We Need to Talk About Modesty

Modesty is an incredibility important quality. It allows us to regulate our self-perception and maintain self-esteem. However, while it is a while known and appreciated quality, I suspect that it is also widely misunderstood. People often confuse modesty with how we dress, rather than with how we regard ourselves, and tend to associate it with sexual promiscuity. In addition, this belief tend to negatively effect women far more often than it ever effects men. Modesty is definitely a problem in society but problem lies instead in our confused understanding of it and the unequal way in which it is applied.

For many, modesty comes down to how we dress. The more we cover up, the more modest we become; conversely, the more of our body we expose, the more immodest we become. It is understandable why provocative forms of dress are commonly thought of as immodest, since fashion as we know it is predicated on attracting attention from others, but I am strongly disinclined to regard clothing as the final or only manifestation of modesty. Modesty is hardly the only concern we consider when we choose our outfits. We dress to fit in, express personal aesthetic sense, and, or, to protect ourselves from harsh weather. With this in mind, we cannot conclude from a person’s appearance alone whether they are, in actuality, modest or not. Therefore, we must consider modesty for what it is—an attitude.

In Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, modesty is defined a “nondefensive willingness to see the self accurately, including both strengths and weaknesses (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, p. 463).” Modesty is fundamentally about attitude and not, as it is widely believed, about how we dress. It involves an unreasonable belief that one is better than others and deserves to be admired for it. The immodest person is one who boasts, exaggerating their skills and accomplishments, and is eager to put others down if it means making themselves look better by comparison.

In contrast, a modest person is someone who can knowledge their “mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge and limitations” but without utterly putting themselves down. Furthermore, they place less importance on their ideas, opinions, and moral perspective; and can appreciate “the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world (Peterson and Seligman, pg 462).” They are neither prone to boast about themselves nor reject praise when it is appropriate, and because they are comfortable with their strength and weakness, they feel little need to prove themselves at the expense of others.

This brings me to an important aspect of modesty and it regards gender differences. Whether you like it or not, acknowledge or deny it, modesty is a double standard. Women are expected to be modest, while men generally are not, and when women fail to meet these standards, they are punished very harshly. In the minds of many, modesty is more than what a woman wears. Wearing revealing clothing becomes a sign of promiscuity and the women bearing it are denigrated, regardless of their actual character or lifestyle. When it comes to the way women are perceived and judged, modesty is not really about unreasonable pride but about sexual control. However, contrary to the popular perception that women are immodest, research has consistently shown that men tend to score higher on measures of narcissism than women (Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T., 2015). If anyone is more likely to be immodest, it’s men and not women.

Modesty is not what we wear but how we wear it. Ultimately, our material possessions do not make us immodest but the fallacious belief that they make us better than anyone else and the desire to prove ourselves at the expense of others. The way we shame others, and especially women, is the true testament to the problem of modesty, not whether women wear a little or a lot of clothing. If we cannot understand this, we cannot understand modesty or even remotely achieve it.

References

Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261-310.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Worm at the Core (Book Review)

41LMKElQ5yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Death is an unpleasant thing. Sure, we may make jokes about it and wish it upon our enemies but when we actually begin to contemplate our own mortality we tremble in fear of what our existence, and lack thereof, might mean in the grand scheme of things. This might seem like a common sense—after all it has been a subject of serious contemplation by philosophers, theologians, and thinkers for centuries—but within the last thirty years or so psychologists around the world have been studying the role that the awareness we have of our own mortality has over how behavior and beliefs. In The Worm at the Core, psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski discuss the implications of a large body of research on what they have called “terror management” theory.

Terror management theory is largely derived from the 1973 book, The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker but addresses a problem that has vexed humankind for as long as anyone can recall. According to terror management theory, we rely on culturally relevant belief systems to buffer ourselves against existential anxiety. Our psychological defense can be both conscious and non-conscious but tend to be largely the latter. In addition, our reactions to death threat can varying in meaningful ways depending on whether or not death related thoughts are fully conscious or not.

