Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pitting Truth Against Beauty

The pastor of our local church spoke this past Sunday on Philippians 4:8, in which the Apostle Paul is exhorting his readers to dwell on "higher things":
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

The pastor then went into a discussion of temptations that (especially) men face in being confronted with the images of our culture (e.g. the magazine rack at the convenience store, the checkout display at the grocery store, and so on). And he brought up the fact that the images are often doctored. They are the result of, not only hours of hair and makeup work, but also extensive image retouching via Photoshop or other software. In effect, they are pictures of nobody at all - images of people who do not exist. And his point was that we are tempted to trade the real life beauty that is often right before us for something fake, fabricated, false. To highlight the point, he showed this video during the service (well worth a look):



Of course, the point can be expanded, as the video indicates. Young girls are repeatedly exposed to these unrealistic images, and meant to feel self-conscious for their realistic features - features often beautiful in their own right. As a father of three girls, I made the point of showing it to my girls myself, and reinforcing the fact that they are being fed lies by our culture.

There is a strong classical tradition that calls people to seek after the triad of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (bonum, verum, pulchrum). They were seen as being in relationship to one another; indeed, the Judeo-Christian tradition sees the three culminating in the Most High God. In this case, however, truth is sacrificed for the sake of beauty, and the results are as might be expected: the happiness of real human beings is affected - impaired - by the commercially-driven aesthetic quest unbridled by the truth.

Liberal feminist author Naomi Wolf commented on a similar situation in her New York Magazine article of 2003, "The Porn Myth" (warning: contains some explicit language). Commenting on anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin's predictions, she argues that Dworkin
...was right about the warning, wrong about the outcome. As she foretold, pornography did breach the dike that separated a marginal, adult, private pursuit from the mainstream public arena. The whole world, post-Internet, did become pornographized. Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training—and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.

But the effect is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as “porn-worthy.” Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.

Interestingly, looking at the tragic effects of pornography has given Wolf a measure of respect for traditional religious belief and practice. She writes
I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women turned on to one another over time—to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, “rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.” These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family.

"And feminists," she continues, "have misunderstood many of these prohibitions." She goes on to describe a very different approach to sexuality inspiring "a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West." If we hold up sex as something sacred, and allow that to inform our practices - the way we dress and otherwise present ourselves (I think there can be different manifestations of this, not restricted to the particulars of Wolf's story) - it can be transforming to our relationships. Wendy Shalit came to the same conclusions in her excellent book A Return to Modesty.

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. If we are willing to re-unite these old friends, and are willing to call upon the views of traditions that pay them tribute when it comes to the human form and countenance, then perhaps we can avoid some of the perils of modern culture. We may be surprised to find out just how satified we can be with what is real and right in front of us.

7 comments:

Brian said...

Another thoughtful and well-written post Steve. I agree with some of it and I've written along similar lines in a post about the mainstreaming of porn. However, I do have a couple of quibbles.

Do you really believe that there are a surplus of young women out there who are unable to find men who want to have sex with them? I agree that the availability of porn does not turn young men into raving beasts, but at least a few of them would surely put down their Penthouses in order to satisfy the needs of these ladies.

Your other point about religious morals and the covering of women. I agree that it can increase the eroticism of the event, but I don't think that benefit outweighs the damage that can come from allowing an authority to determine what people are allowed to wear. You just end up with burkhas and zealots who stone women to death for showing their ankles.

In contrast think of tribal african societies where full frontal nudity is the norm and sex is no big deal. The still manage to have loving relationships and plenty of children. Perhaps it is the intentional eroticism, the forbidden quality of sex, which has caused many of the problems in society. Any time you repress a natural urge you increase it's appeal, but you also dangerously twist it.

ST said...

Hi, Brian -

Thanks for stopping by. I'll have to look for your post on the subject.

I think Wolf is on to something, but it is probably only one effect among many. I thought her singular conclusion was a bit restricted. She might reply that it could lessen the experience for those who do engage one another.

On covering, I think the context and extent are important before we can make sweeping judgments. For example, extreme covering (e.g. burkhas) may lead to isolation, lack of communication, and so on, that could slide into other evils. But some degree of modesty above the norm, in a consenting community, without an authoritarian edge, could be of great benefit. Have you read Shalit's book?

On your last set of comments, I would disagree in a few ways. On my view, sex is in principle a big deal, even if not perceived as such by some cultures. I bet we could find some immodest behaviors in those cultures, also. Sometimes they are the reverse of what we would expect; covering up is seen as racy.

Finally, you say

Perhaps it is the intentional eroticism, the forbidden quality of sex, which has caused many of the problems in society. Any time you repress a natural urge you increase it's appeal, but you also dangerously twist it.

