“Why should anyone care how someone else dresses?” asked Ebba, an exchange student from Sweden with a broad smile and a guileless charm. She was the first to speak up when my high school journalism students—all girls—began discussing whether to write an editorial on the school’s dress code, which they thought was no longer being enforced. I had invited a mini-debate to get a sense of the group’s views of the issue. In an earlier piece of writing, Ebba had said “Some days the walk from the front door of the school to my locker feels like the longest walk ever, with all the eyes staring at me.” She had the self-consciousness typical of high school girls.
“It doesn’t make any sense that girls should have to cover up their whole bodies just because guys are animals,” added another junior—a girl who gave considerable attention to looking good. Several people talked over each other, and in the mild tumult a Christian girl, wearing jeans and a bulky sweater, with somewhat shaggy hair covering much of her face, offered that each person influences others people and that a girl should be discreet in their dress. “That’s bull!” came a quick rejoinder from an angular-faced girl who tended to become strident in any conversation that touched on gender. “Rape culture,” she said dismissively. “You’re blaming the way girls dress to excuse bad behavior by males.” And so it went.
Before the young feminist could continue,” I suggested that one likely reason the dress code was being played down was that the community was divided over the question, and it was hard for politically-governed bureaucracies to take stands on issues that were controversial. What’s a community leader to do when there really is no community?
Contemporary schools are rarely community schools. They are more due-process bureaucracies, semi-organized knots of competing special interests—unions, professional associations, foundations, various levels and institutions of government, parents’ associations. A simple decision might require a principal to review several overlapping decision-making processes: is this a matter of statute, or of board policy, or of a grant requirement, or of collective bargaining? Many school leaders seek their identities in the recognition of peers rather than as members of the town or neighborhood where the school is geographically located. Such managers often have larger fish to fry than contemplating Erin’s spandex. One makes a name for oneself by being a skillful manager, which includes minimizing waves. The path to success is not straight but it’s quite narrow in places. There’s no need to be a moral leader, which historically has been a path to getting stoned. And doesn’t “moral leader” sound quaint and judgmental?
I wasn’t surprised these teenagers held the usual positions on modesty. Social media’s not great about facts or evidence, but it’s rife with opinions. I noted that the loudest opinions were those taken by those students who thought social norms in general were pig-headed. Such is the world that we now live in. In the end, the kids decided not to write about the dress code.
Dress codes have always been a touchy issue. My wife’s father disagreed with the local principal who banned girls wearing pants—even girls who walked to school in subzero temperatures. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new going on. The extent to which we have lost a common culture may be new. Some people are bothered by tarted up teenagers, while others agree with the advice given by one of my students: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” To enforce a dress code, authorities need to be able to explain the basis of their rules, but fewer and fewer know how to do this in a society where people do not share fundamental assumptions. They are more in their comfort zone urging young people to have pride—which has become uncontroversial—than they are discussing modesty.
On issues where we don’t share fundamental assumptions, nobody on one side of the chasm is likely to persuade anyone on the other side. Why, then, argue? I don’t imagine that I have anything to say about modesty that will settle the argument, but there are other reasons for speaking. Sometimes, the purpose of discussion is to remind oneself of neglected aspects of life. Sometimes, it is to encourage kindred spirits who might feel they are the only ones who feel as they do. We make communities by gathering in a shared vision, and this requires talk–making the vision clear and finding each other. Sometimes, we find those whose vision of the good life neighbors our own, giving it depth and stability. In such moments, persuading opponents hardly enters our minds. They aren’t here to be straightened out by us, and we have other things to do, such as reminding ourselves of insights and feelings that, in heightened moments, we have realized but that in the clatter of the passing tumult we have let go dark, like books we forgot we were reading.
It’s not always at the front of my mind, but I’ve known for a long time that modesty has more to do with our consciousness of where we are, who we are and what is happening than with the fashions of the moment. My tribe’s cultural roots are deep in Judaism, and partly for that reason (and partly because I’ve never been a pretty girl) when I think of modesty, my thoughts turn to those Hebrew prophets of old. Their modesty was high sanity, standing as they did before God. This isn’t the meaning of modesty that comes to mind, usually, in arguments about dress code, but it’s important to realize that modesty isn’t only—or even mainly—about revealing too much of our bodies. It has more to do with how we understand being a person.
The great prophet Isaiah realized that he was nothing on his own. He saw the panorama of human drama across centuries, the rise and fall of empires. The more one sees of reality, the more meek and modest one becomes. In Rabbinic literature, modesty is a “way of walking.” Just glimpsing the scale and breathtaking beauty of the cosmos should be enough undermine our haughtiness and sense of self-importance.
