Saturday, February 05, 2005

Modesty and power

After my previous post The Ruin of Joseph, I have been ruminating on the subject of "obscenity" and "modesty," and how these terms relate to the excercise of power within our society. Here are a few preliminary thoughts...

Our definition of "modesty" is by no means fully correspondent with ancient views. The reality is that the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity emerges was far more relaxed in its views about the body than we are, as was the world of ancient Judaism before it. Most people know that in the early Olympic Games the athletes competed in the nude (though only men competed and attended). What is less well known is that the Spartan games had both male and female contestants competing in the nude. Women in Crete went bare-breasted in the summer during the Minoan times. The prophet Isaiah preached naked in the streets of Jerusalem. In the early Church, Christians were baptized in the nude. Jesus Himself is depicted being baptized naked by John in the Jordan (some of the older, bolder icons dispense with the loincloth), and we have no indication that these public baptisms were segregated by gender. St. Peter was fishing naked within shouting distance of the shore (interestingly, E. once saw an Egyptian fisherman fishing in the nude on the Nile in Egypt, a country not known for its liberal tendencies in terms of dress). Simply put, though they may have covered up a little more, people in the ancient world were not nearly as uncomfortable with the sight of the human body unclothed as we are today. Can any one of you imagine working out in the gym naked (that is, after all, what the world "gymnasium" means: a place to "exercise naked")? Or working naked (gives a whole new meaning to the term "casual Friday")?

Sometimes, Americans comment on the "topless beaches" in Europe as a sign of the decadence of European culture. But in reality, every beach is a topless beach; I have no idea why, when we say "topless beach," we mean a beach where women take off their tops, but don't make any reference to men. The fact is that this kind of thinking only reinforces the notion that the female breast exists primarily as an object of male sexual fascination. The female breast is for feeding babies. Our well-intentioned attempts to reinforce "modesty" in this regard lead to women beimg cited in some places for indecency when breast-feeding in public. The female breast is not indecent. It is not immodest.

I think one of the most powerful moments in Frank Schaeffer's novel Portofino is when the narrator, a young teen, sees a young woman on a train in Italy, breastfeeding her baby with her entire breast exposed. The boy stares; he has never seen a woman's breast before. The woman notices him, says something in Italian to her husband, who turns, smiles at the boy, and offers him a piece of sausage. I remember this scene because it is part of a powerful awakening on the boy's part, a recognition that there is a whole world outside of the closed circle of shame that has been his only way of relating to the world up until then.

So a final thought, one that has been percolating in my mind for a long time, and is still mostly unfinished. I think that when religion loses its prophetic quality and its bearings in justice, when it becomes instead an agent of preservation of the status quo, it tends to gravitate towards issues related to sexuality and modesty as primary virtues and vices. To put this in even stronger terms, I think that talking about sex and modesty is really another way of talking about power. In the Gospels, we find the Pharisees trying again and again to engage Jesus in a discussion of sexual morality (the woman taken in adultery, the "lowborn" woman in the house of Simon who washes his feet). The Pharisees derive power and establish their position in society by setting themselves up as the arbiters of sexual morality. But Jesus steadfastly refuses to be drawn into the discussion, insisting instead that there are far worse sins: hypocrisy, abuse of power, exploitation of the weak.

Sometimes "modesty" may simply be a synonym for "discretion," in the Victorian sense of the "discreet affair." The wealthy can afford to be discreet in their vices, to take measures to ensure that their trysts do not have unwanted consequences, while the poor wind up pregnant out of wedlock, "trailer trash" with babies on their hip, and become the target of politicians from wealthy constituencies who attack them as immoral "welfare queens." In this sense, generic talk about "morality," that seems at first to apply to everyone, is really talk directed primarily at the poor (when was the last time you saw a billboard about teen pregnancy in an upper-class neighborhood, as I used to often see in poor Hispanic neighborhoods?). Sexual vices are regarded as the vices of the "lowborn," and are strongly condemned, while the vices of the "highborn" (greed, gluttony, injustice) receive only passing reference. The rich don't need to flaunt their bodies, they can flaunt their cars and their houses, their Rolex watches and their Gucci shoes. And these too are issues of modesty.


alana said...

When the "vice" is not so much the action as bearing the consequences, as you point out, it is always the poor who will be seen as the perpetuators of vice in society.
I think you are right on with these thoughts, but given the current time and place (21st century USA) can Christians talk about modesty and lack of ostentation in ways that DON'T play into the judgment and suppression of the lower classes?

VIctoria said...

Absolutely fascinating analysis, Sampson. I'm just reading "The King Must Die" and "The Bull from the Sea," both about King Thesues, and there's a comment somewhere that not noticing that one is naked is "the modesty of the Bull Ring."

Sampson said...

Dear Alana,

I think that a much more fruitful medium for discussing these issues is that of "respect" rather than "modesty." Respect for one's own body, and respect for the bodies of others.

Oftentimes, however, religious people steer away from the language of respect, and some even actively mock the whole concept as overly PC. I think the reason is pretty clear: respect is much less easily adaptable as a means of controlling other people's behavior. Modesty is a social norm that is imposed from without, while respect can only come from within. It is much more difficult to tell people what to do in the name of respect.

Thanks for your comments, Victoria. I was in Crete a few years ago and visited Knossos, the palace of the Minoans, which includes a dark opening cordoned off with ropes that is supposed to mark the entrance to the Minotaur's lair. What exactly does that mean, "the modesty of the bull ring," within the story you are reading? Would you say that the modesty of the bull ring constitutes a virtue elsewhere?

And a final note: some years ago, E., myself and the kids were at the coast looking for a beach to go swimming. We found a beautiful beach, but after parking and approaching the entrance, we discovered it was marked, "clothing optional." As we were turning around to go, trying to explain to our kids that we'd have to find somewhere else to swim, our five year old daughter wailed, "But we don't have to take our clothes off!"

VIctoria said...

The modesty of the bull ring was in the context that nobody wore much in the ring. If you had trailing clothes, you would very likely die. So, they wore little loinguards, and each belt had a loose link. If the horn caught the belt, it would break, leaving the bulldancer naked. If you stopped to notice that you or someone else was naked, you would, again, very likely die. So, each dancer did his or her job for the team and never looked at anything else. Modesty in this context was focusing on the central fact -- the bulldance -- without being distracted by externals. It was a rather good lesson.

But I like your daughter's comment. She was right, of course, but so were you!

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