Friday, December 9, 2011

Stark, Raving Naked

Stories about the advent of human community usually involve transitions. They do not claim that human community emerged out of nothing; they show a different social organization preceding it.

Take Freud’s myth of the primal horde. In that story the first form of society was an oversized harem. The mythic first father possessed all the women.

Then, one day, his sex-deprived sons banded together and murdered him. Afterwards they ingested his remains, divided up his women and created a human community.

Thereafter all human beings lived in a state of constant, albeit unconscious, guilt over the first great crime.

Genesis offers a different version. It shows that the Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden for having transgressed God’s commandment.

Taking a bit out of the forbidden fruit may correlate with the murder of the first father, but that feels like a stretch.

The text says that Adam and Eve were enticed by the serpent and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their act brought sin into their world but it also made them moral agents. They had free will and thus would henceforth be responsible for their choices.

Admittedly, Judeo-Christianity has emphasized sin. Yet, the Bible marks the difference between before and after Eden in terms of shame.

While living in Eden, Genesis 2, 25 says: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”

After they had eaten the forbidden fruit, Genesis 3, 7 says: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they know that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”

After the Fall man and woman had to cover their shame. If they had not, they would not have been able to function within human community.

The therapy culture takes its cues from Freud, not the Bible. It tends to recommend letting it all hang out, expressing what is private in public.

Apparently, this culture offers the promise of a way back to Eden.

Unfortunately, you cannot go back to Eden. Fierce Cherubim are guarding the gates. Wanting to go back is a reactionary spasm,  a refusal to embrace free will, and a failure to accept the dire necessity of moving forward.

Jonah Lehrer reports that psychologists have been hard at work on this nakedness thing. What effect does nakedness have on the way you estimate human beings? Do we judge people differently based on how much skin they are exposing?

Here are two sets of pictures that were shown to the experiment’s subjects:

Lehrer reports on the unsurprising results of the experiments: “The psychologists demonstrated it’s quite easy to shift our perceptions of other people from having a mind full of agency to having a mind interested in experience: all they have to do is take off their clothes.

“When the pictures only showed a face, they had lots of agency. But when we saw their torso, we suddenly imagined them as obsessed with experience. Instead of being good at self-control, they were suddenly extremely sensitive to hunger and desire. Same person, same facial expression, same brief description – but a hint of body changed everything.”

In some cases, it's more than a hint.

Lehrer and the researchers see it as a mind/body problem, but, if you don’t mind a little literal-mindedness, it looks to me more like a face/body problem.

It should not come as too much of a surprise. The more skin you expose the more face you lose. And “face” in Chinese thought refers to your moral character. It’s not just about your good or bad looks. It is certainly not about appearances.

This means that the more you present yourself as a body, the less people will take you seriously as a human being with moral agency.

In reality and symbolically, your face is your social identity. It is who you are to your community. Who you are to your community is who you are.

If you want to be respected you must present the right face to the world. If your attire or your behavior distracts from your face then you are going to receive less respect. You will be seen as less serious, less professional, and less moral.

This means what you think it means. If you show too much skin on the job people are going to take you less seriously. If your appearance draws attention away from your face, you will lose the respect of your colleagues.

By now someone is going to be thinking that they have a constitutional right to expose as much or as little skin as they wish and that you have no right to think less of them.

Call this one of the fronts of the culture war on human nature.

Lehrer is aware of the culture’s attitudes and offers what I hope is an ironic expression of guilt by trying to excuse.

In his words: “These are obviously terrible habits – a hint of cleavage shouldn’t make us care less about someone’s feelings, nor should a different skin tone – but we mostly can’t help it. We judge books by the cover and minds by their appearance. We are a superficial species.”

Of course, this is bad news for the SlutWalkers. If you march through the streets in your undergarments, exposing a great deal of skin, nobody is going to take you seriously. If you also inscribe the word SLUT on your bare chest some people might just take you at your word.


n.n said...

The context matters. Acknowledging the underlying order(s) in our world matters. Our decision to dress is obviously not restricted to protection from the elements. It is a means to obscure and a means to distinguish.

I would have thought that the modern, enlightened man and woman would recognize a reasonable compromise between the two orders. Choosing one extreme, where the women is effectively isolated, or another extreme, where the woman is a slut, does not serve to preserve individual dignity.

Fortunately, men, as women, are capable of self-moderating behavior, and are capable of reasonable compromise. Well, a majority, or most do, anyway.

Neither frigid nor slut serves the best interests of humanity and civilization.

Robert Hagedorn said...

Challenge yourself. Google First Scandal.

james said...

We use clothing for communication, whether we like to remember that or not.