The Gospel Blimp

PZ Myers encounters Spire Christian Comics and is predictably — and appropriately — horrified by Al Hartley’s aggressively preachy and condescending take on the Archie Comics.

I had most of those Spire comics when I was a kid, and Myers is right that Hartley’s take on Archie and Riverdale seems like the work of a “demented fundamentalist.” He links to a post by Josh Dobbin exploring some of Hartley’s other overt proselytizing in the pages of the non-Spire Archie comics. They show a Jack-Chick-ish tendency to despise the very people that his evangelism is supposedly trying to reach, with contemptuous, condescending portrayals of the “unsaved” as arrogant fools.

Dobbin also provides a bit of context I never knew before: “Christian cartoonist” Al Hartley was also the son of Rep. Fred Allen Hartley Jr., the New Jersey Republican best remembered as a sponsor of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. Both Hartleys’ politics, in other words, were somewhere to the right of those of Hiram Lodge (Veronica’s father, the “richest man in Riverdale”).

The strangest thing about Hartley’s drawing for Spire Christian Comics was the way he maintained the exaggerated perkiness of Betty and Veronica, making all women look like dancers from Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. He even did this when drawing Johnny Cash’s mother and Corrie ten Boom.

Those were two of the better Spire titles. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” is pretty cool because, of course, it’s about Johnny Cash. And “The Hiding Place” is the story of the ten Boom family’s efforts rescuing Jews from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam. Even Al Hartley couldn’t ruin stories like those.

But the strangest of all the Hartley-drawn Spire Christian Comics may be “The Gospel Blimp,” which was Hartley’s comic-book adaptation of the movie version of Joseph T. Bayly’s satirical book.

In very broad strokes, “The Gospel Blimp” tells the story of a group of Christians in a small town who, inspired by the sight of the Good Year blimp, decide to get an airship of their own to reach their unsaved neighbors with the good news of salvation.

The project becomes ever-more showy, obnoxious and ineffectual — they drop thousands of gospel tracts from the air and broadcast Bible verses in multiple languages over too-loud speakers. The clumsy and off-putting bungling of the blimp “ministry” is contrasted throughout the story with the clueless characters’ repeated failures to reach out to the “sinful” neighbors on a more human level.

The essence of the story, in other words, is a critique of the very same self-absorbed, condescending pseudo-evangelism that characterizes nearly every other Spire Christian Comic drawn by Hartley.

“Satire,” Jonathan Swift wrote, “is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” A shrewd observation, but also a humbling one — a cautionary reminder not to laugh too loudly at Hartley’s inability to discover his own face peering back at him from the broad satire of “The Gospel Blimp,” because there will likely come a time for each of us when we fail to recognize our own faces in satire’s smirking glass.

It is possible, though, to take precautions against falling into the trap Hartley has fallen into here. As a guard against clueless projection, for example, we can try to cultivate a habit of considering how any criticism we offer might also apply to ourselves. And more generally, as a guard against becoming the sort of foolish Malvolio that Al Hartley comes across as in his comics, we can try to cultivate the habit of not being self-absorbed, self-centered, pompous jackwagons.

Anyway, WFMU’s Beware of the Blog has .pdfs of “The Gospel Blimp,” “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and a couple of other Spire titles. Enjoy.

  • Anonymous

    I’m trying to make a distinction that I’m not sure the English language is up to making. Let me contemplate how better to make it. The line’s gonna be a fuzzy one in any event. I think it comes down to showing one’s genitals to someone is a sex act (unless there’s medical attention involved) and engaging in a sex act with someone who has not consented is wrong, and kissing can be a sex act but usually isn’t, ditto showing other body parts, and if seeing said body parts or said kissing freaks one out then one shouldn’t look.

    Sex acts typically include sounds and smells as well as sights. Those can’t be avoided by averting one’s eyes. Also, there’s a difference between a Pride parade, where if you encounter it you either knew it was there or could easily have found out ahead of time, and a public sex act, which is not announced in the newspapers beforehand.

    Trigger: violence against women. Which of the Justices was it who had a fit in the opinion about the violent-video-games-sold-to-children case? Breyer? I think it was Breyer who said it’s absurd to restrict sale of a video game to minors because it includes a bare breast and not because it involves cutting off a breast.

  • Finerthings

    I am in agreement with Ellie.  While I think covering up the human body for art or even pride parades, public areas etc. is prudish, I think two people engaging in sexual acts is an entirely different story.  Especially when children are involved, watching or otherwise.

    The natural human body is beautiful and is not sexual necessarily in and of itself.  A sexual act being performed with said body is where the line should be drawn. 

    Plus, she didn’t say this:
    “Children are _legally_ unable to consent to sex, including teens with other teens.”

    She said this:
    “Which means children had better not be drumming while their parents have
    sex, because children are by definition unable to consent to sexual
    activity, *except* when it’s teens with other teens. “

  • ako

    When it comes to seeing something happening, there are degrees of involvement.  To use the comic as an example, there is a big difference between the degree to which the neighbors were involved (they could see it happening if they made the effort to peer over the back fence), and the degree to which the children were involved (their parents were telling them to stand there and watch and provide musical accompaniment).  There is an important distinction between “I am doing this where there’s a reasonable chance that you can see” and “I am making a deliberate effort to expose you to this”.  A flasher waving their genitals in someone’s face is not the same as a nudist walking around in front of people, and parents deliberately putting on a display of sexual intercourse in front of their young children while actively encouraging their children to watch is way beyond what the average flasher does.