When we consciously think about death we use proximal defenses. We use proximal defenses to remove conscious thoughts about our mortality from our minds. Once our awareness becomes non-conscious, we distal defenses. These defenses are only indirectly related to our mortality and lean instead towards fulfilling symbolic immorality. This is where our beliefs come into play. Ideals such as beauty, wealth, status, and good health can serve as buffers against existential anxiety. When participants are primed with a mortality reminder, their interest in these ideals increase compared to those in the neutral conditions.

However, for these ideals to have an impact, they must also be relevant to the individual. When people respond immediately to conscious death threats, they interests can radically change but participants are made to wait they tend to revert to which ever beliefs they held before. Awareness of death can make people express an increased desire to exercise but only those for whom exercise is meaningful part of their beliefs will actually increase the time they spend exercising.

Culture provides us with the defenses we use to buffer against existential anxiety but this does not mean that life is meaningless. Rather, it means just the opposite—that life is infinitely meaningful. However, the range of humanly relevant meaning is possibly quite limited. The beliefs we choose, whether consciously or not, are also hugely consequential. Our beliefs have the power to change the world and can quite literally be a life and death matter.

Prejudice is a type of culturally relevant belief, one that aggrandizes one group at the expense of others, and has been for a long time. In one experiments, researchers examined participants attitudes towards racial stereotypes. They found that those who were exposed to the death primer were more likely to favor people who fulfilled racial stereotypes, while those were were exposed to the neutral primer favored those who did not conform to racial stereotypes. In normal circumstances people tend to prefer those who do not fit racial stereotypes but when they are fearful of their own mortality they favor these stereotypes because they confirm a worldview that places them in a position of greater significance and value.

Terror management theory may seem rather grim but we are not mere puppets. In the concluding chapter, the authors point to potential solutions that may ameliorate the destructive potential our of defense mechanism. Accepting the finality of human life and becoming more aware of how the fear of death motivates us are necessary and vital components of our future survival and happiness.

The Worm at the Core is an incredibly insightful and well-written book. It sheds a scientific light on a problem that has plagued human consciousness for thousands of years. The experiments they discuss are wide ranging and touch upon many important social problems, such as judicial bias and prejudice. It well worth reading, not only those studying psychology or philosophy, but for anyone with an inquiring mind.

The Mysteries of Udolpho Revealed: The psychological terror and feminism of Ann Radcliffe

An illustration from an 19th century edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho.

An illustration from a 19th century edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho.

In the year 2005 I began reading Ann Radcliffe’s famous gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho and, after reading the first three-hundred pages, set it aside for several years since. In the interim I frequently wondered whether I would ever return to it and finally complete my reading but one thing or another deprived me of the interest in doing so. Then, in August of this year, I pulled it from its place on the self, determined to finish it, and—much to my surprise and delight—have! At long last I managed to read the last four-hundred pages and enjoyed every moment of the journey with its protagonist, Emily St. Aubert.

The Mysteries of Udolpho is not as well known today as it was two-hundred years ago. This cartoon by Lisa Brown perfectly reflects the reputation it has today. Unfortunately, it reduces the novel to a single aspect of its protagonist, both misrepresenting what it ridicules and neglecting the many good qualities that make Emily such a strong woman and her story so thrilling. Not only is Emily a strong, intelligent young woman who stands up for herself but the story clearly conveys a feminist message. Radcliffe was a talented author, whose sophisticated understanding of the human mind gave her characters unique dimensions and made the horror of the story truly psychological.

In The Mysteries of Udolpho there are no true supernatural phenomena and anything that appears so receives a perfectly rational explanation sooner or later. This has been the subject of some criticism ever since its publication but I found this aspect of the story both appealing and quite effective in creating an atmosphere of terror. For Radcliffe, terror is determined by how we perceive the world. Whether by superstitious belief or unease, Radcliffe’s characters are moved to feel fear, anxiety, and terror. Sometimes the explanation reveals a harmless source, even a friendly compatriot, but on other occasions Emily’s discoveries are far more macabre and often expose more mysteries.

