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NewsID : 73942
Date of publication : 5/1/2015 2:01:54 PM
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Is Modesty Dead In The West?

Has the idea of modesty as proper, decent behaviour become a lost cause? Where the state is absent, it is the job of religion to offer guidance, suggests Frank Gelli


Years ago the media reported that a man and a woman travelling on a train to London were seen scantily clad and having full sex together. None of the other passengers challenged them or breathed a word. However, someone did later complain... when the relaxing post-coital couple lit up cigarettes. A tell-tale anecdote. Modesty stands for behavioural qualities like decorum, self-restraint and decency. Lewd conduct is the very opposite of those. The publicly copulating couple were behaving immodestly and so the magistrate gave them a £50 fine. Still, the reaction of the other train passengers is noteworthy. It was not sexual impropriety but smoking that stirred up witnesses to alert the train guard. Norms of modesty or propriety vary from culture to culture. In African countries like Zambia, for example, any form of physical touching between sexes in public is frowned upon and considered unacceptable. Hugging each other, by contrast, is now normal in Britain, the US and other Western nations. The spectacle of couples kissing and cuddling and fondling without any compunction in front of others will be familiar to all. Nonetheless even the liberal and permissive West draws the line at things like full public nudity. In the UK an eccentric character nicknamed ‘the naked rambler’ has served many prison sentences because he insists on not wearing clothes in public. Naturally, many ordinary people find that a bit ‘alarming’. Historically, Western ideas of nudity have varied. The ancient Greeks gloried in the cult of the human body. The Parthenon marbles in the British Museum show young riders in the nude (Semitic people like the Hebrews took a very different view). That is not to say that the Greeks did not distinguish at all between proper and improper conduct. When the Cynic philosopher Crates chose to live according to nature, i.e. animal nature, and to behave in public with the shamelessness of a dog, his Athenian fellow citizens did not like that at all. They only tolerated him because Crates was reputed to be ‘a lover of wisdom’. Is it possible to judge modesty and its opposite, immodesty, by criteria which are not merely cultural or psychological or subjective? I would argue that religious faith provides the indispensable metaphysical and normative framework necessary for that. So, is there a Christian idea of modesty? Of right and wrong conduct in matters of decency and propriety? Beginning at the beginning, the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, opens with God’s act of creation. Adam and Eve – signifying male and female humanity – rejoice in their marital life together in the bliss of the Garden of Eden. Alas, immediately after eating the apple our progenitors become aware of their first, fateful act of transgression against their Creator. The sacred text tells of the direct, dramatic consequences of that deed: ‘Then the eyes of both were open and they knew that they were naked; and they saw fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.’ The point is that their naked bodies aroused in Adam and Eve a sense of shame, something of which they were innocent prior to contravening God’s command. Therefore, consciousness of sin, nakedness and shame are all linked together. The couple enjoying a sexual congress on the train clearly had lost any sense of shame. Many ‘enlightened’ folks would consider that a sign of moral progress, no doubt. Guilt, sin and shame resurface again in connection with nakedness elsewhere in the Old Testament. When the Book of Leviticus speaks of ‘uncovering the nakedness’ of someone, it means illicit, impermissible sexual intercourse. Chapter 18, vv. 6 to 18, gives a whole list of such sins, all cases of incest, upon which God has placed an interdict. The British Parliament, by the way, in its unwisdom has abolished the crime of incest from the Statute Book, replacing it with the blanket, obfuscating and politically correct term ‘abuse’. Furthermore, the Book of the Prophet Isaiah inveighs against a shameful figure, the ‘daughter of Babylon’, warning her that her ‘nakedness shall be uncovered’ (Chapter 47). A caveat is necessary here. Many tend to focus on the meaning of modesty with exclusive or main reference to women. That is wholly wrong. Scripture says that not just Eve but Adam too felt obliged to wear clothes after the Fall. Hence both were aware of their guilt and both felt shame at it. It follows that there are standards of propriety and decency for the male of the species, too. St Paul’s strictures against the improper conduct of certain Hellenistic ladies in church no wise do suggest that men are exempt from the obligation to behave with modesty appropriate to their sex. Semitic religions, for example, have generally taught that whereas it is proper for women to cover their hair, wearing a beard is the suitable thing for men. I suspect some will argue that the power of fashion in our society is so pervasive and overwhelming that any religious attempt to counteract its questionable effects – eroticism, objectification of the human being, demeaning of women would be quixotic, idealistic or simply unattainable. Moreover, the commercial factor or interest comes into play. According to a report published by the British Fashion Council the fashion industry in the UK is worth $21 billion to the country’s economy. Some feminists may rightly condemn the catwalk as absurd and the whole matter of female clothing as frivolous frippery, perhaps as an expression of the de-valuing of women, but still the fashion industry remains one of the nation’s biggest employers, accounting for 816.000 jobs. Fashion helps with generating tourism, too, especially in London. Visitors flock to Britain’s capital to shop and fashion shopping is truly...fashionable. Should the state take the initiative in promoting standards of modesty among its citizens? It may seem an odd, even crazy question; give the unbridled individualism and fragmentation of Western society – and not only Western. When Bulent Arinc, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, recently advocated chastity for both sexes, blamed the media for making teenagers into ‘sexual addicts’ and argued for respectful behaviour in public, a chorus of ‘progressive’ voices in Europe pilloried him as a troglodyte reactionary. In fact, many Turks agree with him. He belongs to a political party which has been voted into power by the people. It is hard to imagine, however, Western politicians making similar statements. Why? Because, regardless of its truth or validity, campaigning for modesty is unlikely to be a vote winner, unfortunately. In conclusion, the present writer wishes to suggest that, where the state cannot or will not act, religious bodies should take the initiative and fill the gap. Synagogues, Churches, Mosques, Hindu Temples, it does not matter. Any religious faith worth its salt entails some ethical beliefs, normative ideas of right and wrong. The common good is a key concept in this context. There are values and types of conduct that lead to human flourishing and others that do not. A society enslaved to consumerism, fashion and promiscuity seems contradictory to that flourishing. If the state opts out of offering moral guidance, surely it is religion’s duty to step in. And religion should do that best not by coercion, of course, but by education. By example, teaching and preaching. It is vital especially to offer young people role models of modesty drawn not from the plague of squalid celebrities which infests our media, but from the saints and heroes, the good and pious men and women of our traditions. Easier said than done? Yet it must be done.


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