Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The New Mod (esty) Squad?

A new book by Wendy Shalit (ably reviewed here by Pia Catton) argues that there is burgeoning movement of young women who are repulsed by the crude feminism of their mothers and (now!) grandmothers that implies there is something wrong with being . . . well, good. According to Shalit, girls are getting tired of the hyper-sexualized culture that, ironically, strips them of power as well as of their clothing. They see their so-called "betters" as dupes and wish to revisit an older, perhaps wiser, form of feminine power that embraces rather than rejects modesty.

I certainly hope this is true and I agree entirely with Shalit’s understanding about the real and slavish direction in which the "everything goes" sexual liberation religion is pointing us. But I share Catton’s concern, (from the end of her review), that the advice Shalit offers is a bit unimpressive. First, from where I sit, I don’t see as much movement away from smut/slut culture as Shalit claims to see. And second, in order to promote that movement I think it has to be something more than and even better than a hearkening back to our great-grandmother’s ways. We have to begin to parse out what was eternally good from their ways and separate it out from the things that may not have been so good and, thus, keep it unappealing to today’s young women. Instead of a simple appeal to tradition, in other words, we have to make a deeper and truer case for the good and useful properties of modesty. It must be an appeal not only to judgment but also to interest.

Suggestions about "baking apple pies" rather than undressing to impress may be cute and even contain a glimpse at the true. But metaphorically speaking, what is apple pie? I love apple pie, don’t get me wrong. And I bake a mean one with apples that we grow ourselves. It is sweet, delicious, and wholesome. But it’s also old-fashioned and, we now know, loaded with cholesterol and other things that may weigh you down or even--when overdone--harm you. The problem with a simple appeal to apple pie may be that it subtracts intellect and judgment from the equation. Another way to say it may be that it does not build up the prudence and flexibility of the young woman hearing the advice--it doesn’t give her enough credit. The problem young women still have with the ancient wisdom of their great-grandmothers is that though it is proven to be rather mighty and impressive in its absence--there are still lingering doubts about an unthinking and reflexive commitment to it. They have grown used to and appreciate the sentiment that vocally claims--even if it actually works against it in practice--that our judgment and our thinking is every bit as worthy as that of the vast majority of men. The problem with the feminists who preceded these young women is that they demonstrated (nearly unequivocally) that the judgment and thinking of women is every bit as stupid as that of the vast majority of men’s can be. There needs to be an appeal to reason as well as sentiment, in other words. There needs to be an appeal that flatters the reason at the same time that it starkly confronts its limitations. We need a feminist Federalist in defense of great-grandma’s constitution.

Discussions - 20 Comments

It is possible to overestimate the role of reason in people's lives, as in politics. People can think more reasonably if they get used to acting more reasonably. Cooking (etc.) to impress a man, or heighten his warm feelings, while diverting some of his attention from his sexual cravings, is not at all a bad idea.

Yes, David. You are quite right. The problem is that these things we used to know or sense or understand without expression--now all have to be re-explained as they have been removed from our daily intercourse. Cooking as a means to the higher ends you mention is no longer a part of the common experience most young women share. If it and its power are not experienced and lived, they require reason to explain how they work and why they work and why they may be superior to some other way. In other words, you are correct that habit often trumps reason. But establishing or re-establishing habit requires reason--or at least an argument. People change their diets to lose weight, for example. But only after being persuaded that the change will work. And even then, maintenance is difficult. Old habits die hard if the reward for changing them is slow to come or not convincingly established as a likely outcome.

I grant you that blunt talk about these matters may not be as sexy or seductive as the graceful habits born of love and tenderness can be . . . and it may offend the sensibilities of those who prefer (as most of us do) poetry to naked reason. But the veil has been lifted and poetry and cooking alone will not serve to put it back in its proper place. It is romantic longing for the past or resentful distaste for the present that leads one to yearn for the old ways untempered by current realities. The current reality is this: instead of tantalizing, the veil now scares up fears of oppression. And I would suggest that such fears are not entirely groundless and, further, that any attempt to persuade the adoption or re-adoption of habits that does not take such fear into account will fail and fail miserably. For poetry and cooking to do their magic upon our habits, right reason will have to re-assert itself and the poets would do well to sing the praises of it and the possibilities instead of only looking wistfully to the past.