  • Mackrimin

    I’m trying to make a distinction that I’m not sure the English language is up to making. Let me contemplate how better to make it. The line’s gonna be a fuzzy one in any event. I think it comes down to showing one’s genitals to someone is a sex act (unless there’s medical attention involved) and engaging in a sex act with someone who has not consented is wrong, and kissing can be a sex act but usually isn’t, ditto showing other body parts, and if seeing said body parts or said kissing freaks one out then one shouldn’t look.

    Yes… but then there’s the question of breasts. Women showing her breasts is usually considered to be sexual, while men showing his nipples is not – yet both female and male nipples are erogenic areas. Why is showing one but not the other a sexual act? And for that matter, why would merely showing genitals be one either? Almost all of us have them, and we all know that; why does getting visual confirmation of this obvious fact suddenly transform the situation sexual? To take a hypothetical example: suppose I’m Superman. People know I have X-Ray vision and super-hearing. Should they get my consent before engaging in sex outside of lead-lined soundproof chambers? If no, why not? I mean, I hear them, and can’t open my eyes without seeing them.

    More importantly, why do sexual situations get special consideration? We do not penalize people for engaging in any other social interactions in public, at least not those we wouldn’t penalize them if they engaged in them in private as well (such as fistfights). Just what _is_ it that makes sexuality so special?

    The point of all this is that I really think we need to reconsider our attitudes about sex. Currently, we have a weird and, frankly, pretty perverted mixture of sexualizing everything yet considering sex a sin. That’s a classic symptom of sexual repression, and it’s causing a horrible amount of completely pointless misery, from feeling guilty for wanting sex to sending teenagers to jail for sending naked pictures of themselves to each other to bashing homosexuals to Catholic child abuse scandal.

    We humans need to come to terms with the fact that, biologically speaking, we are, well… to put it bluntly, we are in heat all the time. Either we satisfy our sexual needs somehow, or they control us. And wanting them to go away because they’re “sinful” (how can something absolutely vital for the continuation of the human species be considered to be against God’s plan is left as an excersize for the reader) doesn’t _make_ them to go away. It just makes them take very, very, very twisted forms.

    And having people get used to see sex acts in public – as opposed to in private, like you would any other “dirty” business – is one way of doing that.

    Trigger: violence against women. Which of the Justices was it who had a fit in the opinion about the violent-video-games-sold-to-children case? Breyer? I think it was Breyer who said it’s absurd to restrict sale of a video game to minors because it includes a bare breast and not because it involves cutting off a breast.

    Well, I’d certainly have to agree with the justice there.

  • Anonymous

    To take a hypothetical example: suppose I’m Superman.

    We are talking about the real world, not DC Comics world.

    I agree that US society is horribly sexually repressed and needs not to be. ‘Safe, sane, and consensual’ strikes me as an appropriate description of the way things ought to be. (Unless we’re going for ‘risk-aware consensual kink’, but not everyone’s into that.) We need to make it legal for women to be topless in public in places other than New York, and we need more women taking advantage of the fact that it’s legal to be female and topless in New York. We need people on the MPAA ratings board who will object more strenuously to violence than to sex, who will not object to gay sex more than to het sex, and who will object more strenuously to nonconsensual sex scenes than to consensual ones. (Hello there, Sucker Punch.) We need to not accuse thirteen-year-olds taking naked pictures of themselves of creating child porn.

    But we cannot un-repress society against its will, because that is a violation of the cardinal rule that reindeer games must have the full consent of their participants. And we cannot engage in sex acts in public, because that would require onlookers to become spectators (hah, found the distinction) without even the chance to give or withhold consent.

    (I suppose if you first put up signs saying ‘sex happening here’, though…)

  • ako

    But we cannot un-repress society against its will, because that is a
    violation of the cardinal rule that reindeer games must have the full
    consent of their participants.

    This.  Not only are there serious ethical problems, on a practical level, if you force people into sexual situations they find uncomfortable in the name of making them less repressed, many of them will come to association “less repressed” with being forced into uncomfortable sexual situations.

    There needs to be a reasonable balance, and you do get people who lean too far on the side of “I should never be exposed to anything I find icky in any way, no matter how much that restricts other people’s rights!”, but it’s also entirely possible to end up going too far the other way with “I should be able to do whatever I want, regardless of what that does to other people!” and making everything shy of actual touching completely unrestricted seems to be going too far in that direction, and glossing over the impact of communication (because sending a deliberate sexual message to someone is not the same as being sexual where they can perceive you).

  • ako

    It’s an image of a gay pride parade, complete with fit young men wearing
    nothing but silver speedos, which is quite obviously done for sexual
    purposes. I linked the image here; should I have gotten your consent
    first?

    Generally, with links to pictures of sexual situations, it’s considered good manners to give people enough information that they can choose whether or not to click on the links.  And there are degrees of rudeness in putting the links out there without letting people know what they’re likely to be looking at, ranging from relatively minor “Oops, I didn’t realize someone wouldn’t know what website was”, to the flat-out-mean “Here is a picture of a kitten!  Got you, it’s goatse!”

