Concerning Modesty and Responsibility

Nate Pyle has a good article on the issue of men objectifying women. It’s certainly worth reading and makes a few points in particular that I think are worthwhile, namely that men have responsibility for seeing and treating women as valued human persons, that to fail to do so is to forfeit humanity (since, presumably, being human involves treating other humans as ends and possessing the ability to do this), and that there exists a culture of fear between women and men within the church. He says, “a woman should not have to feel like she needs to protect you from you.”

Clearly, Pyle is concerned for placing the burden of responsibility here on men. He says, “The moment you play the victim you fall into the lie that you are simply embodied reaction to external stimuli unable to determine right from wrong, human from flesh.” And again, “You need to be in control of you.” And finally, “If you do stupid things it is because you chose to do stupid things.”

My concern is that he puts forward a false dichotomy between a human as “embodied reaction to external stimuli” and an autonomous free “chooser.” Perhaps if Pyle had specified a bit better what this choice looks like and in what circumstances choice occurs, the situation would be clearer. Certainly, men who are engaged in a long term struggle with lust don’t feel like free choosers. It remains an open question which word to assign to their struggle (Kent Dunnington has opted for the word “habit” in this case). But my point is, there are a great many restrictors to “free choice” that make the situation a bit more complex. I’ll just say a few words about habit.

With regard to habit, there are so many choices that I make every day that I put almost no reflective thought into. Not all of these are overtly moral choices, i.e. how to put my clothes on, how long to brush my teeth, which route to take to work, etc. But some of them are. For instance, if I regularly drive-through McDonalds for breakfast I might be culpably damaging my body. This is an interesting case because there has actually been a lot of moral backlash against McDonalds for the quality of food they offer, particularly following the Supersize Me” documentary. Or to take the matter a step further, what if I regularly have a morning smoke on my way to the office.

Now, not all habits are created equal. It’s easier to break the McDonalds habit than the smoking one. And easier to break the smoking habit than the meth habit. But Kent Dunnington suggests that the differences are a matter of degrees, not kind. Our bodies are always involved in our habits. What’s more, there is good evidence to suggest that tolerance and withdrawal are not decisive factors in the continuance of a habit (Johann Hari cites some of the same sources Dunnington does and a few more).

So what breaks habit? Well, clearly humans have responsibility here. If we don’t seem to have either/or freedom about any particular action in the day, we at least of the freedom to plan the development of our identities. If I’m trying to break the McDonalds habit, for instance, I might decide to take an alternate route to work and by some protein bars to bring with me in the morning. The situation is not hopeless.

But the larger point that I’m trying to make is that not all choosers are equal at any given moment. Nor are all choices equally appealing to choosers at any given moment. If I place meth within the hands of a meth addict, I’m an enabler. If I erect a McDonalds near someone who is overweight, my moral responsibility seems softer.

All this is to say, it’s probably wrong to say that the women of Christ’s church have no moral responsibility to dress appropriately. But certainly Pyle is correct to say that men need to worry about themselves. It’s certainly easier to look on a woman dressed immodestly as a person in need of grace like myself when I have been habitually trained and Spiritually enabled to be a servant to righteousness.

In Romans 6, Paul makes the point that we are slaves either to righteousness or unrighteousness. Unrestrained contingent freedom about every choice is not our situation. But we can reckon ourselves as dead to sin and alive in Christ and allow our imaginations to be formed by this alternate reality we find ourselves in.

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