Those who have criticized Radcliffe’s rational terror have argued that it robs the narrative of the sublime and of genuine horror but what she accomplishes in The Mysteries of Udolpho is really quite brilliant. Although the reader might know that the supernatural effects are illusions, these scenes are described in a way that defies an easy, rational explanation. Like Emily, I tried to explain what I saw through her eyes but failing to contrive a compelling answer actually intensifies the anxiety, and terror, we are supposed to feel with Emily.

Radcliffe was praised for her eloquent descriptions of landscapes and criticized for their frequency. Such is true for The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is only four pages short of eight-hundred. In addition to these beautifully poetic passages, I was impressed by her keen understanding of psychology. Her descriptions of Emily’s fears and how she checks herself by assessing or seeking out evidence reminds me of cognitive theory, which emphasizes how belief effects our perception of the world and how this, in turn, reshapes or reinforces, our beliefs. Emily tends to benefit most from her reason, while her companion Annette is more susceptible and willing to believe in supernatural explanations and less inclined to doubt what she assumes. Despite this, however, Emily does give in occasionally when her mood is affected by eerie stories or when she is caught off guard and Annette will dismiss a supernatural explanation when previous beliefs and knowledge provide a more compelling answer. They both have their own preconceived notions about strange phenomenon and although Emily generally tends to be right to assume a more rational perspective, she does not dismiss the possibility of the sublime when she considers her father looking after her from heaven.

The following passage perfectly reflect the psychological horror Radcliffe affects so well:

“The castle was perfectly still, and the great hall, where so lately she had witnessed a scene of dreadful contention, now returned only the whispering footsteps of the two solitary figures gliding fearfully between the pillars, and gleamed only to the feeble lamp they carried. Emily, deceived by the long shadows of the pillars and by the catching lights between, often stopped, imagining she saw some person, moving in the distant obscurity of the perspective; and, as she passed these pillars, she feared to turn her eyes toward them, almost expecting to see a figure start out from behind their broad shaft.”

Emily is notorious for her fainting fits and, like other aspects of the novel, I believe it has partly been misunderstood. They have been explained as a literary device that extends and enhances suspense, and in several instances this is true. Her struggle to maintain her senses in emotionally stressful situations does heighten the feeling of danger. They can also be understood as a reflection of the belief in “feminine weakness” that characterized the popular views of women at the time. Although all of Radcliffe’s characters are affected by the fear of the supernatural and of the fragility of their mortality, none of then men faint and only a few women characters in the novel actually do.

Both theories are apt but the way in which Radcliffe’s describes the psychic processes that precede her fits suggests another interpretation. What Emily expressions are panic attacks! She becomes anxious in the presence of danger or in the presence of a terrible sight, begins to breath heavily, loses her sense of the environment around her, and (if she fails to recover her composure) faints. A panic attack is understood as an abrupt experience of intense fear, induced either unexpectedly or by a specific object or situation, and is accompanied by physical symptoms that may include heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and even dizziness. If we interpret these fits from a contemporary psychological perspective one would diagnose Emily St. Aubert as suffering from an anxiety disorder.

One must also consider the circumstances of life in the sixteenth century, during which the story takes place. People would not have had the benefit of modern medicine and medical theory. The memory of the bubonic plague would have still be lingering on the cultural consciousness. The mortality rate was likely high enough to warrant a phobic response to the sight of blood or a decaying corpse, and Emily encounters plenty of these sights. This fear would be viewed as ridiculous and unjustified today, for we do not have to fear disease as our ancestors would have centuries before. This could be the reason for why people now perceive Emily’s fainting fits as something worthy of ridicule; we forget just how precarious human life can be and was then.

The Mysteries of Udolpho also contains a feminist message. The reputation of the gothic novel may not immediately suggest it but at least in the case of Radcliffe’s novel, the rights of women are advocated and are treated as equals. This becomes apparent when one examines how the good men of the novel treat women in contrast to how the evil men do. Valancourt, who is Emily’s love interest, treats her as an equal. He respects her decisions even when they contradict his own wishes, rather than compel her to his will. The reverse is true in the case of Count Morano, a rival suitor. Earlier in the story Emily’s uncle Montoni has promises her to him but later retracts the marriage when he discovers the count has lost much of his personal fortune. Count Morano doesn’t give up, however, and sneaks into Emily’s chamber by way of a secret passage with the promise to save her from her villainous uncle but, in return for his services, he demands that she marry him. Emily refuses the offer, explaining to him the injustice of his coercive offer and states, quite powerfully,

“Count Morano! I am now in your power; but you will observe, that this is not the conduct which can win the esteem you appear so solicitous to obtain, and that you are preparing for yourself a load of remorse, in the miseries of a friendless orphan, which can never leave you. Do you believe your heart to be, indeed, so hardened, that you can look without emotion on the suffering, to which you would condemn me?”