    So you don’t need to get my consent before posting the link, but had you set the situation up so readers couldn’t make a reasonably informed choice (such as by not sharing information on what was likely to be seen at the link, or simply spamming the comments with sexual pictures), that would have been bad behavior on your part.  Because what kinds of choices it’s appropriate to offer vary by the situation, but it’s good to give people a choice, whenever practical, about seeing sexual situations.

  • P J Evans

    We need to not accuse thirteen-year-olds taking naked pictures of themselves of creating child porn.

    We also need to get past the idea that a photograph that includes, in the background (or at least not front-and-center), teenagers fondling each other, is ‘child pornography’.

  • Mackrimin

    We are talking about the real world, not DC Comics world.

    We are talking about how to relate to the real world, and examining various imaginary worlds is a time-honored way of doing so, not least because it lets us see our issues in fresh light. Superman is excellent at this, precisely because the character is so laughable: who can take Superman seriously? And while we’re laughing, we can allow ourselves to see things – in the comic world – as they are, without worrying about losing our identity by doing so; because they’re just comics, right?

    And you didn’t respond to the question: where do the limits of being a “spectator” and demanding others to seek your consent to engage in affairs with each other end?

    But we cannot un-repress society against its will, because that is a violation of the cardinal rule that reindeer games must have the full consent of their participants. And we cannot engage in sex acts in public, because that would require onlookers to become spectators (hah, found the distinction) without even the chance to give or withhold consent.

    While that is true, how do you then respond to a homophobe who can’t bear seeing two men kiss in public? He can and will say he didn’t consent to becoming a spectator to such an event. Because it seems to me that there simply isn’t any good response that wouldn’t boil down to you being comfortable with (or at least willing to tolerate) one event but not the other.

    This is why I find this “consent to being a spectator” thing so problematic: it seems to me that there simply isn’t a way to define it so it doesn’t become a tool of tyranny one way or the other.

  • Anonymous

    Fine, I’ll engage your metaphor: Superman using X-ray vision or whatever to see somebody else’s genitals is engaging in a sex act with that person without zir consent, which is Not Okay.

    I do not know where the line is. The line is in different places for different people on different days. Issues like this are like that.

    I’d tell the homophobe that if he wouldn’t avert his eyes from a het couple kissing, he has no right to complain about a gay couple kissing. Neither couple is engaging in a sex act with him, since kissing isn’t inherently a sex act and neither are PDAs.

  • Tonio

    Aside – I once read a piece of Superman/Smallville fan fiction that had Clark, newly engaged to Lois, giving in to his temptation to use his X-ray vision on her clothes. What he saw was that she had written “I know you peek” on her panties. The beauty of the premise is that Clark had never before done this but Lois anticipated that he would.

  • Tonio

    As a matter of principle, the burden should be on the homophobe to prove the “need” for that double standard for PDAs. I don’t expect that to happen. I’ve heard of at least one person who has gay friends but has a no-gay-PDAs rule in his home, using the fact that he has children as an excuse for the rule. When homophobes fret that kids will think of homosexuality as “normal,” I’m tempted to say, “So?” I suppose that would be better than going into my diatribe about how “normality” is an invalid concept.

  • Madhabmatics

    I actually have a copy of God’s Smuggler. The way the comic tried to portray itself as a thriller was pretty hilarious, but it was incredibly heavy-handed.

    I also didn’t know there were non-Christian Archie comics until NPR did an interview with some Archie Comics Specialist last year!

  • ako

    I think how practical it is to get out of a situation is an important factor (as is how explicit the sexual situation is, and how much the situation is designed as a display for the audience).

    So, for instance, if two gay men were kissing, and a homophobe who was fully capable of averting his eyes and walking away claimed it was an imposition on him and they should stop, he’d be unreasonable.  (And having a double standard for gay couples is homophobic, but we’ve already established he’s a homophobe.)  In the much less plausible hypothetical situation where they were all trapped in a confined space and the two gay men decided to deliberately put on a sex show in front of him out of spite or something, he’d have a legitimate complaint about being subjected to unwanted sexual attention.  The precise line is hard to pin down, but you can draw a line somewhere between those extremes, and there are better options than either giving a free reign to sexual harassment and child grooming, or creating a tyranny of the repressed and offended.

    (And with children, one has to be especially aware of the fundamentally coercive power of adult authority figures.  A parent saying “Go here and watch this” to their child is far more coercive than an unrelated adult with no position of authority saying that to another adult.)

  • Anonymous

    @EllieMurasaki:disqus 

    I do not know where the line is. The line is in different places for different people on different days. Issues like this are like that.

    It’s a really interesting question in general — when and why do we have the privilege of privacy.   (I’m using this phrase because this entire discussion would be impossible -without- ample personal privacy.) Simply put:
    1) What activities are we expected to be witness to as a ‘normal’ part of life in a society, and what activities do we have the privilege of not seeing without permission?  Eating is normal, but excretory bodily functions are private.  Hand-holding is normal, but sex is private.  Bare shoulders are public, bare genitalia are private.  Where exactly is the line, and why do social and legal acceptability differ so much (sometimes)?
    2) Is there a non-arbitrary way of drawing the line?