The problem with the feminists who preceded these young women is that they demonstrated (nearly unequivocally) that the judgment and thinking of women is every bit as stupid as that of the vast majority of men’s can be.

And the 'vast majority' are 'stupid' with regard to what sort of judgments?

"Instead of a simple appeal to tradition, in other words, we have to make a deeper and truer case for the good and useful properties of modesty."


While I certainly agree, I think you undervalue what emerges from practicing traditions. I think of traditional - dare I even say socially evolved - behaviors as being intertwined - or entangled.


There is a set of behavioral modes that come together to form more than the sum of the parts. Even rote reenactment may allow some higher social functions to reform.


In fact, I'm pretty sure of it, not only from my own observations, but because the Gramscians fear tradition so much.

"There needs to be an appeal to reason as well as sentiment, in other words."

I always find these discussions pointless because the book isn't even out yet. I didn't agree with everything in Wendy's first book but it was pretty serious and I'd be very surprised if her 2nd book is about apple pies and "cooking alone," LOL.

jdavenport says: "rote reenactment may allow some higher social functions to reform"--yes, they may and it would be nice if they were. But the point is that they aren't because these are learned habits and not so many people are learning them anymore. My only point is that in order to persuade a significant number of women to begin "reenactment" of these habits you are going to have to appeal to reason because the example garnered from learned and shared experience is almost gone. And, on top of that, it is smeared with many layers of muck thrown by 45 years or more of stringent feminist ideology influencing the culture. If you're looking for received opinions and tradition in the "apple pie" quarters you're looking in the wrong place. The received opinions and tradition are now coming from feminism and its off-shoots in the popular culture. So I'm not saying that tradition doesn't have a powerful hold on the actions and imagination of people--indeed, I'm saying quite the opposite. It does have such a hold! That's why it's going to take something stronger to defeat it in the end. The tradition of these young women today is not the tradition you are cheering or longing to see restored. Traditions are not morally equivalent, but they are relative. To shake one off you have to make a stronger case for the one you are wishing to see adopted.

Fonzi in #5 is quite right about Shalit's first book A Return to Modesty; it was splendid and serious. I am looking forward to reading this new one in spite of the reservations Pia Catton points to and which (if they are as she states) I am inclined to second. But this has no bearing on my argument as such. I'm not really meaning to attack Shalit's practical suggestions so much as to point out what is needed in the larger field of battle. Wendy does fine work and I always enjoy her arguments, her prose and I appreciate her research.

Two points. First, concerning this:


[I]n order to promote that movement I think it has to be something more than and even better than a hearkening back to our great-grandmother’s ways. We have to begin to parse out what was eternally good from their ways and separate it out from the things that may not have been so good and, thus, keep it unappealing to today’s young women. Instead of a simple appeal to tradition, in other words, we have to make a deeper and truer case for the good and useful properties of modesty. It must be an appeal not only to judgment but also to interest.


Read Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions.


Second. If you had turned this post in to me for a grade (a grisly thought, eh?), I would say that you've written 560+ words trying to express a thought. Think it through again and write it in no more than 200 words, and maybe then we'll both have a better idea what you're trying to say.

Perhaps if Michelle had used more words in her post we might actually know what she is trying to say. As it stands, we can deduce nothing about her purposes other than what is suggested by her snarky comment about grading my post. If you care to discuss substance rather than style perhaps you can tell us what it is that you think Sowell brings to the table in this context, Michelle? Feel free to elaborate.

Julie writes: If you care to discuss substance rather than style perhaps you can tell us what it is that you think Sowell brings to the table in this context, Michelle? Feel free to elaborate.