Unfortunately, Montoni proves to be even more exploitative than Morano. He imprisons his own wife when she refuses to surrender her property to him and pursues Emily with as much cruelty when the properties eventually become hers. He attempts to deceive Emily into signing away her inheritance but she sees through his deception when he refuses to allow her to read the document. He underestimates her intelligence and then, in  a final attempt to persuade her into signing, tries to flatter her into compliance. In doing so he reveals his contempt for women:

“I am not in the habit of flattering, and you will, therefore, receive, as sincere, the praise I bestow, when I say, that you possess an understanding superior to that of your sex; and that you have none of those contemptible foibles, that frequently mark the female character—such as avarice and the love of power, which latter makes women delight to contradict and to tease, when they cannot conquer.”

In the end, Emily triumphs over the evil schemes of her uncle and her other persecutors. She uncovers the mysterious affairs her father kept secret from her and marries her beloved Valancourt. Though she has lost her parents, she gains a new family previously unknown to her. Emily St. Aubert is not the weak heroine she has been mistaken to be but an intelligent and courageous young woman who defends herself despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Through she trembles at the sight of blood or of strange figures passing along the corridors at night, these circumstances never fully subdues her and she perseveres with fortitude against oppression.

In The Mysteries of Udolpho Radcliffe argues for the dignity and equality of women, and although it may not always stand up to the standards and criticism of contemporary Feminism, it deserves to be recognized for what it is rather than ridiculed for what it isn’t. Not only is it important within the history and development of the gothic literary genre but the merits of Radcliffe’s work are significant and should not be forgotten.

Trendscendance: Moving Beyond Conformity

The holiday break in between the Fall and Spring semester has given me ample time to explore the various shopping malls with my beloved. We pursued the abundance of products, musing over what we saw and gasping at the prices.

Despite my somewhat monastic attitude towards clothing I, like many people, am not immune to the allure of beautiful things, yet being in the mall also brings to mind the manipulative advertising techniques that compel us to purchase products, promising everything from efficiency to happiness, but never anything that might shatter the spell cast by the firms who contrive these campaigns. I wonder about the underlying forces that drive us to buy what people sell and sense their insidious presence inside myself. In a momentarily defiant spirit I am tempted to refuse cosmetics sellers my patronage with the words, “I mustn’t break my vow of humility.” While I will occasionally wear make-up, I prefer very pale powders over anything that might look natural; if I am to wear make-up I want people to know instantaneously rather than think my skin had not been kissed by the sun in years. Although I no longer feel compelled to wear make-up, I have not always felt this way.

Several years I ago I would not leave home without make-up and if you had asked me why I wore it I would insist that it was purely for my own enjoyment but, like so many silly people, I too fell hook, line, and sinker for the potions of perfection. I never consciously tried to impress people but when I look back on myself I realize that I was indeed trying to remedy what I perceived as my faults. Unlike other people, however, I never aspired to sex appeal (a waste of time, in my opinion); being so far without the norms of either sex I never expected to be found sexually appealing because of how I made myself up, and safely dodged that trap. Nevertheless, I was still caught up in a maddening obsession, so much that I fantasized about the cosmetic surgeries I would have when I had the money, and yet regardless of how far I strayed from the norm I was still bothered by a fear of ugliness grounded in how I thought people perceived me.

