Modesty and Agency

Dr. Greg Popcack unravels the much-cited bikini study, and sheds some useful light on a point I’ve always suspected: Jerks think differently than decent guys. I haven’t seen the study myself, but I trust he’s reporting accurately — as it happens, what he reports is far more informative than the previous accounts.


Now for where we differ.

In the process, Dr. P reveals the fault line in the modesty debates: Those who fall for the “internal control fallacy”, and those, like himself, who think it’s all just a fallacy.  (Conclusion: Ladies, what you wear doesn’t matter so much.  No one’s brought up whether men can do likewise, but you know how I feel about that.)

I find myself in the middle of this divide, and here’s why: I’m a writer.  It’s my job to make people think things.

The thoughts that follow are not a commentary on the technical meaning of the “internal control fallacy” as discussed among experts.  They are a layperson’s thoughts on the closely related notion: Do my actions affect other people’s thinking?

Back up for a moment, and let’s consider Dr. P’s job.  The man makes his living spending long hours helping the family members of crazy people sort out their lives.  And when you live with a crazy person, you live with blaming.  “If only you would do ________, then I wouldn’t be this way.”

The loving, helpful relative tries to meet spec.  If only I were good enough.  If only I had been kinder / more responsible / less irritable / more patient / something – anything – to stave off this dreadful fate.

Crazy people like to blame.  It’s not irrational behavior if there’s a reason for it, right?

An essential part of therapy for the family members is learning how to set boundaries.  It is reasonable for me to go on vacation with my immediate family, and if grandma goes on a drinking binge because I didn’t call in every half hour, that’s not my fault.  It is reasonable for me to go out with the girls once a month, and if Mr. Unfaithful uses my night out as an excuse for his adultery, that’s not my fault.  I can’t control these irrational reactions.  I’m not responsible for someone else’s response to my behavior.

Except when I am.  The other essential part of living with a crazy person is learning what’s normal.  It’s not normal to be furious that so-and-so missed my birthday party (even if I wish she could have come).  It is normal to be upset that so-and-so sent around hate mail to all my facebook friends, keyed my car, and kicked my puppy.  Certain actions should bother me, other ones shouldn’t.

And thus as a writer, I get in trouble if I make people upset when I shouldn’t.  It’s my job to edify, to encourage, even to reprove, but it’s not my job to make people feel like dirt.  Which I could do (and I try not to do).  My words and actions do have power over other people.

Otherwise, why bother?  What good having the ability to act, if my actions do nothing?  What good living in community, if in fact my actions have no meaning or import to the others in my community?  Why avoid evil, if it hurts nobody? Why do good, if it helps nobody?  It ceases to be good or evil.  It’s just nothing.

So the fallacy in the modesty debates is in the false dichotomies, and this is where I depart from Dr. P.  I think that men and women communicate not just with their intentions, but with their actions.  Modesty is an inward disposition, but isn’t only an inward disposition.  It is also an outward action.  A woman can be offended by a man’s immodesty, even if she doesn’t therefore dehumanize or brutalize him.

An employer can reasonably say, “Sir, your dress is immodest, and unbecoming of a man of your profession.  If you’d like to continue working here, you’ll have to change.”

A man can reasonably tell his son, “My beloved child, that outfit you’ve chosen is associated with pimps and crack dealers.  Is that the message you’d like to send with your clothing?”

A girl can reasonably tell her suitor, “You look like a creep.  Like the kind of guy who just wants to hop in the sack at the first opportunity.  That may not be the message you’re trying to send, but you’re sending it.”


Part 2, now going off on a different line of thought, that follows from my thoughts above, and is separate from what’s being said in Dr. P’s post.

Can the same action have different meanings across times and places?  Certainly.  The accidental offending-of-the-natives is an enduring sub-genre of the travel narrative.  It is reasonable to question whether customs have changed.  Whether modesty that was once preserved via _________ standard is now preserved in some other manner.

It is also reasonable to propose that certain standards are just plain wrong.  If I visit Fisher More, I’ll of course respect my host’s standards, and think very little of it. I’m not going to quibble over a standard a little more conservatiive than my own.  But If I visit Lower Repressistan, and my hosts expect me to surround myself with drywall lest I upset the the native males, guess what?  They are wrong.

It could be right that skirts ought to go below the knees, it could be right that thank you notes are always handwritten, or that you don’t show up to dinner empty-handed.  But it is definitely not right that women be completely shielded from public view, nor that dinner or a gift requires sexual favors for a thank you.  Those things are wrong.  We can disagree about what is right, and still be quite certain about what is wrong.



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