    The answer to #2 is the interesting one.  It’s easy to say “don’t touch another person without permission,”  or “don’t do anything likely to distract another person without permission,”  but if the guiding principle is “don’t do anything likely to offend,” that opens up an entirely new cultural ball-o-wax.

    I don’t have a good answer for #2, but it’s really interesting to try and wrap my head around.

  • Anonymous

    You are suggesting that the silver speedos are worn merely for comfort,
    then? That they have no sexual overtones whatsoever? _Seriously_?

    Ellie didn’t say that, ze said that wearing them isn’t sexual activity.  The speedos are presumably worn to look sexy (among other things); they’re not worn to help the guys actually get off as they march.  (Unless some of them are really, really, exhibitionist, or stuck vibrators in there or something–but if they did, they’re doing the polite thing and keeping quiet about it.)

    Wearing an outfit that basically says, “Hi, I’m gay/straight/whatever and I’m hot and I’d like you to notice” is hardly equivalent to actually having gay/straight/whatever sex.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have different social norms for the two activities.

    (And no, I don’t think it’s horribly traumatic for kids to catch sight of their parents having sex.  Telling the kids to watch and basically cheer them on is different.  Bad fictional satirical pagan parents!  Bad!)

  • Guest-again

    ‘I think it comes down to showing one’s genitals to someone is a sex act’
    Except a generation (or two) ago in the U.S., no one would have thought that about a naked two year splashing in a creek. And yet now, some people (not referring to you personally here) would seriously attempt to argue that a naked 2 year splashing in a mud puddle is an act fraught with sexual whatever, hard as that may be to imagine for someone who grew up in a place where such behavior is considered routine – which is basically everywhere else.

    ‘I agree that US society is horribly sexually repressed and needs not to be.’
    The problem is, that US society considers an amazing range of things ‘sexual’ – and that this expansion is ongoing, as concretely shown in the case of naked 2 year olds playing in water.

    And the pushback is impossible – after all, how can anyone be supportive of the idea that a naked 2 year is being placed at risk by being naked in public? Well, unless one actually knows that this is not actually true anywhere else. Germans, for example, just laugh at the very thought, and think America is a place that has some serious problems.

  • Anonymous

    Women showing her breasts is usually considered to be sexual, while men
    showing his nipples is not – yet both female and male nipples are erogenic areas. Why is showing one but not the other a sexual act? And for that matter, why would merely showing genitals be one either?

    They need not be.  But it’s hardly deniable that showing one’s nipples and genitals is
    sometimes a sexual act–flashers do get off on it, and they effectively communicate that fact to their audience.  Ideally, a smart legal system takes that variability into account.  (And I think gender equality requires that the law not distinguish between male and female nipples–cover both or neither.)

    To take a hypothetical example: suppose I’m Superman. People know I have X-Ray vision and super-hearing. Should they get my consent before engaging in sex outside of lead-lined soundproof chambers? If no, why not?

    No, because you’re just one unfortunate guy.  (Assuming you really can’t limit your senses, which Superman can and does because he’s nice like that.)  Sparing your sensibilities isn’t worth the huge inconvenience it would be for everyone else.

    More importantly, why do sexual situations get special consideration? We
    do not penalize people for engaging in any other social interactions in
    public, at least not those we wouldn’t penalize them if they engaged in
    them in private as well (such as fistfights).

    Sure we do.  We penalize people for urinating or defecating in public, for (in lots of places) spitting on the floor in public, for playing really loud music in public, and if anyone regularly performed major surgeries or autopsies or butchered animals in public we’d probably penalize them for that.  Sex occupies a big chunk of the “Jesus, I didn’t need to see that” sphere, but it doesn’t have a monopoly.

    The point of all this is that I really think we need to reconsider our
    attitudes about sex. Currently, we have a weird and, frankly, pretty perverted mixture of sexualizing everything yet considering sex a sin.

    Yep, but it doesn’t follow that we should consider sex untouchably holy instead.  If it’s just another human activity, it can be policed in the same way other human activities are policed.

    We humans need to come to terms with the fact that, biologically speaking, we are, well… to put it bluntly, we are in heat all the time. Either we satisfy our sexual needs somehow, or they control us.

    Yeah, but if we can’t muster up the willpower to refrain from sex on the sidewalk, it’s pretty obvious that they’re controlling us anyway.  No-sex public spaces are a pretty good means of testing whether you’ve learned to regulate your urges; I suspect that’s a big reason why so many societies have them.

  • Tonio

    No-sex public spaces are a pretty good means of testing whether you’ve
    learned to regulate your urges; I suspect that’s a big reason why so
    many societies have them.

    I admit that if a Martian asked why societies forbade sex in public spaces, I wouldn’t be able to explain why, because I don’t fully understand it myself. (That doesn’t mean I’m arguing against such a rule in public spaces.) Implicit in the rule seems to be the belief that humans lack control over their sexual urges. One reason that belief sounds ugly to me is because of the practice of some Muslims sects of requiring women to conceal everything but their eyes, with the rationale that this is to prevent men from losing control.

