July 12, 2006

A Return to Modesty

Category: Ethics :: Permalink

Last night, I finished reading Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Moriah had read it last year and recommended it to me. I started it before the move down here but didn’t pick it up again until recently. I’m glad I did.

Shalit provides not only a defense of modesty in general and a summons for people (and girls, in particular) to return to modesty, but also many helpful analyses of what happened in western culture to move people away from modesty and what happens when such a shift takes place.

When so many voices in our culture are urging us to overcome inhibitions and all sense of shame or embarrassment, it’s refreshing to hear Shalit say, “Embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signaling that something very strange or very significant is going on, that some boundary is being threatened — either by you or by others” (p. 22).

I also appreciated her defense of hard feelings:

All those bad feelings we are too enlightened to feel nowadays — such as resentment, jealousy, betrayal — also signify the capacity to lose yourself in the first place, to fall in love with someone other than yourself. They presuppose that there is a soul to protect, that there are hopes to be shattered, a lost love to guard, even if now only mentally and futilely. No hard feelings? I’m advocating a return to precisely that: hard feelings. At least then you know you’re a person, that you have a heart (p. 34).

Her comments on the social effects of immodesty are also important. When most girls aren’t sleeping around, then a girl who feels pressured to do so will have a stronger sense of what she ought and ought not to do. She’ll have support to fall back on. But if most girls are sleeping around, then a girl who wants to be accepted — not least by a guy — will feel much more pressure to lower her standards and will have less of a support network to depend upon. In fact, girls who don’t sleep around feel pressured to act, talk, and dress as if they do in order not to stand out or be thought weird.

As she says,

To the extent premarital sex is accepted, to that extent is the idea of the necessity of marriage undermined….  To the extent that premarital sex is practiced and encouraged, to that extent will women who want to wait until marriage find it harder to meet men who will marry them without “trying them out” first, to have patience with someone with “hang-ups” — which is to say, hopes…. 

One of my professors who didn’t think modesty was a serious subject of inquiry memorably asked me why I couldn’t “just be modest and shut up about it!” The answer is that modesty simply cannot be “just” a private virtue — a “personal choice” — in a culture where there is such a high survival value placed on immodesty. The choices some women make restrict the choices open to other women. Perhaps this is where liberalism failed, because it claimed society could be simply neutral about individuals’ choices, and it never can. The direction of social pressure cannot be discounted (p. 228).

The Amazon reviewer (“Homeschooling Single Mom”) who complained that “Shalit makes wild sweeping historical generalizations without ever providing any sort of support for these claims aside from anecdotal stories and soundbites from women’s magazines” has a point. She does seem to paint a rosy picture of the past. For instance:

It is today’s male who is thought manly by “scoring.” In a different time he proved his manhood by being honorable. Success with women used to mean being faithful to one of them (p. 147). 

That sounds great, and it’s a good definition of true success with women, but is it historically accurate? Weren’t there always guys in the past, including in 19th century England to which she’s referring here, who boasted of their sexual conquests?

Still, I think Shalit is correct in implying that there has usually been a general stigma against immodesty on the part of women. That, it seems to me, is what is changing: not whether men boast about their sexual conquests and not whether they can find women to conquer but how society views loose women. Now “looseness” is the norm and that norm is, in many circles, being pushed on women who would rather not be loose.

So in spite of the flaws which Shalit’s account has, it is still valuable reading — for girls but also for young men who need to understand how to behave toward women and why, for parents seeking to raise children to love and to honor modesty, and for pastors whose congregations need to model before the world a new and different way of living, talking, and dressing.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:28 pm | Discuss (0)

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