In a recent post I made a number of comments on the subject of modesty and modesty culture. I noted the lure of black-and-white ways of tackling such complex issues. Within this post I wish to highlight some of the particular dangers that lie in this direction.
Partisan Interests and the Common Good
Within discussions such as those surrounding modesty, there are a number of different sets of valid and important concerns particular to different groups of persons. Parents have different sets of concerns relating to their boys and their girls. Males and females have different sets of concerns about themselves that they bring to the debate. Other specific concerns may arise relative to more general Christian principles or to the functioning of particular institutions. For each of us, there are concerns that have a greater immediacy to us than others.
Our constant danger is that of elevating those concerns that are most immediate to us in a manner that overshadows all others. The temptation that we face is that, in recognizing the validity of our most immediate concerns, we derive an absolute principle from those concerns, a principle to which all other parties must submit. Principles derived solely from more immediately male concerns can lead to an exceedingly onerous and typically capricious set of demands of women when it comes to permitted dress. Principles derived solely from more immediately female concerns can lead a culture that fails to make any allowances for the problematic reality of male lust.
When the crucial concern that perpetrators not be absolved of any degree of their responsibility for their actions on account of the behaviour or dress of their victims is exalted into an absolute principle from which all else must be derived, we can end up where women, who in such a framing are typically culturally coded as ‘victims’, are absolved of responsibility and agency for their actions. When the concern that women not encourage or provoke the lusts of men is exalted into such an absolute principle, we swiftly start moving in the direction of absolving men from their agency and responsibility and making incredibly unreasonable judgments upon and expectations of women.
The sets of valid concerns that different persons bring to these debates will frequently seem to be in direct opposition to each other. However, I suggest that this perception arises primarily from our exaltation of valid concerns into axiomatic principles, rather than recognizing that their validity only extends so far.
These dangers are perhaps especially acute for a movement which takes the generally valid concerns of a particular group within society as programmatic for social change more broadly, feminism being the most relevant example here. Even where there is a concern to represent the concerns of that group as relevant and beneficial to the society more generally (‘the patriarchy hurts men too’, etc.), there is typically a failure to make allowance for the valid interests and concerns of other parties and principles in questions that impinge directly upon that group’s interests (e.g. the concerns of the unborn, fathers, medical and Christian ethics in abortion). Rather, the concerns of the group in question will almost invariably be presumed to take priority in such cases of conflict, as a matter of necessary justice. Also, lest it be forgotten, such movements all too often arise in response to social orders in which another group’s interests typically override all others.
A true society, of course, must include many different constituent persons and classes of individuals, each with their valid sets of concerns. It is composed of many differing members, and is far from monolithic in the way that identity groupings can be. A society establishes itself through the securing of and commitment to common goods and through bringing the interests of its various members into some sort of fruitful harmony. A society achieves its reality through such things as the establishment of institutions that serve common ends, establish common practices, and uphold common values and commitments, through communal debate and deliberation, through arbitration, through the sustaining of interactions, discourses, and communal practices over time, and through ensuring the recognition and representation of all of its constituent members.
And it is on this account that I feel so disappointed at the way that discussions on such subjects as modesty typically proceed. What I so frequently encounter is the absence of a clear orientation of discourse towards any sort of common good or harmonization of interests, the absence of genuine communal debate, deliberation, and arbitration, and the absence of recognition and representation of all interested parties. In short, what I see is an ‘anti-social’ form of discourse on these matters, one which proceeds as if we were not members together of the same society.
A truly ‘social’ discourse would be concerned to identify relationships and boundaries, to identify what is mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, and ours. It would seek to identify duties and responsibilities, rights and privileges of various parties. It would explore the ways in which my rights are qualified by my responsibilities to you and the ways in which the establishment of boundaries between private and common goods and interests enable us to live a life in peace together. It seeks to identify where my responsibilities end and yours begin.
Within such a discourse, our own voices must always be conditioned by the others within the conversation. We must raise our concerns, but it is important that voices from other perspectives push back against ours. Such pushback is not typically a denial of the legitimacy of our concerns, but a means by which countervailing interests can, through respectful yet challenging conversation, achieve harmony. My voice on this blog must always be situated within larger conversations: I cannot carry out a true conversation by myself. The refusal of so many within such conversations to countenance interests that place limits upon their own is worrying for those of us who desire to see wider mutual recognition of the various parties here.
Ideological Master Keys
A further related failure to recognize the complexity of these issues is revealed in the belief that there is an ideological master key that will unlock all of our problems. All of the problems surrounding modesty culture would supposedly be solved if women just covered up much more, or if we all became good feminists.