    I know damn well that if I was in a business meeting and a woman was there topless or fully naked, I would be strongly tempted to look. But what if that temptation is largely social conditioning because the woman’s nudity would be outside the norm, where people learn to think of nudity as something forbidden? What if nudity were so commonplace that people of both genders didn’t find it compelling, at least in the same way that our clothed society does now? I’m certainly not advocating a nude society, but simply trying to unpack the assumptions behind our social norms. I don’t even have any idea exactly why humans started wearing clothing, if not for protection from the sun.

  • Anonymous

    Protecting tender parts from things that might bang into them, protecting the whole body from the sun, trapping body heat against the skin so that one remains warm in a cooler climate, decoration…

  • Tonio

    My question was about how clothes became a social norm apart from any function they may have for protection or decoration. I’ve wondered when and how humans evolved away from having thick fur all over like our ape cousins. It seems unlikely that clothes began as a social norm like in Genesis. (Imagine sentience setting in and humans suddenly realizing, “Oh, shit, we’re naked! Get some leaves, quick!”) I remember asking my mother when I was 6 or so that I felt sorry for babies being born naked, wondering if there was some way to dress them before birth.

  • Tonio

    On another board, someone once claimed that people tend to be more prudish in terms of disapproving of others’ sexual behavior during times of social or economic stress, but the poster implied that this was a good thing.

  • Caravelle

    Well, it’s good to note that clothes tend to get more common and abundant the colder the climate gets, so I’d say that plain protection from the cold or Sun has to be a very important factor.

    I used to have the theory that we lost our hair as a response to wearing clothes – because hair lost its temperature advantage so its intrinsic disadvantage of housing parasites became dominant – but a more convincing theory I’ve heard is that we started losing our hair when we became long-distance runners.

    Long-distance running involves serious overheating, and it appears that very few animals are as good at it as we are – wolves would be contenders, and they evolved in cold climates.

    I remember asking my mother when I was 6 or so that I felt sorry for
    babies being born naked, wondering if there was some way to dress them
    before birth.

    Awww ! That’s beyond adorable :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    Superman is excellent at this, precisely because the character is so laughable: who can take Superman seriously?

    Superman fans, oddly enough.

    And while we’re laughing, we can allow ourselves to see things – in the
    comic world – as they are, without worrying about losing our identity by
    doing so; because they’re just comics, right?

    Thank you so much for denigrating one of my favorite media by repeating the usual crap of comics as meaningless fluff. /sarcasm

  • Anonymous

    I admit that if a Martian asked why societies forbade sex in public spaces, I wouldn’t be able to explain why, because I don’t fully understand it myself. (That doesn’t mean I’m arguing against such a rule in public spaces.) Implicit in the rule seems to be the belief that humans lack control over their sexual urges.

    Really?  The opposite seems true to me.  If humans lacked such control, rules against sex in public spaces would be pointless and unenforceable.  It’s only because we can say “no, not right now” to our gonads, that society can require us to do so.

    One reason that belief sounds ugly to me is because of the practice of some Muslims sects of requiring women to conceal everything but their eyes, with the rationale that this is to prevent men from losing control.

    Again, that particular rationale seems to conflict with the notion of no-sex public spaces.  If men are capable of self-control, then there’s no need to require women to conceal themselves.  We can require men to restrain themselves in public spaces (and to respect consent in any space, of course) no matter what the women around them are wearing.

    ….I would be strongly tempted to look. But what if that temptation is largely social conditioning because the woman’s nudity would be outside the norm, where people learn to think of nudity as something forbidden?

    Oh, it definitely is.  You can teach yourself not to stare within five minutes at a nude beach; if business meetings were traditionally conducted in similar attire, nobody would care about boobies.  (At least, not more than they cared about people’s faces and hands and things.)

    I’m certainly not advocating a nude society, but simply trying to unpack the assumptions behind our social norms.

    I’m entirely in favor of a nude (or nudity-comfortable) society, and very glad that I live in a part of the US with relatively relaxed laws on nudity.  (Seattle has no blanket law against public nudity, although its laws against “lewd behavior” basically mean that you have to put your clothes on if anyone complains, unless it’s an established clothing-optional event like one of the naked bike rides.)  But, like Ellie, I’m disinclined to forcibly unrepress people on that issue.  Things like nude beaches and naked bike rides are nice, because attendance is voluntary and may help unrepress people.

    I feel the same about permitting public sex–if you could find a human community where most people were totally cool with seeing everyone else shagging in front of them, then it’d be great for public sex to be legal in that community.  But inasmuch as most people in virtually every community on earth aren’t totally cool with that, and probably never will be, I’m also fine with it staying illegal.

    My question was about how clothes became a social norm apart from any function they may have for protection or decoration.

    Well, almost every culture on earth wears something, including cultures in tropical and subtropical climates.  And many traditional cultures wear outfits that provide little or no protection from the elements.  So I would imagine that decoration itself was the primary force driving clothes to become a social norm.  (Not so much decoration to make you look pretty, as decoration to identify your social role and standing.  That’s one reason why kids get to run around naked in so many cultures–they aren’t full-fledged members of society yet, so they don’t get to wear the appropriate uniform.)

    Interestingly, one of the most universal elements of clothing is a covering or restraint on the penises of adult men–whether that be a loincloth or a penis sheath or just a foreskin string.  I suspect that this is partly a symbolic acknowledgment of a no-sex public sphere, and partly a way of giving men control over their visual signs of arousal.

