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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, April 26, 2010

This blog supports Boobquake

Good for Jen McCreight of Blag Hag for the idea of Boobquake.

For those who don't know, this little meme ridicules the idea that "immodest" dressing by women leads to lascivious thoughts from men, which results in fornication and adultery - which, in turn, cause earthquakes. The idea was proposed a few days ago by a senior cleric in Iran, but of course it's in line with the common thought in Islam that there's something wrong with a woman "showing her beauty to the world". Christianity is not much better, of course: there's a long tradition of Christian theologians problematising women's (and men's) bodies, deprecating sexual beauty, and expressing anxiety about sex itself.

Go back to the Church Fathers, to Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, for example, and look at what they have to say. Their writings are saturated with ideas of sexual sin and shame. Those ideas have carried right through to the present day, but they are absurd, miserable, and life-denying ... and they deserve our mockery. They exemplify the way that religion does dirt on the good things that this world has to offer.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of 1980s pseudo-feminism that took a similar attitude to that of Christianity and Islam, problematising displays of female beauty and even expressing disgust with heterosexuality itself. The worst offender was the egregious Andrea Dworkin - who died relatively young back in 2005. These pseudo-feminists merely use feminist-sounding language to rationalise the religion-based anti-sex morality into which they were socialised. But they lack the self-insight to understand that it's what they're doing.

Get it clear: there is nothing wrong with the beauty of the human body, male or female, nothing wrong with enjoying it, and nothing wrong with displaying it to the world. If you've been blessed with physical beauty, then for Aphrodite's sake display it; take pleasure in your good fortune, and let other people take pleasure in it. Strut your stuff, and don't let anyone make you feel ashamed about so-called "immodesty". Feel free to scorn the moralism of Islamic clerics and anyone else who tries to put you down.

I find it incredible that there's still so much irrational, religion-based shame and guilt about the body even within Western societies: so much fear of the body's beauty, and of its power to arouse sexual feelings. We see this shame, guilt, and fear even among atheists, many of whom have not fully liberated themselves from traditional morals. (For Zeus's sake, what's the point of being an atheist if you still buy into the same morality as the religionists? You need to get beyond that.)

Let's return to a healthy pagan value-set. For the Greeks, beauty, creativity, analytical intelligence, athletic ability, and many other things would have been seen as excellences that it's good for a human being to have. Unfortunately, few of us possess them all (I most certainly don't!), but all of them are worthy of enjoyment and celebration wherever and whenever we do encounter them. All of these human excellences open up possibilities of one kind or another, and give a sort of power to those who possess them; all of them are admirable; and all of them can be used to bring pleasure to others.

Anxiety about the body and its beauty is sometimes rationalised on the basis that we should value cognitive abilities above physical beauty, though I'd love to see a rational argument as to why we should adopt any particular hierarchy of values. In any event, this is not a zero-sum game. You can have many of these human excellences; they don't exclude each other; and you can take a proper pride in them all. (As it happens, most of the beautiful women whom I've been fortunate enough to know have also been highly intelligent and creative. But why expect otherwise?)

Apparently, judging from this post, Jen McCreight has been given a hard time by some of the remaining pseudo-feminists - Dworkin has gone, but they're not quite extinct - who still purvey a miserable 1980s ideology. Well, let them, but they deserve no more respect than Islamic clerics, or Vatican officials, or irrationalists of any other species.


Piero said...

"Anxiety about the body and its beauty is sometimes rationalised on the basis that we should value cognitive abilities above physical beauty, though I'd love to see a rational argument as to why we should adopt any particular hierarchy of values."

Well said. I've come to think that most people would actually rather be beautiful than clever, because beauty is a more primitive, "limbic" attribute; but they would not admit it even to themselves. On the other hand, brains last longer than beauty...

GTChristie said...

Sin and shame at one time was a form of birth control and that also tied in with preventing undue friction between men who are by nature territorial and (luckily for human evolution) jealous over the fatherhood of their children. Since it has been customary in our culture to cover up, uncovering is radical in a way social stability is not. I think the stunt is, at best, misguided.

Miranda Celeste Hale said...

"If you've been blessed with physical beauty, then for Aphrodite's sake display it; take pleasure in your good fortune, and let other people take pleasure in it. Strut your stuff, and don't let anyone make you feel ashamed about so-called "immodesty". Feel free to scorn the moralism of Islamic clerics and anyone else who tries to put you down."

But I don't think it's that simple. I'm incredibly shy and uncomfortable "being on display," so to speak, but that certainly doesn't mean that I agree with the ridiculous attitudes of this cleric or others who think like him.

I would never even think of telling another woman how she should or should not dress (as it's none of my business), but I'm equally uncomfortable with the (maybe just implied?) assertion that if a woman isn't particularly comfortable displaying her body and/or sexuality, then she is acting irrationally or isn't progressive enough.

Truism said...

godammit!!! only 5 comments and I have to spend half an hour scrolling down to read them.