Of course, a society is far too complex and multi-faceted a reality to be managed effectively by approaches that focus upon one factor alone. A society is a rich ecology, with delicate balances and relationships to be maintained. Throwing one element out of balance can have a catastrophic ripple effect across the entire system. Unfortunately, many Christians consistently seem to adopt single factor solutions to complex ecological problems.
I was recently chatting with a close friend about his experience in certain evangelical circles. He told me about a conversation he had with a church leader, who was claiming that strong preaching and good doctrine sufficed for all pastoral needs within the Church. There is a very modern conviction in many Christian circles that, if we could just identify some all-important single factor and double down on that, all of our problems would be solved.
Yet the problems of the Church seldom yield to single factor solutions. Modest dress could only ever be one element of an ecological solution and a myopic focus upon that alone would lead to clusters of problems elsewhere. Even churches with the most orthodox doctrine are vulnerable to the occurrence of abuse or catastrophic moral failure. In fact, they are typically more vulnerable, because they fail to take account of the ecological measures required to guard against such things.
Most modest dress won’t singlehandedly solve our problems. The elimination of pornography wouldn’t either. Good doctrine isn’t enough. Nor is good worship. Nor is a loving and committed community. Our overweening trust in single factor solutions can leave us with unrealistic expectations of certain courses of action. Even if every woman dressed in a perfectly modest manner, the Church would still face a lust problem and problems with women’s sense of self-worth.
Ecological problems require ecological ways of considering solutions. Such solutions don’t place the burden of solution at one party’s door, but recognize that we are all co-creators of our society and that we must pursue new and healthy harmonies of interests if we are effectively to change it. Abandoning the quest for an ideological or practical master key, we need to start to expand our frames of analysis to include all implicated parties and factors and to think accordingly. As I have already suggested, this will require forms of discourse that are truly social and no longer governed by a single party’s interests.
Myths of Male Strength
One of the areas where this can relate to the concerns raised in my previous post is in the area of the myth of male strength. This myth is the idea that male self-control is sufficient to handle male lust by itself. Yet an inordinate amount of weight is placed upon this single factor by many parties, often in the name of maintaining the autonomous rights of other parties, whether they are other men or other women.
At the 2011 Los Angeles SlutWalk, the self-proclaimed ‘male feminist’ Hugo Schwyzer gave a charismatic speech on the subject of ‘the myth of male weakness,’ claiming that men’s self-control does not at all depend on how much skin a woman is showing. Two years later, following a slew of revelations concerning extra-marital relationships with porn stars, students, and other individuals, Schwyzer’s entire reputation lies in tatters, precisely on account of his weakness, a weakness abetted by its public denial. At the very time of his speech, he was having a relationship with a student who he declared made him ‘weak with lust’. Later, Schwyzer admitted that he was purposefully telling women what they wanted to hear to get their affirmation, painting an unrealistic picture of men’s power of self-control in the process.
While the notion that men can control their lusts singlehandedly appeals to those who are appalled by the notion that women should be expected to make allowances for men’s weaknesses, or take any responsibility for helping and encouraging them to exercise control, it is not in fact true. Schwyzer’s isn’t the only tragic and repeated failure on account of a very male weakness to have been played out before our eyes recently. Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign, dogged with very public accounts of his sexting and infidelities on and offline, ended yesterday with a lost primary and a flipped bird through a car window. Last week we also heard the incredibly tragic revelations of Robert F. Kennedy’s failed struggle with lust and adultery that in all likelihood ultimately led to his wife’s suicide.
One of the things that all of these figures have in common is the lack of many of the restraints that save many of us from facing the full force of the power of lust within our lives. As charismatic and influential public figures, many young and attractive women gravitated to them, many of whom were proactive about encouraging them to commit adultery. Many of us are profoundly thankful that we don’t have to face such temptations.
Most men’s internal restraint against the full force of sexual temptation really is naturally very weak. This is a fact that we all need to be much more open and honest about. Developing such restraint is very difficult and will typically depend greatly upon external obstacles or restrictions or self-imposed limits for holding things in check.
There are natural external constraints that exist for many, such as lack of available interested women or the harsh consequences of such indulgence or infidelity. There are also motivators against, such as love for wife and family, or moral or religious principle. However, without constraints, these motivators can be weak in the face of immediate temptation. Men in positions of extreme power have many of the natural external constraints removed so, unless they develop new ones, will often fall prey.
Porn is an increasing problem in the digital age, as the external constraints that used to make it easier to keep things in check are removed and sexual sin is offered in a way that is free, anonymous, and readily accessible. I am sure that if you were to ask most users of porn about their relationship to it, I suspect that most would recognize that their use of it is driven by weakness in relation to their lusts. It is used on account of compromised and weakened agency, less on account of a pure choice.