But it’s easy to create our own world, with ourselves at the center. We do this mainly by comparing ourselves to other people. Aristotle said that young men and the rich were especially susceptible to excessive pride “because they think they are better than other people.” We like to feel important. It’s “better to reign in Hell,” said Milton’s Lucifer, “than serve in Heav’n.” The great literature of the world is full of warnings about the destiny of the proud and rebellious. Lucifer failed to take over Heaven and was thrown out. Doctor Faustus sold his soul in order to be superior to all other men and the cost was eternal misery. Victor created Frankenstein in his lust to become the preeminent scientist of his age, and his creation destroyed him. Tragedy is the literary form devoted to the study of pride.
Though we can play important parts in big, important stories, on our own we amount to little. Modesty is rooted in truth. It is true that the world is vast, including billions of people, and that these people are ordered in various tribes, gangs, clubs, nations, and international organizations, and it is true that the whole wide world is only a tiny speck in a unimaginable expanse of space and time. And in all this, each of us is kept quite busy enough wiping up spilled milk, calming down an upset colleague, smoothing out wrinkles in a child’s day, getting the “check engine” light turned off or photographing the cedar waxwings that have flown into the yard. Our limited energy and attention don’t permit us to have much of an impact on the world, though we may be crucial to some little part of it. A modest person is simply an honest person.
We are immodest when we are thinking about ourselves and how we might be or should be the center of attention. This is the sort of thought that gets kids into trouble with dress codes. One teaching response could be to talk about humility. We are humble not by thinking we are without merit but by not thinking about ourselves much at all. We forget about the self by turning our attention to larger matters, such as the situation before us and what is needed and how we can help. The philosopher Eric Voegelin said Moses is the most consequential human who ever lived, because he did more than anyone to elevate human consciousness, giving symbolic form to higher levels of order. And yet Moses is referred to in the Bible (Numbers 12:3) as “exceedingly humble, more than any man in the world.” His mind was filled with matters of eternal importance.
He saw clearly that the world did not revolve around him. This can be tremendously liberating. Modesty frees us from the need to impress or get ahead. We find patience and compassion easier; making and keeping relationships becomes less complicated.
Will this persuade people like Lindy West? On her Jezebel website she rants against modesty crusaders: “the idea that society can tell you how much of your body to reveal or hide implies that your body does not belong to you” [emphasis in original]. This is true, though Lindy thinks the point is that men believe a woman’s body belongs to them. “I’m very sorry, ‘Guys,'” she says, “but my only ‘womanly duty’ is to myself.” This is an eminently understandable response to modesty patrols and clothing police. Extremism provokes counter-extremism.
And having had her say, she also speaks more modestly. “I am a person. I’ll dress the way I want and act the way I want.” I, for one, don’t want a world where such feelings are not respected. I wouldn’t contest her right to dress as she pleases.
I would, though, invite further reflection about just what it is that she wants. She hears the debate differently than I do. Most often, I hear defenders of modesty saying that none of us are islands unto ourselves. We really don’t own ourselves or belong only to ourselves. We are social beings, and others are the environment of our consciousness itself. Others sometimes become aspects of our consciousness. Who wants to be left alone, really? Most of us want to be linked in bonds of need and reliability and understanding that are sometimes bonds of love, sometimes including intimacy. Most of us want to live amid others, not surrendering our selves or our privacy but still surrounded by attentive and caring friends. Learning how to build and sustain warm communities lies at the heart of learning to be fully human. How we handle our sexuality can be thought about as part of a larger vision of marriage and community. There are real reasons why girls in high school might want to dress modestly, that have to do with their deepest desires, which, if they are fortunate, will be given form by adults in their world who understand.
Many have learned that lives of commitment and duty are a way to happiness. We can deepen the ways that we belong to each other, and in doing this we learn modesty. We needn’t demand or seek to be the center of attention. Baring some skin can be a form of immodesty, but it’s not the only one. There are innumerable modes of immodesty.
Ostentation is a popular one. Judaism frowns on ostentation, because it drives us apart. It can arouse the envy of others, it can make the less prosperous feel ashamed and it can induce arrogance in oneself. To talk persuasively about modesty, we need know ways of living amid commitments to realities larger than the self. We need to reflect on the ways we ourselves sometimes take ourselves and our desires too seriously. Do we ourselves dress in ways that display our money or our status, or that scream for attention to our chosen identity? Do our clothes sometimes become costumes? In terms of modesty, what can we make of the “successful” man who puts that success on display? Maybe the administrator with the flashiest car in the parking lot lacks the moral authority to teach a fifteen-year-old girl wearing a low-cut top that she is putting forward the wrong image. Hugh Nibley, a scholar of the ancient world and one of the elders of my tribe, insisted that “the worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols.” When it comes to sins against modesty, I don’t often find young women to be the most offensive offenders.