  • Tonio

    If humans lacked such control, rules against sex in public spaces would be pointless and unenforceable.

    I agree. I should explain what I meant – the rule seems to imply that humans cannot control their sexual urges on their own, as opposed to control imposed from without.

    If men are capable of self-control, then there’s no need to require women to conceal themselves.  We can require men to restrain themselves in public spaces (and to respect consent in any space, of course) no matter what the women around them are wearing.

    Again, I agree, and that was part of my point about the illogic of that particular concealment. Not to mention the inhumanity and sexism.

    But, like Ellie, I’m disinclined to forcibly unrepress people on that issue.

    I hope it didn’t come across like I favored that use of force.

    But inasmuch as most people in virtually every community on earth aren’t totally cool with that, and probably never will be, I’m also fine with it staying illegal.

    No disagreement in principle. I suppose my objection is to conformity for its own sake. Social norms aren’t the same as moral positions – there have been instances where a social norm benefitted a few at the expense of the many.

    So I would imagine that decoration itself was the primary force driving clothes to become a social norm.

    That may be true. That still leaves the question of how the belief arose that not covering the genitals was wrong.

    I suspect that this is partly a symbolic acknowledgment of a no-sex public sphere, and partly a way of giving men control over their visual signs of arousal.

    That raises the question of whether men are wired to be embarrassed at such times or, again, whether that’s social conditioning.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    I suspect that this is partly a symbolic acknowledgment of a no-sex public sphere, and partly a way of giving men control over their visual signs of arousal.

    It’s also practical, as various sci-fi authors have acknowledged. In Isaac Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves, the clothing-optional society on the moon still uses clothing for sports. Try running naked some time. Also, the external male genitals are delicate. 

    TRiG.

  • Anonymous

    the rule seems to imply that humans cannot control their sexual urges on their own, as opposed to control imposed from without.

    Cannot, or at least will not do so in a socially desirable way.  Similarly, laws against theft imply that humans don’t always control their acquisitive urges on their own. 

    I hope it didn’t come across like I favored that use of force.

    Not at all; I was just qualifying my own position.

    I suppose my objection is to conformity for its own sake. Social norms
    aren’t the same as moral positions – there have been instances where a
    social norm benefitted a few at the expense of the many.

    The same is true of moral positions, of course; most moral positions are non-utilitarian, after all, and by definition will sometimes favor the few over the many.

    But any utilitarianish morality must place some value on conformity, because public violation of social norms makes many people upset/angry/disgusted/frightened/sad, which is certainly a bad thing.  (This can often be a necessary evil, but it’s still an evil in itself.)

    That raises the question of whether men are wired to be embarrassed
    at such times or, again, whether that’s social conditioning.

    You’d probably have to raise a guy in a Skinner box to know for sure. 

  • Tonio

    Cannot, or at least will not do so in a socially desirable way.  Similarly, laws against theft imply that humans don’t always control their acquisitive urges on their own.

    My point was that humans are capable of controlling their urges, sexual and otherwise, without external control or threat of punishment. We need laws because many humans do not control them – either they haven’t learned or they choose not to. One part of emotional maturity is recognizing that acting on one’s urges can sometimes hurt others, so one can find a happy medium where one can pursue one’s own happiness in ways that don’t interfere with others’ pursuit of their own happiness.

    most moral positions are non-utilitarian, after all, and by definition will sometimes favor the few over the many.

    Would you offer an example? Morality is about behavior that helps or harms other people, so I don’t see how a position can favor the few and harm the many and still be called moral. Unless you’re talking about different types of harm, which leads to my next point…

    But any utilitarianish morality must place some value on conformity, because public violation of social norms makes many people upset/angry/disgusted/frightened/sad, which is certainly a bad thing.

    Part of gay rights is that the emotions some straights feel at the idea of homosexuality do not justify things like legal discrimination against gays. And they don’t justify the old social norm of gays hiding their sexuality. Even though gays are a minority, the harm done by that old social norm outweighed the emotions that homosexuality provoked in some straights. That’s an example of a case where perhaps those straights simply needed to deal with the emotion.

    It’s not inherently bad when violations of social norms produce unpleasant emotions, particularly in cases where those norms are really about protection of privilege. That’s the background behind the criticism of tone arguments. Obviously there are many other instances where social norms do promote overall societal well-being. But based on debates with opponents of same-sex marriage, there are too many people who seem to assume that such norms are automatically moral positions. Sometimes they treat prevalence itself as a moral position, as if it’s inherently bad to be different. I’m not arguing against social norms per se, but simply suggesting an evaluation of them based on the moral principles of help and harm.

  • Anonymous

    My point was that humans are capable of controlling their urges, sexual and otherwise, without external control or threat of punishment. We need laws because many humans do not control them – either they haven’t learned or they choose not to.

    Yep.  Doesn’t that reasoning also apply to laws against public sex?

    Would you offer an example? Morality is about behavior that helps or harms other people, so I don’t see how a position can favor the few and harm the many and still be called moral.

    Standard example from psychology:  Would you push one person in front of a trolley, if by doing so you stopped it from hitting five people further down the tracks? 

    Fictional example: would you consciously accept the tradeoff that the citizens of Omelas accept? 

    Most people, AFAIK, would answer “no, that’s immoral” to both of these questions.