OK, let's start with the part I quoted before: [I]n order to promote that movement I think it has to be something more than and even better than a hearkening back to our great-grandmother’s ways. We have to begin to parse out what was eternally good from their ways and separate it out from the things that may not have been so good and, thus, keep it unappealing to today’s young women. Instead of a simple appeal to tradition, in other words, we have to make a deeper and truer case for the good and useful properties of modesty. It must be an appeal not only to judgment but also to interest.


You assume here that the moral insights of our great-grandmothers can be "parsed out," articulated, so as to "make a case" for modesty that appeals to reason rather than sentiment. But that assumption may be mistaken. Sowell distinguishes between constrained and unconstrained visions. Here you evince an unconstrained vision about the possibility of articulating wisdom that has been passed along through traditions. If you read Sowell, you might be persuaded to take a more constrained vision of traditional wisdom.


If you care to discuss substance rather than style ....


I wouldn't draw too bold a line between style and substance. If you boil down 560+ words to 200, the difference will not be merely stylistic. It will be substantive. Try it and you'll see.

Julie, perhaps I overstated my sense of hope. I agree with your follow up comments.


My primary point is that radical feminism does not work. It undermines itself, as do all Marxist philosophies. Unfortunatley, these movenment can certainly become large enough to crash entire societies. But they will crash, which is good.


To reiterate, I agree we should be working to encourage something better/stronger to take it's place. A modern society collapse will be dangerous to the entire planet.


I have no input to give regarding the methods with which to kickstart traditional interactions, except a move toward local liberty systems. For example, repealing the 17th amendment.


The problem is inherently one of structural delocalisation. The only long term solution is structural localization, IMO. But as for as the intellectual philosophy for aiding that relocalization, well, I will continue to read your thoughts - because I have none of my own on the matter.

Michelle, your parsimony with words continues to leave me perplexed about your real meaning. Strunk and White's Elements of Style is helpful only if you actually use its suggestions to make yourself clear. If you can't do that, it's better to be long-winded.

Still I will do my best to address at least part of your objection. You say that my suggestion about re-examining great-grandma's moral insights, with a view to finding what is eternal in them, evinces an "unconstrained" vision of what traditional wisdom can offer. Sowell, on the other hand, (whom you cite for this insight) distinguishes between a "constrained" and "unconstrained" vision by looking at the understanding of human nature that informs each. An "unconstrained" vision views human nature as malleable while a "constrained" vision recognizes that it is unchanging. In asking for a moral explanation that appeals to eternal principles of right and wrong (in other words, things that don't change), how is that in any way "unconstrained"? The unconstrained vision tries to create new realms out of whole cloth (to suit some ideologically informed sense of justice) or to impose old traditions whether or not they are founded in reason. In so doing, it assumes that human nature is malleable and that it cannot impose limits on the purposes of government or the rules of polite society.

jdavenport: In fact, I think there may be something very smart in your practical suggestions. But why stop with the 17th Amendment? Repeal the 16th as well!

Let's just follow one example of "structural relocalization" through. Let's suppose there were really some meaningful local control over, say, schools. In practice this would likely mean a much greater and substantive involvement for mothers (fathers too, of course, but especially mothers who tend to have more time and energy to devote to the education of their children). Even with the poor habits and poorer educations that a large number of women labor under these days (thanks to feminism among other things), I believe they would do a better job of holding schools accountable than most education bureaucrats or even (especially?) teachers. The trial and error of this work might help to form better habits over time--in them and in their daughters. But it would not be, in itself, a panacea.

Julie asks: In asking for a moral explanation that appeals to eternal principles of right and wrong (in other words, things that don't change), how is that in any way "unconstrained"?


It is unconstrained in the sense and to the extent that you assume such explanations can be articulated. I.e., you assume that human rationality is sufficiently unconstrained to grasp and articulate the moral precepts that have endured through generations of tradition and conventional wisdom.