I think we should taunt these people in as many ways as we can. Not gratuitously, not in irrelevent ways, not cruelly (bloody hell, hope I'm not sounding accommodationist here!)and certainly not violently - but as often as we can.
Lampoon, lampoon, lampoon!

Amanda said...

The ambivalence of some feminists over boobquake is far more nuanced and thoughtful that you're giving it credit for and is certainly not (that I have seen) rooted in anykind of "anti-sex" position, although of course I haven't read everything written on it by everyone but I've surveyed the reaction on most of the big feminist blogs, including those that write from a position explicitly skeptical/rationalist point of view.

Actually any backlash against the idea started by reading the Facebook page and the drooling, creepy comments left by men here about it, which demonstrate to me (not that I needed further evidence frankly) that plenty of rationalist, atheist, western self-identified-as-liberal men have some seriously unhealthy and immature attitudes about bodies and sex and women themselves. If the discussion around boobquake helps some reflect on this, then hooray.

FTR, I think boobquake is a harmless idea, but nonetheless like anything can be seen in a larger societal context which may well raise questions and ambivalent feelings that are worth discussing, and such conversations shouldn't be shut down with the "oh ignore those humourless feminazis" thing.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Truism, lampoon, lampoon, lampoon!

Colin said...

Dworkin really was a disturbed soul, and not just in the metaphorical sense. And I really wonder if the 'radical feminism' to which she became an icon may have served a very unhelpful enabling role in some of her delusions.

As for Boobquake - hmm. It's kind of a funny idea, but ladies, make sure you confine it the cleavage and don't, for gods' sakes, show a glimpse of nipple, or else you're likely to fall foul of the puritanical laws in the sane and rational Western democracies.

What sets apart the hardcore Muslim countries is the insane disprortionately of their penalties. The rules about covering up are just about as arbitrary and, frankly, ridiculous here.

Anonymous said...

I saw boobs and now my house is shaking... I can live with it. Seriously

Anonymous said...

I'm baffled by "Amanda"'s claim about "the drooling, creepy comments left by men here about it". If by "here" she means "on this blog", she clearly hasn't actually *read* any of the comments - Piero saying that brains last longer than beauty, DM raving as usual, GTChristie encouraging women to stay covered up to retain social stability (because men are ravening beasts who can't control themselves), Celeste saying she doesn't want to do it, and Truism suggesting (undroolingly) that we lampoon, lampoon, lampoon. No visible drool.

Miranda Celeste Hale said...

Jenny, Amanda was referring to the event's Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=116336578385346

Jerry Coyne said...

Russell, my friend, I can't get behind you on this one, or behind your implication that women who don't approve of this stunt, or don't participate, are somehow the equivalent of Andrea Dworkin.

Here, I haz post: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/boobquake/

Zuska said...

The comments about Andrea Dworkin in the OP could only be written by someone who has never read Dworkin's actual writing. Dworkin never wrote or maintained any sort of theory or opinion or rhetoric that even closely resembles what you are atributing to her. It is exceedingly tiresome to see this misrepresentation of her work continually spread around by people who have never even bothered to engage with what she actually said, and who are instead operating on fourth-hand rumors of what some scared misogynist d00ds claim she said. Do yourself a favor and actually READ Dworkin first if you are going to attempt to critique her. You are not doing yourself or feminists or women in general any favors by displaying your ignorance and perpetuating mistruths about Dworkin's body of work.

Anonymous said...

Russell, now I can only ever talk for one section of Christianity - The Church of Christ, or The Disciples of Christ, of which I am a member and I often take slight (very slight sometimes) offense of pundits and commentators just saying Christians did this, Christians did that.

In this modern age I expect a form of accuracy to occur in commentary. The Catholic Church did untold damage to people as well as good. Fundamentalist Christians are just as misaligned as any other fundamentalist group in the world and Pentacostals also have their moments of madness.

Be specific please, it isn't hard. I could say all atheist victimize religious people, which you know isn't exactly true.

My brand of faith runs close to Dawkins, who I'm not a fan of, and does not believe anyone goes to a hell or to damnation, simply because there really isn't a heaven or hell - it is just social construct to make living easier for some.

Okay, that was a bit of a rant, but it does need to be made clear not all Christians think the same and it isn't an easy label to use like some kind of 'the label mean this' sticker.

One day we probably need to have a chat about how somethings work in my world anyway.

I always remember something and elderly Christian woman at my church said one day. "If God created anything better than sex, then he failed to tell us about it."

Atheists aren't the only ones who have reasonable attitudes. True, religious folks can at times be just plain infuriating, but those who speak the loudest are usually the ones who have little idea.

Robert N Stephenson (sorry forgot my google login)

Anonymous said...

PS. No offense intended. I use to be an atheist and did have firm beliefs in that thought process.


Anonymous said...