Self-control and willpower alone aren’t solutions. Effective solutions in these areas must recognize the weakness of men and propose ecological solutions. Accessibility to porn may need to be restricted. Accountability structures may need to be set up. Openness is necessary. The man will need to get to know his weaknesses, recognize when they are most exposed and avoid such situations when at all possible. When he cannot do that, he must consider ways to deal with them in such situations.
We do no one any favours when we perpetuate the myth of male strength, not least ourselves. For most of us, the ability to control ourselves—and, yes, it is possible to control ourselves—comes only to the extent that we realize that we don’t have supernatural powers of will and that we can’t do these things effectively alone. Rather, we need to set ourselves limits, so that we aren’t exposed to an extreme dose of temptation. We need constantly to remind ourselves of our values and commitments, develop structures of accountability, practice openness, commit ourselves to alternative practices, identify different outlets for our drives and healthy ways of dealing with frustration, etc. We need to know our weaknesses and develop methods for dealing with them. It is possible to fulfil our responsibility to control ourselves, but we might need some help along the way.
People have this notion that all virtue is self-contained, that if we are truly virtuous we should just be able to ‘control ourselves’ and achieve virtue single-handedly, with a great feat of will. However, we often can’t. This is why we need such things as social structures, institutions, norms, and support. This is why we pray that we not be tempted beyond our ability to resist. It is one of the reasons why modesty culture has cause to exist and why the rejection of it probably won’t make things better.
Male weakness shouldn’t be viewed fatalistically. It does not doom us to failure, but just means that we will need to fight and struggle. Weaknesses can be dealt with, compensated for, guarded against, and even overcome. The idea that men are without any means to resist their lusts is indeed a pernicious myth. We have the means to resist and to overcome our lusts. Many such means exist, one of the greatest of which is the commitment of those around us, both men and women, to the encouragement of godliness and faithfulness within us (and this commitment runs far deeper than ‘modest’ clothing).
Myths of Strength and Immunity
Myths of strength take many forms and are related to myths of immunity. One of these myths of strengths is the myth of self-sufficient or heroic character, the myth that irrespective of the structures and systems that we find ourselves within, we will be able to find it within ourselves to do the right thing. This vastly underestimates the corrupting power of external influences, cycles of imitation, the way that increased power weakens us against our vices, and the corrosive effect of corrupt systems upon character.
We can mock Christian churches and organizations that establish strict protocols for interaction between the sexes, for instance, without recognizing the degree to which abandonment of such external provisions and dependence solely upon self-sufficient virtue has been accompanied by the common occurrence of fornication in many Christian circles. The dropping of cultural restraints upon dress and behaviour and the freer integration of the sexes has not in many circles encouraged sexual holiness. While many of the restraints may have been excessive, the presence of appropriate and considered restraints, though they may often chafe, can be profoundly beneficial. They serve as an acknowledgement of our weaknesses and limits.
A further myth of strength and immunity, mentioned above, is the myth of doctrine, the myth that, if we all just deeply believed the right things, we would develop an immunity to all sorts of problems. This can take very dangerous forms in churches, where a trust in right doctrine blinds leaders to the way that sin will invariably find ways to exploit our doctrine as means for it to grow. It also fails to reckon with how bastardized our theology can become by the time that it actually touches the ground.
The myth of the immunity provided by strong doctrine and close knit church communities has often been a powerful means of dulling leaders to the potential for sexual and spiritual abuse within their communities. These forms of abuse will all too typically depend upon the force of the church’s togetherness for much of their power, perverting what ought to be a godly togetherness into a demonic lie.
Even the most beautiful ordered garden will be overrun by weeds if not regularly tended. We have no invulnerability to the activity of sin within our lives and communities and deep weaknesses. The acknowledgement of these and the rejection of single factor solutions are imperative. The collaborative creation of a new social ecology is what these problems most require of us, an ecology that recognizes the needs, interests, interdependence, and vulnerabilities of all parties within it.
A deeper acquaintance with our weaknesses is essential for all of us. Whether in our churches, communities, families, or our own lives, a recognition of our many weaknesses and consequent dependence upon others is paramount. Much time must also be spent identifying and guarding vulnerable points, learning the tactics of the evil one, the patterns of sin’s activity and growth, and the lies that it employs. There is no ideological master key or single solution to our problems, but only faithful, committed, vigilant, communal, wakeful, and coordinated action on several fronts, all in prayerful dependence upon God.