatively dressed women Rich said that their appearance provoked:
The first, offence to God, the second, It giveth hope to the vicious, and thirdly, It bringeth destruction to the husbande.
Today, Rich’s list looks unremarkably consistent with current modesty discourse. Yet Rich had been born around the time that modesty had been invented. While up until this point I have criticized current modesty rhetoric, in the last four posts I’ll advance ideas that may strengthen modesty and chastity. But to begin with, I will first discuss modesty’s origins.
A few decades before Barnabe Rich wrote moral advice for married couples, Thomas Elyot, a friend of Thomas More and early English humanist, wrote a widely circulated moral manual for youth, The Boke Named the Governour. Among other things, Elyot’s fame comes from introducing several English words taken from Latin writers. In The Governour Elyot introduced modesty. Elyot rendered modesty from the Latin modestus, citing Cicero, which meant something like restraint or moderation (I’ll return to this in greater detail next time). Elyot’s modesty had no connection to sexual purity, which makes sense given the fact that modestus doesn’t connect to purity either. When the Romans discussed sexual purity they used pudicitia, an ambiguous word relating to sexual virtue including modest dress for women.
While the Romans held pudicitia in utmost regard, this virtue disappeared sometime before the Middle Ages, as did any idea linking modest dress to sexual purity. Medieval writers and artists show that the Middle Ages frowned on public nudity, but for reasons unrelated to chastity.
Speaking at a Women’s Conference event, Sister Claudia J. Dansie said:
Part of our responsibility as parents is to guide, direct, and warn if necessary…. Some topics must be covered as directly as their consequences are lethal—subjects such as modesty, drugs, pornography, and immorality.
Lethal? Assumedly, Dansie meant spiritually lethal. A woman’s bare shoulders expose herself to consequences with eternal implications. Does modesty really merit this language?
Elaine S. Dalton expressed a similarly solemn message calling modesty “the foundation stone of chastity,” explaining “it is essential to our very safety to be modest.” Adding to Dansie’s and Dalton’s severe warnings, BYU president Cecil Samuelson explained that dressing immodesty may be as perilous as breaking the Word of Wisdom:
Most of you have no problems concerning the Word of Wisdom….What we may not realize is…that what we put on our bodies may be as equally corrosive and dangerous as what we might ingest into our bodies. (emphasis in original)
It’s hard to imagine that a woman’s uncovered knees could be as dangerous as her drinking alcohol, especially since the latter has temple-worthiness implications. But because feminine modesty so closely connects to chastity, modesty rhetoric has adopted grave themes.
This is the second post in the New Approach to Modesty series. For post one click here.
Getting ready for a Mutual activity, Chelsea Anderson casually put on a pair of short shorts. “It never occurred to me that they were inappropriate.” She sat down in one of the few remaining seats, prepared for a lesson from the missionaries. With the last couple of remaining seats to her side, Chelsea overheard the missionaries’ whispered argument over who would have to sit next to her. Although she didn’t hear why they argued, Chelsea figured her immodest shorts caused the argument. “I realized that I was making virtuous young men feel uncomfortable.” Thereafter Chelsea dressed modestly.
While her story is unique, Chelsea didn’t have to look far for council to mirror.
Young women, respect your body and help others, particularly young men, maintain virtuous thoughts and actions. (Dress and Appearance: Let the Holy Spirit Guide)
Not only does this sort of council make young women responsible for young men’s actions, but it signals an even greater problem with current modesty rhetoric. But before getting there, we first have to establish what modesty means today. To begin with, modesty rhetoric rarely refers to men. When it does, speakers implore men to dress appropriately for sacred ordinances and meetings, leaving references to virtue virtually nonexistent.
Part of why male modesty rarely focuses on male sexuality could be because male leaders don’t find men sexually alluring.
If leaders applied the sexuality standard equally, perhaps the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet would read a little differently:
Why are so many bloggers talking about modesty recently? Prepare to know.
As a young man writing about human nature David Hume analyzed several common virtues. When he got to modesty and chastity he ran into a problem. On the one hand, society needs healthy families, but on the other, men have a lot of reasons to avoid being good husbands and fathers. What happens when a man finds out the child he thinks is his isn’t? That’s a problem. Hume saw that men won’t be good fathers if they don’t feel reasonably confident that their mouths-to-feed have a biological connection to them (leaving adoption aside). Men need a guarantee. So how do we rest their fears? Hume’s solution is modesty.
