Modesty and Nonsense: A Response to Anthony Esolen

Modesty and Nonsense: A Response to Anthony Esolen January 17, 2018

I’ve never seen a dress that looked like plastic wrap. I’ve seen plenty of immodest dresses I would not wear or be comfortable with my daughter wearing, but they never once made me think of plastic wrap. If you’re in the presence of a woman wearing plastic wrap, you need to leave that night club and go someplace classier. And I’m horrified that Esolen just admitted plastic wrap makes him think of sex as if that were perfectly normal. Plastic wrap should make you think of sandwiches, or how we ought to take better care of the environment.

It won’t do to say, “Don’t think them.” Every human strength also betrays a weakness. A woman’s sensitivity to feelings – sensitivity without which the human race could never have survived – is also a temptation to choose just the right word to hurt the most. A man’s inclination to roughness against the stubborn resistance of the natural world – roughness without which the human race could never have survived – is also a temptation to violence.

We must live with one another such as we are. Charity, forbearance, an honest admission of one’s susceptibility to sin, and consideration for the susceptibility of others, particularly members of the opposite sex, whose feelings are sometimes quite different from ours, should govern our choices in dress, speech, and physical deportment.

Do not lay a snare in your neighbor’s path.

No one said you shouldn’t think, Tony. I mean, you shouldn’t entertain wayward thoughts, especially about plastic wrap, but your initial examples of the woman at the Take Back the Night rally and the Hispanic lady at the Catholic Worker House were not asking you to rein in your thoughts. They didn’t care what you were thinking. Those women were demanding that, whatever thought crossed your mind, you treat them as persons worthy of respect. Don’t rape or harass a woman even if she is vulnerable, immodestly dressed or even naked. Respect her as a human and leave to make her own decisions. Don’t stand there staring shirtless in front of a guest at a Catholic Worker House; put something on and mind your own business. Approach all human persons with respect for their innate dignity no matter what they’re doing– and, whether you like it or not, every woman is as human as you are. Treat them as you would like to be treated. That’s not some kind of modern flaming liberal demand; that’s basic respect for your fellow children of God and it goes right back to the Gospel.

I’m not saying that modesty doesn’t exist or that it’s not a virtue. I think it is. Modesty, not only in dress but in word and action, is one of the ways that people show respect for one another, as Doctor Esolen demonstrated with his toplessness at the Catholic Worker House. The way to dress modestly varies from situation to situation and there is no particular garment which is always modest or always not– except, perhaps, plastic wrap. It is not only or even chiefly to do with not being sexually demonstrative. In fact, when the Bible discusses modesty, it’s usually giving injunctions against being ostentatious about wealth and drawing attention socioeconomic differences.

Lately I saw a video where a Jewish woman who runs a headscarf shop explained her reasons for dressing the way that she does, and there’s a lot more to learn about modesty from a Biblical perspective in her reasoning than in Esolen’s article. Take a look:

Please notice that one of the main tenets of her position on modesty is that she doesn’t have the right to dictate what is modest for somebody else; the practice of dressing modestly is a personal matter of which we should convict ourselves rather than being nosy toward our neighbors.

Also, please notice that neither I, nor Ms. Andrea in the video, nor anybody else with any sense said that modesty had something to do with stopping men from acting violently. Doctor Esolen expresses the opposite. He really seems to believe, first of all, that “roughness” is an innate part of the nature of every man, and that when provoked, this roughness can lead the man to be violent in spite of himself. Maybe this is why he thinks it’s normal and wholesome for little boys to beat each other up all the time. He’s asking women in their charity to dress a certain way so that he, and men in general, are not liable to get violent with them.

And this is not just being a silly prude. This is unconscionable.

No one is entitled to be violent toward another– whether they’re modest or not, whether you feel “provoked” or not, and no matter how you feel about the nature of masculinity. You are allowed to respond with minimum necessary force if you or somebody else is being physically attacked and are in danger, but that is all. If a woman walks around wearing nothing but flip flops or plastic wrap, I don’t think she should do that. But if some English professor runs up and assaults her because he feels that the dress provoked his innate roughness into violence, that’s his fault. He did that. She didn’t. He carries all the guilt for his lack of self-control and disrespect for her innate human dignity. He is a rapist. She may be guilty of something else, but she carries no blame for her rape. She is the victim and he is not.

There is nothing a person could wear that would justify violence against her.

Esolen’s article says nothing of value about modesty, but it says plenty about him.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)


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