2008 by Janice Byrd

Janice Byrd of McKinney: I miss manners

A renewed sense of modesty could lead to deeper changes in our communities
Friday, October 5, 2007

What is with the "saggy pants" phenomena? Unlike the equally disturbing display of women's thong underwear, I can't imagine that this male fashion statement is meant to be sexually provocative or even attractive to the opposite sex. Watching the young men in Dallas sporting their skivvies on television, I get the idea that they are out to flaunt their freedom of expression despite being told how offensive it is. That, in itself, is rude. Exhibitionism is bad manners, and it is certainly immodest.

A discussion about indecent, offensive and inappropriate dress is most often directed to girls. Perhaps that is why the saggy-pant boys seemed only outlandish to me at first. But then I started thinking about how embarrassed and offended I feel when I see women baring much more than cleavage, belly-buttons and their own undergarments.

I read an insightful book a few years ago, Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit. Her ideas about how immodesty in the public arena has influenced our culture came to my mind.

Recently we heard the ACLU assert that Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho has a right, as does everyone, to solicit sex in a public restroom. Passengers in a car evidently have the right to watch adult movies on their DVD players in view of children and adults on our public streets. Patrons of the public library have the right to search for pornography on the Internet.

It seems that everyone claims the right to be discourteous because they believe that self-expression is more important than the consideration of others (manners). Once again, in an effort to tolerate anything and everything, our culture has become more uncivilized, brutish and beastly.

Modesty is uniquely human. Animals do not blush nor do they have "private parts." Everything they do is "in public." Not so with human beings. For people, created in God's image, modesty is a natural defense in public. It protects us from being vulnerable to the wrong people.

Modesty is more than what we wear, or don't wear. It is observing the proprieties of our culture, considering others first, setting personal boundaries, and respecting ourselves. A modest person does not seek to draw attention to herself or himself. Modesty is an attitude.

I believe a connection exists between modesty, manners and morals. Not to say that the saggy-pant-boys or the low-rise-jean-girls have any intentions of bringing down our society, or behaving uncivilly. But without guidance from their parents, who encourage independence and free expression over safety and courtesy, young people (and many adults) don't know how to differentiate between the appropriate behaviors for public and private lives. Society too has abdicated its responsibility for setting rules of etiquette.

Ironically, this immodest, ill-mannered behavior belies a lack of self-respect. Public displays of affection, nudity, and provocative attire that might be seen as braggadocio behavior are, in fact, signs of a low self-worth. It is modesty that quietly proclaims, "I'm too valuable for public use."

I'm not sure that making saggy pants illegal is going to solve the problem. We couldn't pass enough laws to cover (pun intended) all the ways people can be offensively exposed. Edmund Burke once remarked, "Manners are more important than the law." However, in our culture today, it seems a lot easier to pass a law than to enforce courtesy.

On the other hand, sometimes the correction of seemingly minor offenses can have major ramifications. William Wilberforce set out to "reform manners" in 18th century England "in order to resist the spread of open [public] immorality." He ended up abolishing the slave trade. Similarly, New York City police discovered that when they cleaned up abandoned buildings (even if it meant redoing their work every day), crime significantly decreased in the neighborhood.

This "broken-window" theory might apply now to Dallas' saggy pants problem. Could something as simple as a belt be the beginning of reducing rudeness, rowdiness and road rage?

Janice Byrd of McKinney is library director of the First Baptist Church of McKinney, a book performer and a Voices of Collin County volunteer columnist. Her e-mail address is Janice@JaniceByrd.com.

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