Now, as a result of several important changes in my life in the last few years, all that is behind me, and the affect these changes have wrought is strong. First, not having had much money of my own to spend I simply could not afford such luxuries and learned to live without them, and as I gradually became engrossed in the humility of socialism and the Craftsman ethic I felt my longing for many materials things decrease. (Besides, it is amusing to tell people that I simply haven’t the time and energy for such finery.) Secondly, the introduction of a mature and loving partner into my life allowed me to see myself from a different perspective, away from the inappropriate standards of beauty I imposed upon myself and towards a better conceptualization of beauty as something created through love. A handsome or pretty face is a delight to see but love confers upon our loved ones a more profound meaning, which I know as beauty. Last but not least, I reclaimed, or rather reinvented, a playful attitude towards clothing I experienced expressly as a child and lost in adolescence when conformity became compulsory.

There are those who will easily make the claim that conformity is wrong and evil, and in many ways they would be right to think so, but calculating the cost of conformity is more difficult than most would expect it to be, and certain more so than some social activists and pop stars claim.

We learn to conform when we are much too young to understand what we are doing, at a time when the fear of losing our parents’ love is a prevalent fear. Absorbed in our own worlds, we are removed from many of the neurotic concerns that torment adult life and struggle to understand the social roles bestowed upon our impressionable heads and through interpersonal relationships through which we are expected to navigate. We stand by our desires and respond to the external prohibitions with defiant protest (“hissy fits,” “temper tantrums,” “YouTube rants”). Our parents must go through great trouble just to get us to wash our hands and faces or to clean our rooms. Such behaviors were the affectations of adults, imposed upon us for some inexplicably cruel reason, but as we grow older we begin to affect the very same attitudes and behaviors we once found so incompatible.

As terrible as our parents’ demands may have felt at the time many of the behaviors we learned from them remain with the majority of us, unseen for what they are and regarded as nothing more than necessity or as common sense. After all, what is the process of toilet training but one of conforming to the demands of our parents in order to win their praise and assure their continued love? We are not born into the world ready to speak with flowery prose; we learn to all throughout our socialization. Many of us get dressed each morning with matching socks and would feel silly if later we discovered that the reverse were true. In its better manifestations conformity is merely the incorporation of external meanings for our own use when it is an effective response to real problems and further the fullest development of our peculiar potentialities.

At its worst conformity means the loss of self within a false but desirable identity, never fulfilling our most heartfelt ambitions, and the sacrifice of happiness for a hollow promise. We adopt culturally shared meanings for the purpose of earning the love, approval, and, or, acceptance of our peers, and the positive self value we attain en route. However, this is ultimately maladaptive, as it won’t inspire genuine love. If I disguise myself and construct a personality according to whatever people want me to be, then how can I expect anyone to actually loveme and not just who I pretend to be? All that I can expect is a shallow relationship predicated on the superficial, fetishistic appreciation of arbitrary and narrowly defined role-playing.

Much has been said and sung about the problem of conformity but too often I find that the solution some people eventually adopt is not a substantial improvement on old habits. To demonstrate that they are definitely not mainstream some people will exaggerate their appearance for that purpose alone but, just as the conformist seeks approval through assimilating popular behavioral patterns, the shallow nonconformist does just the same with anything unpopular. An old acquaintance of mine was once made quite unhappy when one of her favorite animals, the octopus, became a popular ornament on pieces of jewelry, t-shirts, watches, and other fashionable paraphernalia. Instead of rejoicing at the sudden availability of octopus theme products, she held it all in utter disdain because it made her feel ordinary. Of course, her fear was understandable but she quite mistook the source! In any case, the quality of being uniquely different from the mainstream was of greater value to her than any profound interest she might have had in octopuses. In our struggle to resist the tides of conformity we also run the risk of adopting an equally constrictive mode of behavior, one that values appearance above substance just as much as the conformist would, and is just as antithetical and counterproductive to its purpose.

The problem of conformity is not that we have rules but that we have too many and care too much about them. It is an integral part of the Human experience but in excess it can significantly inhibit our individual potential, causing severe distress and dysfunction. There is no simple solution to the problem of conformity. To be creative one must be prepared to give up certainty, to give up easy answers and face the ambiguous abyss of existential anxiety. We must be responsible for our meanings and decide for ourselves what is worth conforming to and what we must live without.