Sowell couldn’t be clearer about this distinction, which is why I suggested that you read him. Knowledge, in the constrained tradition, is defined to include vast amounts of unarticulated but vitally important information and conclusions, summarized in habits, aversions, and attractions as well as in words and numbers …. Those would be Granny’s moral conventions. She could tell you what good girls do and don't do, but could not make a "case" for her beliefs.


By contrast, knowledge in the unconstrained tradition is restricted to the more sophisticatedly articulated facts and relationships. That would be your appeal to reason and interest, to rational persuasion rather than just moral sentiments, to making "a deeper and truer case for the good and useful properties of modesty [emphasis added]..


Deeper and truer than what? Than traditional morals and mores, than minimally articulated conventional moral wisdom? The extent to which you think it's possible to go deeper is the extent to which your vision is unconstrained on this question.


More from Sowell: Articulation plays an important role in the dissemination of knowledge, as knowledge is conceived in the unconstrained tradition. You plainly call for articulation where once we had only Granny’s moral sentiments: “We have to begin to parse out what was eternally good from their ways and separate it out from the things that may not have been so good.”


You have clearly placed yourself in the unconstrained tradition, at least on the issue you posted about. There’s no debating that. The question is whether you ventured a bit hastily into that tradition. I leave that question for you to grapple with ... or not, as you please.

Is human nature malleable or is it fixed? I would argue that human nature is the same in all times and in all places. What is not fixed is what you call tradition. Traditions vary from region to region and from age to age. There are no constraints on tradition and this is why traditions have a difficult time retaining support as circumstances change and as people are born and die. The lack of constraint on tradition is precisely what accounts for the problem we now face. Granny's tradition could not defend itself, by itself, in the face of a false appeal to reason. It had nothing to say to the truth or falsehood of feminism. If you want to make the point that I am "unconstrained" because I have no faith in the power of a tradition that cannot defend itself, so be it.

But I rather think there is much in Granny's wisdom that can and should be defended with assistance from reason. I do not believe that the tradition was established for arbitrary or transient reasons. The central fact of human nature is its rational character. We are not simply to be conditioned like dogs or slaves. Another part of human nature is its propensity to serve its own interests--the fact that we are men and not angels. If no greater purpose or personal good is served by being good, it is not wise to expect many to be good. People have to be taught these things--through tradition and, later, reason. In short, I do not see tradition (at least not our original tradition) as being at odds with reason in most respects. There is room for prudent application . . . but that's another long discussion.

Julie writes: Is human nature malleable or is it fixed? I would argue that human nature is the same in all times and in all places. What is not fixed is what you call tradition.


No. The question in the context you raised in your initial post is not whether human nature is malleable or fixed. The question is whether — and to what extent — the moral sentiments transmitted through Granny's traditions can be given the sort of rational analysis you call for.


What I call tradition is not, as you say, opposed to the "fixed." Let us say for the sake of discussion that there are immutable moral truths and that some of these touch on the issue of modesty that you raised. Let us further suppose that Granny's moral sentiments reflect these immutable truths.

Question: To what extent can her moral sentiments be articulated? To what extent can we unpack them and articulate the moral truths they contain? To what extent is it possible to provide such an account?


These are questions about the nature of moral knowledge. On this issue, these are the questions that define a vision as more or less constrained.


Your initial post was nothing if not a clarion call for a rational accounting of Granny's moral sentiments, so that we might separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak. That is a (relatively) unconstrained view of the matter.


I don't say this as criticism or indictment. I say it to place the questions you raise in a wider context. I'm simply suggesting that you look beneath your call for greater explication of Granny's sentiments, and consider the deeper question of whether, and to what extent, such explication is possible.


I don't know the answer. Neither do you. Acknowledging that ignorance is where serious philosophical inquiry begins.

Julie, thanks for the follow up.


