Mesa Musings: Modesty, where have you gone?


It's a forgotten virtue in this culture.

Remember long ago when our teachers introduced us to the "Seven Heavenly Virtues" (as opposed to the "Seven Deadly Sins")? Those virtues were spelled out as: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. They were once considered important concepts for schoolchildren to remember.

Though the word "modesty" isn't among them, it is clearly implied in several items on the list.

Modesty isn't solely about dress — though it clearly is about that. It's also about conduct, ego and character. One dictionary defines modesty as, "The state or quality of being modest; reserve or propriety in speech, dress or behavior; lack of pretentiousness; simplicity."

Paul, the apostle, wrote in the 1st century, "I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety."

Can our culture even remember what propriety means? ("Conformity to the standards of politeness, respect, decency or morality conventionally accepted by a society.")

Today, the loud, the obnoxious and the obscene scream at us from every open window. Modesty, true to its nature, is a retiring wallflower.

In America's sexually charged, "Girls Gone Wild" atmosphere, modesty is perceived as a prudish, outmoded, antiquated old battle-ax. She's routinely derided as a "a stuffy Puritanical bluenose."

I come late to this argument. Composer Cole Porter wrote a clever lyric in 1934 that bemoans society's lost innocence: "In olden days a glimpse of stocking, was looked upon as something shocking. But now, God knows, anything goes."

So it seems.

Forty-odd years ago when I was a high school student, we boys were slightly embarrassed by the fact that we were still chaste, yet, 98.5% of us remained that way through graduation, and some even into military service.

But we survived the condition. High school girls of that era deliberately and purposefully guarded their virtue.

Because most of us had mothers who impressed upon us the meaning of being a gentleman, we boys did little to push the envelope.

Today, sex education is often taught early in the elementary grades. I learned that stuff from my parents, and also by deduction in my high school biology lab. I may have been less than adroit at figuring out many things of this life, but I wasn't so dense as to fail to recognize similar behaviors among the species.

My lack of formal sex education in school cost me nothing.

I'm told there are high school girls today who are made to feel embarrassed by the fact they're still virgins. As the father of three grown daughters — and grandfather of five granddaughters — I find that distressing. Peer pressure is potent.

Because of the significant erosion of modesty, we've also lost sight of its twin offspring: embarrassment and shame.

People used to become embarrassed when they unintentionally experienced a public "clothing malfunction." Now, some fashions seem pre-programmed for malfunction.

In the past, individuals felt shameful after uttering a profanity overheard by someone thought not to be in earshot. And they were mortified when caught red-handed in a deception or infidelity.

Not so much anymore.

Here are some names I suspect you'll not see mentioned in the same breath with the phrase, "beacons of modesty": Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lady Gaga, Adam Lambert, Pamela Anderson, Lindsay Lohan, "Snooki," Rod Blagojevich, Kim Kardashian and just about anyone affiliated with a reality show.

These narcissistic individuals have played a role in the coarsening of our culture. Their attention-starved antics debase the tenets of decorum and are desperate and wearisome. For some, their lives have become public train wrecks.

Unfortunately, many in our society look to them as entertainment icons or, worse yet, role models.

Decades ago, economist John Kenneth Galbraith called modesty a "vastly overrated virtue." Not so in the second decade of the 21st century. I find it refreshing.

The French writer Honoré de Balzac labeled modesty "the conscience of the body." Perhaps it should be elevated to "conscience of the culture."

I fear that train has already left the station.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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