"Anxiety about the body and its beauty is sometimes rationalised on the basis that we should value cognitive abilities above physical beauty, though I'd love to see a rational argument as to why we should adopt any particular hierarchy of values"

Well I'm one of those and though I wholeheartedly agree with everything else, I think this IS a debatable point. Firstly, a reasonable inference that can be made is that brains have contributed more to the development human society and human progress than beauty. I may be biased to think so because I'm as ugly as they come, but I think's it's a valid idea to celebrate one more than the other purely because it is in our interest as a society as a whole to have more of one kind than the other. It seems to me an odious comparison to make, equating subjective notions of attractiveness to universal cognitive brilliance.

My second point is a follow up to my first in that I don't really accept the notion of objective beauty. It has many cultural connotations and encumbrances, and there hardly exists an objective definition of beauty that is accepted by all. While foot binding might be an extreme example, I still feel that beauty as it is exists today, tends to cause more pain to people than joy, especially for women. It is something that enables sexism and discrimination as it can be moulded so easily by opinions of the majority of that particular society.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think that beauty is objective either. Not if "objective" means "is measurable by a standard that transcends all social institutions and affective attitudes". I'm not usually worried about using what I'll call "beauty language", because I think it's understood by most people that beauty is not objective in that way.

But moral goodness isn't either. It's difficult to avoid using "moral goodness language", given how entrenched it is. But I actually feel more uncomfortable using moral goodness language than I do using beauty language, since many people will, indeed hear it as transcendent, metaphysically-laden, etc., even though that's not what I intend. Some people don't even seem to understand what the problem is. So part of me would like to find a way of avoiding ordinary moral language (as Richard Garner argues we should do).

Obviously, though, I still think there are good reasons not to be cruel or callous or whatever. And I also have very strong emotional reactions to those things when I see them.

It's difficult to condemn such things as cruelty without using the ordinary moral language that everyone recognises. You'll notice, though, (when I point it out) that I have a tendency to say: "That was cruel!" rather than to say "That was morally wrong!" The former is not only more specific and evocative; it also seems to me to be less likely to be interpreted as metaphysically-laden or making a transcendent claim.

To be honest, though, I'm not sure about this. I think there are difficult questions of moral and aesthetic semantics here. What do we really mean when we describe an act as morally good or a person (or a sunset) as "beautiful"? What do mean when we describe an action as "cruel"? There's empirical content to the claim, of course - the action caused pain or suffering, the agent was indifferent to causing this, or even enjoyed doing so, etc. - but there's also non-empirical content. What's the nature of this? Is it cognitive at all? If it's non-cognitive does it nonetheless claim some transcendental validity?

Intelligence may be more objective, granted, though it's difficult to nail down what it really is. Some kind of problem-solving ability, I suppose. Well, granted again, we do need to solve various problems. Creativity is different again - presumably it's only of value if it leads to products that have some kind of aesthetic value - but again, is this value ever objective? If so, in what sense?

Anonymous said...

Russell I understand where you are going here but as Orson Scott Card once said, if something is a loaf of bread then call it a loaf of bread.

The problem is not so much the words used - or morally conceived. We cannot escape many tens of thousands of years of developing a functioning moral codec. So called religious morality is only terminology rather than true meaning, so it wold be better if when we use the term moral it is back to the base development from which all other terminolgies were born. That my friend won't be easy - remember, it took thousands of years of cultural development to even accept a moral code at all.

The moral code often used by Christians (10 commandments) are an abbreviation of the 100 laws of Kings, where the reference to King was replaced with God and the 100 laws curt down to a more manageable 10 - when this happened isn't know, mainly because some goat herders found the destroyed the 10 laws tablet hoping to find riches within. But, the 100 laws were found carved into stone somewhere in Iraq, Iran area -- been a long time since I referenced that, so I am a bit shaky.

The new moral speak, understanding or meaning behind the words and concepts will be a slow process, and if you do examine society in general you will see that even though many moral positions are taken, the source route has changed to a more contemporary and holistic understanding. Not everything mind you, but there has been a start in this regard.

Sadly the last of the moral codes that will be changed will sexual morality which for some reason has this religious default mechanism happening. Sexual morality wasn't a Christian issue, it was one of the normal social issues only regarding your sister or brother...

You know my faith base but this base does not include any moral stand point as dictated by any religion - I aim for a more common understanding, acceptance and sharing approach to knowledge and social interaction - the latter being the most important.

The body issue is only a veneer over the deeper concerns we face today.

Robert N Stephenson (And Russ, it is true, most people do think I am crazy)

GTChristie said...

Don't put words in my mouth Jenny. I did not encourage anyone to cover up and I did not say "because" anything. My statement was, and is: uncovering is a radical act and I think it's misguided. Obviously the confusion it causes (judging by the discussion) bears that out. FTR, I am not a Christian nor am I a fundamentalist. But I do believe in culture, and ours understands some things better than others. Again ... stick to the text as given and please do not infer or apply your own vision of motivations, mine or anyone else's.

Amanda said...

Had a few net free days but just want to be clear: Jenny, yes I was talking about Facebook not this blog. I've been reading Metamagician daily for a long time but rarely comment because I agree with Russell on basically 100% of everything so there's no need after he's already said it all.