Unfortunatly, I don't have time now to continue the discussion. The immigration bill is extraordinarily dangerous, and I need to to devote my time to it. Perhaps at a later date.


Regards

Michelle:

No. I did not raise the question of human nature in my initial post; you raised it in your initial response by citing Sowell as the basis upon which to decry me as an "unconstrained" Utopian, or some such.

You end your last with an appeal for an acknowledgment of our shared ignorance as the beginning of serious philosophical inquiry. I take that to mean that you want to know whether I acknowledge that there are limits to perfect understanding. Indeed, I do. But the existence of these limits does not preclude our efforts to ascend from the depths of ignorance. We can and do make choices based on the knowledge garnered from reason (imperfect though it may be) all the time.

One of the limitations imposed upon our reason is that which indicates the need for prudence in making political (and I mean "political" in the broadest possible sense here) decisions. We cannot solve political problems in the same sense in which we solve mathematical formulas. Circumstances change, the possible changes, the perfect cannot become enemy to the good. This is why it pays to have a better grasp of the eternal things to guide us as we make decisions. What is the good we are trying to achieve in wishing for a stronger attachment to modesty for women? Answer that question first and then extrapolate--given all the particulars of today's situation--about how best to achieve that end. What worked in getting Granny's generation to respect modesty is not likely to work for this one.

Julie obfuscates: I did not raise the question of human nature in my initial post; you raised it in your initial response by citing Sowell as the basis upon which to decry me as an "unconstrained" Utopian, or some such.


1. Citing Sowell's book is in no way tantamount to raising "the question of human nature." Your previous posts make it embarrassingly obvious that you either haven't read the book or haven't understood it.


2. I did not "decry" you as anything, let alone a "Utopian, or some such."


Listen, Julie, I gave you a civil, reasoned reply. In response to your snippy challenge, I showed you with several passages from Sowell precisely how your initial post placed you in the unconstrained tradition.


Since you have neither the acumen to stick to the subject nor the intellectual grace to accurately represent what I wrote, my part in this thread is finished.


Why Knippenberg, Schramm, et al., allot space for your sophomoric, blonde ramblings eludes me. It cannot possibly be on the merits of what you post. I've taught many an undergraduate who could out write and out think you on a bad day. You are out of your depths here.

Michelle, frankly, I have found very little that is either civil or reasoned in any of your posts. And I am not embarrassed to say that I have not read this particular book of Sowell's. But I am sure that any undergraduate--even ones that you have taught--could parrot arguments from many a book you have not read. So what? It may strain your powers, but you should try constructing your own sometime. But, from what I understand of the summaries I took the time to find and read so as to better understand your opaque references to Sowell, he distinguishes between constrained and unconstrained traditions by looking at their conceptions of human nature. But I can see that it is pointless to continue this exchange with you because, despite your confession of ignorance, you are more suited to sophisticated insults (like blonde jokes) than serious inquiry. I will pray for your students.

Julie I am not sure that human nature exists. Or rather it cannot be stripped away from context. The context is the individual. The individual is a sum of many parts, many urges, many passions and differing ontological standards. For example: a middle class piano playing christian blonde of German/Scottish decent...Rearing, education, passions, experiences, interests...all these things shape the individual and none of them can be accounted for scientifically such that the effect they had on human nature could fully be understood. What is a man or woman Tabula Rasa? All that can trully be said of human nature therefore is that it is incredibly adaptive to experience...begins to sort this experience...begins to prioritize this experience...and ultimately a personality emerges that is human but also individual. Some people are much more inclined to "sin" than others...but as Mark Twain points out we frown upon the fox in the chicken coop while praise is given to the lamb for resisting temptation. ...and the parity gap between the persons who invest themselves in physical apperance and those who invest themselves in knowledge grows..as we age...since less effort is required to maintain a thing once it is established...human beings specialize... Thus human nature is not a single thing but the result of a specialization...a specialization that demonstrates itself in different virtues and apperances. Modesty is a specialization...

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