To your speculation: perhaps, but I see no reason to think so. And your final conclusion seems a bit strong. If a teenager sitting in English class desires sex with the girl next to him, should he "repress" this natural urge or act on it there and then? Or should he resist on peril of "twisting" his desire? Is self-control a bad thing, on your view? One could multiply the cases quite easily. I am sure you would prefer to qualify your principle.

Regards,

Steve

Brian said...

There are occasions when modesty is fitting but it is important to understand that this is not absolute, but is a social construct which changes over time and differs from place to place.

Among the ancient Cretans, the style was for women to wear long skirts, but leave the breasts bare. This was especially true during fancy occasions and ceremonies. Nothing wrong with it, though it may seem strange to us.


Regarding sexuality itself:

Using self control and repressing yourself are two different things. Of course it would be ridiculous if you walked in to a restaurant, saw a man eating a delicious meal and ripped it out of his hands to stuff into your own mouth (ditto with your teenage rape story). But what would be wrong with quietly sitting down and ordering the same dish yourself (as long as the waiter consented)?

Sexual mores change over time and from place to place and we have to realize that in many ways the ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome had much healthier attitudes towards sexuality than we do today.

Repressing one's sexuality always damages the psyche. For instance, Ted Haggard was an evangelical preacher who repressed his homosexual desires and even preached against them. He was evidently full of self-hatred and ended up getting caught in a hotel room sniffing drugs off the back of a male prostitute. Better that he should have accepted who he was and entered into a stable relationship with another man.

I'm not saying that it should just be a free for all, but an uptight and repressive religious authority dictating what people are allowed to do with their own bodies is a recipe for disaster.

ST said...

Hi, again, Brian -

A few quick thoughts - mostly questions, as I'm curious about your views - on your recent comments:

There are occasions when modesty is fitting but it is important to understand that this is not absolute, but is a social construct which changes over time and differs from place to place.

That's one view of modesty. Is there an absolute behind modesty as manifested in cultural conventions, that inspires and at times informs and shapes it?

Using self control and repressing yourself are two different things. Of course it would be ridiculous if you walked in to a restaurant, saw a man eating a delicious meal and ripped it out of his hands to stuff into your own mouth (ditto with your teenage rape story). But what would be wrong with quietly sitting down and ordering the same dish yourself (as long as the waiter consented)?

Then the distinction between self-control and repression turns upon what is right, wise, prudent, etc. in a particular setting. Reflection on those aspects is where the discussion has to take place, not at the level of so-called "repression". Don't you agree?

Sexual mores change over time and from place to place and we have to realize that in many ways the ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome had much healthier attitudes towards sexuality than we do today.

I assume you mean this to be a summary statement with the next paragraph as your supporting argument. Otherwise, it looks like an assertion more than a reasoned conclusion.

Repressing one's sexuality always damages the psyche. For instance, Ted Haggard was an evangelical preacher who repressed his homosexual desires and even preached against them. He was evidently full of self-hatred and ended up getting caught in a hotel room sniffing drugs off the back of a male prostitute. Better that he should have accepted who he was and entered into a stable relationship with another man.

It is a very sad case, I'll give you that much. But whether this is (a) an instance of sexual repression or (b) a gross loss of self-control depends on prior notions already mentioned.

You seem to be setting this up as a conflict of desires, i.e. on the one hand, Haggard desired some things associated with his "normal" life as a heterosexual husband, father, and pastor; on the other, he had a desire for sex with another man. How, on your view, should Haggard have sorted out these desires?

Furthermore, if stability is the object, then what is your source for statistics on the stability of homosexual relationships? Are they really more stable over and against heterosexual ones? And if not, then why not favor the original heterosexual relationship?

I'm not saying that it should just be a free for all, but an uptight and repressive religious authority dictating what people are allowed to do with their own bodies is a recipe for disaster.

Where is the "uptight and repressive [there's that word again] religious authority" on the scene? Can you clarify? Is it anyone providing principles for informing sexual behavior?

As you can see, Brian, I'm far from understanding your view -- much less inclined towards accepting it -- at this point. But I'd be interested in further conversation to see how this cashes out.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these matters. Take care,

Steve

Brian said...

"Where is the "uptight and repressive [there's that word again] religious authority" on the scene?"

Fortunately the church no longer has that kind of power in today's society, but you can still see it in Islamic countries. Particularly the recent case in Saudi Arabia where a women who was gang raped was punished for being out with a man she was not related to. But don't think that many in the fundamentalist churches wouldn't like to have that power here if they could. In fact, pretty much all of the anti-sex laws still in effect stem from religious objections to certain types of sexual activity.


"And if not, then why not favor the original heterosexual relationship?"

If it could be statistically proven that homosexual relationships were more stable than heterosexual ones would you suddenly decide to enter a gay realtionship? People don't choose their sexuality - did you wake up one morning and decide to like women or did it come naturally?