Well, chastity really solves the issue. If women stay virtuous, there won’t be any problems (since women always know who they gave birth to, unchaste men won’t cause them confusion). But Hume was a practical man. People have sex in private. He knew that society can’t constrain lascivious acts done behind closed doors. Hume advised that society should shame women into modesty so that they’ll be more chaste. As modesty increases men will feel more assured that their wives stay faithful. The men will then believe they sired the children the women produce, and the great wheel of social order will continue. No joke.
Let’s not crucify Hume for such an uneven approach to modesty. While blunt, Hume hardly broke new ground. In fact, some readers might applaud Hume’s insight. They shouldn’t. Using modesty to curtail chastity issues creates other serious problems, which I will come back to later. We can do better with both virtues by unhinging them and reimaging them. In this series I’ll present how.
This discussion couldn’t be timelier. Mormon modesty rhetoric has exploded in the last decade. In the 1990s only three General Conference speakers discussed modesty. In the 2000s that number shot up to twenty-one. The next highest decade after the 2000s was the 60s, with only eight speakers discussing modesty. BYU devotionals show the same trend. Nearly as many speakers discussed modesty in the last decade as the three previous decades combined (ten and eleven respectively). There are also more articles in the church magazines now more than ever before, especially The Friend. Almost every speaker focused on female modesty, and most of them linked it to sexual purity as Hume did.
Church leaders have connected female modesty to they way they dress for decades. Brigham Young may have been the first to link the two. Here is a selection of his that modern leaders sometimes quote: (more…)
Has anyone seen this video before? It is a young entrepreneur pitching her line of modest women’s swimwear. She obviously has a financial incentive here but her arguments are provocative and sound pretty compelling to me. She cites studies that claim that the more skin women show the less the male brain tends to see them as people. Some sort on evolutionary instinct thing I would guess. Check it out:
So what do you think? Do you find her arguments persuasive? (See her business site here: http://www.reyswimwear.com/)
The title of this post is a play on Julie’s recent post over at T&S. I have been stirring up trouble over there so I figured I’d use this unusual lapse in my blogging apathy to continue over here. [Update: Because I was mirroring the title of Julie’s post in my title people seem to be jumping to wild conclusions about what this post must mean. Please read the actual post and at least my comment #2 before concluding you know what position I am taking here. The title probably would more accurately read “Tell the YW to Be Modest because of the nature of men”. But that would not have been as fun so I didn’t use it.]
I actually don’t disagree with everything Julie says there. But I think the headline and much of the premise is misguided.
Here is the fundamental question: If there were no sex in the world would there be any reason for modesty? (more…)
My oldest daughter Samantha just finished 8th grade and is preparing to enter high school in the fall. She is brilliant and gorgeous. She is also sharp tongued and salty. The boys she has been going to school with for years know this about her. They also know she is Mormon. For those reasons they learned early on not to mess with her. Those who have messed have had their heads handed to them enough times to teach the rest of the kids to watch their steps.
But these boys certainly don’t mind messing with the other (non-Mormon) girls. You wouldn’t believe the amount of sexual harassment that these 8th grade boys regularly foisted upon their female classmates. Sam reported that groping girls, rubbing crotches on girls (sometimes in basketball shorts and aroused), and all kinds of other sexual harassment were basically daily occurrences in her school. The most disturbing part about her tales has been how much the girls encouraged and enabled this behavior. While it was traditional for the girls to superficially complain among themselves about the boys sexually aggressive behavior it was clear that many of these girls loved the attention. In other words, there was very little “Don’t!” and “Stop!” and too much “don’t stop” from these girls. It baffled and dismayed Sam and we spent may hours analyzing and discussing the situation with her.
This past weekend I spent some time with my Wife’s Grandfather and he offered me the opportunity to rummage through his old books and take anything I am interested in. I don’t pass up such opportunities, and came away with a good bunch of books, including a 1930’s Adult Sunday School Manual, A 1955 Youth Sunday School Manual (Which I will post on soon, as it is amazing), a 1968 Church Handbook of Instructions, and a 1966 For the Strength of Youth Pamphlet.
Today I thought it would be fun to share the pamphlet with you. (more…)