    It’s not inherently bad when violations of social norms produce unpleasant emotions, particularly in cases where those norms are really about protection of privilege.

    I would say it still is inherently bad; it’s just a necessary evil.  As you said, the harm done by the norm’s existence outweighs the harm done by inflicting those unpleasant emotions on the public–but the latter harm still exists. Were it possible to abolish the norm  and magically make people comfortable witheveryone perfectly comfortable with its abolition, that would be still better.

    I’m not arguing against social norms per se, but simply suggesting an evaluation of them based on the moral principles of help and harm.

    I agree; I’m just saying that the popularity and prevalence of a norm are relevant in making that evaluation.  They’re not the only relevant factors, and very often they’re not the most important ones, but they’re still relevant.

    In the case of public sex, it doesn’t seem to me that a society which accepts such behavior would be significantly better or worse than a society which forbids it (but doesn’t punish it disproportionately). If that’s true, the only factors left for a help/harm evaluation are popularity and prevalence, so I’m happy to support the existing norms, which all happen to be on the “no sex” side.

  • Tonio

    Yep.  Doesn’t that reasoning also apply to laws against public sex?

    Such laws appear to me to be about protecting others from seeing the sex, but I might be wrong. Protecting people from being offended instead of protecting people from acting on their urges uncontrollably.

    Standard example from psychology:  Would you push one person in front of a trolley, if by doing so you stopped it from hitting five people further down the tracks? 

    I don’t know if that would be an acceptable tradeoff. It might be an easier decision if killing the first person saved 500 or 5,000 other lives. Neither situation changes the fact that killing is wrong. And weighing the different types and scales of harm that different decisions may make doesn’t change the fact that both cause harm. Sometimes doing wrong is unavoidable, it’s just a matter of what type and how much.

    As you said, the harm done by a shitty norm’s existence outweighs the harm done by inflicting those unpleasant emotions on the public–but the latter harm still exists.

    Of course. I wasn’t arguing the opposite. I was calling instead for the people experiencing the unpleasant emotions to keep some perspective, to remember that it’s not all about them. Like the old aphorism about the person with no shoes ceasing to complain after seeing a person with no feet.

    In the case of public sex, it doesn’t seem to me that a society which accepted such behavior would be significantly better or worse than a society which prohibited it (but didn’t punish it disproportionately). If that’s true, the only factors left for a help/harm evaluation are popularity and prevalence, so I’m happy to support the existing norms, which all happen to be on the “no sex” side.

    That’s a reasonable position. I was questioning the assertion that acceptance of public sex would be worse for society than the current position. I wasn’t asserting the opposite, but instead asking what harm would be done if the situation were changed.

  • Anonymous

    Protecting people from being offended instead of protecting people from acting on their urges uncontrollably.

    Again, that seems true for most laws to me.  It’s usually the potential victims we’re trying to protect, not the potential perpetrators.

    I was questioning the assertion that acceptance of public sex would be worse for society than the current position. I wasn’t asserting the opposite, but instead asking what harm would be done if the situation were changed.

    So far as I can see, the pros would be:

    •Exhibitionists and people with poor impulse control would be happier
    •Homeless people would be able to shag legally in urban areas

    And the cons would be:

    •More bodily fluids flying around in public places
    •People flipping out after seeing some jerk banging their crush/ex/teacher/family member on the bus
    •Harder to recognize sexual assaults in progress (particularly flashing and that sort of thing)
    •Harder for parents & guardians to control the sexual behavior of minors

  • Tonio

    Again, that seems true for most laws to me.  It’s usually the potential
    victims we’re trying to protect, not the potential perpetrators.

    Good point. I just see a difference between protecting others from being offended and protecting them from being physically harmed or emotionally traumatized. The former sounds too much like me like the arguments used by homophobes, who often claim that straights should be protected from being offended by public homosexuality. The familiar whine, “Why do they have to force their sexuality on everyone else?!”

    Your list of pros and cons is a good one. My only objection is to this one: “People flipping out after seeing some jerk banging their crush/ex/teacher/family member on the bus.” If we’re talking about crushes or exes, I don’t see how that would be fundamentally different from seeing the two kissing or holding hands in public. For teachers or family members, the reaction for most peple may be simple embarrassment.

  • Michael Cule

    I think this is where to put this. I need to write it down.

    I just lost my temper with a street preacher.

    I went past a fellow who was handing out missionary DVDs. He and a partner had been standing there a couple of weeks back and the partner had asked me if I would mind ‘completing a survey’ (which when I think about is a bit of manipulation) and when I asked about what he said: “Spirituality.”I  didn’t let him use his set of leading questions but told him outright I was an agnostic. We had a polite little chat and parted amicably if not agreeing in any way.

    This fellow when I said ‘no thank you’ and made to go on said something like “Well, if you don’t mind going to hell…”At which  point I lost my temper. I turned back and reminded him of the verse about being ‘innocent as doves and as  cunning as serpents’ and told him that his missionary technique might be lacking in the second part. (And the first  but I wasn’t so upset at that point that I’d point it out.)

    He told me I had rejected Jesus (something I have never done but I think he may have the impression that he is the sole representatiive the Messiah has in the UK) and I was therefore damned.
    His attitude throughout the escalating rant I threw at him was that he was saved and anyone who let ‘Jesus dwell within them’ was saved and the rest  of us were damned and that’s what the Bible says. He was everything I find obnoxious in Calvin’s legacy, uncharitable, smug and ignorant of anything but his own viewpoint.