The point I was making is that people who are homosexual and repress it are much more likely to become involved in self-destructive behaviour. As homosexuality becomes normalized and accepted you will see much more stable gay relationships. In fact it is already happening. If Ted Haggard could have realized this and been accepted for who he is, then he would have been a lot happier.

I think this holds true for any sexuality. Of course this doesn't mean that people should be allowed to have sex whenever and wherever they want because there are times and places where such activity is not appropriate - like in the middle of a classroom while a lecture is going on.

But I don't see why a private sexual act shared between any number (and whatever mix of genders) of consensual participants should be considered immoral. Who is it hurting? I'm not saying I would personally participate in such acts, but what right do I or anybody else have to say about others who do?

This is the difference between self-control and repression. If I have a sexual urge I don't have to immediately gratify it by raping the person standing next to me. I can use self control. Repression is when you think that the sexual urge itself is bad and try to forbid it from even occuring.

That doesn't mean that all urges are good (especially the ones that involve pushing people off of cliffs), but we are sexual beings and we need to be able to realize that sex is not evil or bad.


"Is there an absolute behind modesty as manifested in cultural conventions, that inspires and at times informs and shapes it?"

I would say no. Modesty is entirely a social construct as a look through history will tell you (real history, not bible history). And forget history, just look at the spectrum of human societies across the globe today. If you have evidence that there is some sort of absolute I'd be happy to hear it.

ST said...

Hi, Brian -

Much to quibble with (as you put it earlier) in this latest response, but let me focus in on the following passage to keep things simple:

But I don't see why a private sexual act shared between any number (and whatever mix of genders) of consensual participants should be considered immoral. Who is it hurting? I'm not saying I would personally participate in such acts, but what right do I or anybody else have to say about others who do?

This is the difference between self-control and repression. If I have a sexual urge I don't have to immediately gratify it by raping the person standing next to me. I can use self control. Repression is when you think that the sexual urge itself is bad and try to forbid it from even occuring.

That doesn't mean that all urges are good (especially the ones that involve pushing people off of cliffs), but we are sexual beings and we need to be able to realize that sex is not evil or bad.


I have trouble believing that you are satisfied with this principle, Brian, that any sexual urge is benign. Perhaps I am misreading you, but that's what I gather when you say that "[r]epression is when you think that the sexual urge itself is bad." Now it may be, but you don't specify, that you mean that one is not guilty in having the initial urge in whatever circumstance. If so, few reasonable people would disagree with you. We might say, however, that it is something that needs to be corrected in a particular case, depending upon its object and the circumstance. And this is where your concept of "repression" (as stated) seems too wide: it would take in everything from sexual attraction to children, to animals, to inanimate objects, to corpses. If repression is ipso facto a bad thing, then people shouldn't redirect their thinking in such cases; they might even be encouraged in it. I would say in these cases that such attraction is disordered, and redirecting that attraction is urgently needed.

But building on this, and assuming that you agree that sexual attraction to children or animals, etc., is not benign, what you would have to do is qualify your statement to include certain exceptions to the rule, perhaps for various reasons. What this points out, I think, is that your reliance on "repression" begs crucial questions about what the proper objects of sexual desire are. And if we differ on those foundational concerns, then labelling opposing views as "repressive" is not only fallacious, but it does nothing to advance the discussion. It ends up generating more heat than light. It would be like me insisting that you repent because you are in violation of God's Word, the Bible, when you have serious questions about the authority of the Bible itself. Or like Christopher Hitchens, who races to say that "It is wrong to lie to children" about God, the Bible, etc., when the real disagreement is whether or not Christianity is true; in the context of such disagreement, lying is already excluded. Similarly, in the realm of sex, the discussion should be about the root of our disagreements: what the nature of sexuality is, what sex is for, and so on.

Do you see what I'm saying? If I have misunderstood your view on sexual urges and repression, I am open to correction, but at least this will give you a sense of what I think you are saying, and why I believe it is the wrong approach to discussion of such matters.

Until next time, take care.

Steve

Brian said...

Great reply! You've made some good points that I need to think about.

Just quickly I would say that consent between sexual partners is the only necessary dividing line that I can see. I would further add that only adults are mature enough to truly give consent.

I think the nature of our disagreement stems from our differing starting points. You probably see sex as divinely created by god for a special purpose while I think it is a bodily function which happened to have evolved.

Now obviously we as rational, thinking humans have imbued sexuality with more meaning than that, but my point is that there is no absolute from beyond ourselves that can determine what those limits should be. We make those descisions as a society and they are mutable and subject to change over time.

I would argue for more sexual liberation, that people should be free to do with their bodies what they want as there is no coercion and as long as it is not infringing on rights of others.