If we are going to talk about dress codes, we might start by talking about modesty as though we meant it. Schools usually do the opposite. As they have come to resemble communities less in their transformation into sorting and credentialing centers dedicated to empowering and enabling selves, talk of pride has come to seem more intuitive than talk of modesty. In the school where I worked, the “values” that were officially endorsed were chosen to make up the acronym POWER and so, inevitably, the first value was “Pride.” For a while, the student handbook endorsed “pride” in the behavior section and “modesty” in the dress code section. Heh.
What would Socrates say? Much of his method was to call attention to contradictions in the things people said. Contradictions signal error, and most of our bad actions are preceded by wrong ideas.
His teaching was deeply concerned with eros and with the connections between careful language and love. He taught that we use language precisely so that we can understand more, and in this way we make progress toward the truth. As we do, the astonishing diversity of our ignorances yields, and we find ourselves moving toward unity, escaping prisons of self, finding each other by finding a common world through words. Falsehoods are legion but truth is one. His opponents argued that the telos of rhetoric was career success, but he said that it was the light of understanding, which is the substance of love.
We are modest to avoid putting stumbling blocks in the paths of our fellows. We come to see better that the true purpose of wealth is, as the sages said, to help others. Ostentatious displays don’t do that. They produce envy, arrogance, dishonesty, and a shaming of the poor. The arrogance of giving oneself credit for good fortune is a form of immodesty which tears at the fabric of community. It communicates to the poor that they are guilty of their own misfortune. Shame drives them to borrow money they can’t afford to repay or to take ethical shortcuts for money. We moderns have no shortage of politicians whose primary route to power is inciting hatred of the rich, and we may be so accustomed to the uses of envy that we underestimate its terrible power.
Envy has been one of the most destructive forces in history—maybe the most destructive—and no good comes from provoking it. The most astonishing modern texts on envy may be the several books exploring mimetic desire written by literary critic René Girard. “Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it,” he observes, and “we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant.” Girard claims that we are profoundly social creatures who acquire our desires from those around us, though we are seldom aware this is their source. This creates endless situations in which multiple people desire the same goods, so envy and rivalry become daily realities. He views the tenth and last of the Ten Commandments to be the “supreme commandment” because it gets to the root of problems addressed by the preceding four. It bans desire for anything that belongs to another: “You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, no his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.” The Hebrew term translated as “covet” simply means “desire.”
Desiring what belongs to another is the source of most conflict among people. We glorify our own desires, which then leads to idolization of ourselves. The more we worship individualism and pursue our own status the more we are turned against others. “If we ceased to desire the goods of our neighbor, we would never commit murder or adultery or theft or false witness,” Girard points out. Much of what he says is confirmed by anthropological research. Helmut Schoeck has found that the core taboos and rituals of many cultures are most important as techniques for controlling envy, which might be triggered by prestige, personal attractiveness, distribution of possessions or anything else which one may have that another might desire. The practices of habitual understatement found among the English, the Chinese, and many other peoples are a mild form of such ubiquitous rituals; they testify to the depth and universality of envy as well as the need to guard against it. “Man is an envious being,” says Schoeck, “who were it not for the social inhibitions aroused within the object of his envy, would have been incapable of developing the social systems to which we all belong today.”
Of course, moderns have repeatedly “addressed” the problem of envy by killing the rich. We—or somebody—created massive regimes to decree standards of equality that could only be approached through totalitarian methods. The results of these widespread experiments would, in a better world, make discussion of creating an egalitarian society through government coercion unworthy of serious discussion. But of course, such “solutions” are being seriously discussed, and by elites, no less, who somehow remain perpetually confident that the revolution will not devour them. But if history is a guide—and it is—it will.
So there are two good reasons for practicing modesty. There is the practical concern that if we provoke envy, there may be hell to pay. Beyond that, there is the possibility that we might practice modesty because we are in truth humble, and that we are humble because we do not see ourselves as the center of the world. We are happier and more loved when we serve the big picture than when we fret over whether we are getting enough attention. The more we try to help, the less we are distracted by things that do not matter very much. Aristotle found that people are happy when they are practicing the virtues, and modern psychology has gone to great lengths to gather data that points to the same conclusion.
This does not mean, of course, that schools are likely to stop proclaiming pride and start teaching humility. Neither the curriculum director who is proud of his elegant new watch or or the pretty cheerleader who has discovered a strange kind of power has anything to fear from the authorities. Modesty has largely gone the way of the Sabbath. The dominant culture gives little thought to it.
Fortunately, none of us is required to participate in the degradation of the times. Indeed, it is wisdom to resist. People still observe the Sabbath, though not out of fear that plowing on Sunday will land them in trouble with authorities. They do it because the restraint on productivity and busyness and greed changes their relationship to work and to time and to the world in ways that encourage joy. They balance six days of creating with one day of reflecting and sharing. Similarly, many people will continue to learn humility in all the ways events and experiences conspire to teach it, and being humble they will walk modestly through the world, not because of little rules made by little committees, but in wonderful unconcern with such minutiae.