    I told him that God was Mercy, God was Love and God was not (a point I am as clear as an agnostic can be on anything) a paranoid shitbag. I reminded him that God was not big on miserable mortals judging and that vengeance  was His.

    I told him he had no reason to know what I believed. That I was an agnostic and that means a don’t-knower. I told him he thought he knew but really he only believed.

    I got nowhere of course. As I turned away I called out loud for Saint Jude and Saint Genesius to give the man some aid and advice. (I am not a Catholic although I play one in my medieval recreation society.)

    I feel shitty. If I were trying to convince him of anything I failed. I did not keep my temper as a good Briton should. I probably confirmed him in his self-righteousness and loopy world-view. If it matters I’m not sure if I kept my feelings towards him at all charitable.

    Bah. Humbug.

  • Tonio

    I wouldn’t take it personally – there was probably nothing you could have done to convince him to leave others alone.

    I would have expected to encounter that type of street preacher in the US but not in the UK. (I’ve been to one European city, and no street preachers were in sight, but I saw plenty of musicians both on the sidewalks and in the subways, and even a breakdancing troupe.)

    When I was in college in the 1980s, there were two sidewalk preaches that came around every weekday around lunchtime. I heard stories after Halloween of one of them preaching nonstop for hours. I wasn’t yet familiar with the whole “Satan’s holiday” claim, and assumed that the preacher simply believed that Halloween was a day of drunken debauchery.

  • Michael Cule

    He was an American actually. North American certainly and his accent didn’t sound Canadian to me.

    And I don’t want him to stop preaching. See, if he’s right he’s doing vital work letting poor about-to-be-damned souls know about the pit that opens up before them. And even if he’s wrong he has the right to spread the word as he sees it.

    I just want him to stop doing it with pride, vanity and uncharity. I want him to know that humilty and friendliness does more to promote his religion than hellfire threats. I want him to know that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

  • Tonio

    He was an American actually. North American certainly and his accent didn’t sound Canadian to me.

    Oh, great. One of ours got loose, apparently. You gave us the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Monty Python. And what do we end up giving you? McDonald’s, SpongeBob, and preachers spreading hate.

    And I don’t want him to stop preaching. See, if he’s right he’s doing
    vital work letting poor about-to-be-damned souls know about the pit that
    opens up before them. And even if he’s wrong he has the right to spread
    the word as he sees it.

    My point has nothing to do with his legal rights to spread the word. I’m saying that he’s essentially telling others that they deserve that fate, even if he doesn’t say that explicitly. One can make a valid argument that doing so is tantamount to encouraging hatred against people who don’t share his beliefs.

    I just
    want him to stop doing it with pride, vanity and uncharity. I want him
    to know that humilty and friendliness does more to promote his religion
    than hellfire threats. I want him to know that you catch more flies with
    honey than vinegar.

    Although I question the whole concept of wanting others to believe in one’s religion, ultimately I want the same thing that you do.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    “we can try to cultivate a habit of considering how any criticism we offer might also apply to ourselves”

    Yes.

    Cultivating an analogous habit for criticisms we receive, and criticisms we hear received by others, is helpful in this way as well.

    As, of course, is cultivating the habit of considering the edges of that applicability; that is, the ways in which those criticisms _don’t_ apply to us. Criticism is far less useful when too broad, too general, too vague; it is of most use when precisely bounded and applied.

  • Anonymous

    Good point. I just see a difference between protecting others from being offended and protecting them from being physically harmed or emotionally traumatized.

    I do too, but I think it’s a difference of degree rather than kind.  Offense is emotional suffering, and it’s not good to inflict that on people unnecessarily.  I do feel compassion for homophobes who have to suffer fear, disgust and anger every time they sees two people of the same sex making out.  I just don’t feel as much compassion for them as for gay people who can’t express public affection like straights can (and also for everyone else who has to share a society with the homophobes).  In a different conflict–like people who want to play really loud music on the street, versus people who don’t want to hear really loud music on the street–the balance of my sympathy tips in the other direction.

    My only objection is to this one: “People flipping out after seeing some jerk banging their crush/ex/teacher/family member on the bus.” If we’re talking about crushes or exes, I don’t see how that would be fundamentally different from seeing the two kissing or holding hands in public.

    I suspect that, for most of us, watching people have sex would be significantly more emotionally intense than watching them kiss or hold hands–even in cultures where public kissing and hand-holding is verboten.  (If only because, for most people, having sex is more emotionally intense than merely kissing or holding hands.) 

  • Anonymous

    Well, if he’s right, then maybe the pride, vanity and uncharity are part of his vital work, and preaching with humility and friendliness would fail to make his audience salvation-worthy in his God’s eyes.  I mean, it’s possible.

    And if he’s wrong, I’m kind of glad he’s being so obvious about his assholishness.  People are less likely to waste their time and trust on him.  (Granted, it probably means his life isn’t as pleasant as it could be, but I’m not sure his problems can be solved without medication.)

    I doubt you confirmed him in his worldview, though.  It doesn’t sound like he requires any confirmation from the outside world.


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