A Facebook friend posted the following letter, posted by one of her friends, and supposedly passed along by the target of the letter. The individual subjected to the complaint is reputedly trying to overcome obesity and various health issues. The letter:
I have my doubts regarding the authenticity of this, but it doesn’t matter to this post. I assume we can all agree that the letter itself, if genuine, is cruel, mean-spirited, cowardly (it is anonymous), hurtful, and indefensible. It does raise an valid ethics question, though, which is this: Do we have any ethical obligation any more to exhibit modesty and a degree of public decorum out of doors, when we are likely to come under the gaze of others? If so, what are that obligation’s parameters?
Some Hollywood B-listers have been agitating for an end to the alleged “gender discrimination” of city ordinances that allow men to appear topless in public, while women may not. These, of course, are generally unusually attractive people—unusually attractive people who can apparently find no real social policy issues to lend their support to—but this is the law, and we are discussing ethics. As with dress codes, the ethics behind public modesty is respect for your fellow citizens. We have the right to shout obscenities in public (most ordinances and statutes making that a crime have been declared unconstitutional), but it is still ugly, irresponsible, selfish, boorish and disrespectful behavior. We can get on airplanes, go to church, visit Arlington National Cemetery and sit in 300 dollar theater seats wearing flop-flops and wearing a tank top, but is that really ethical public conduct?
There is no question about it: traditions of modesty and decorum are often arbitrary, and we set out to destroy them, they will soon be gone. (See: The Dress Code Effect.) The #FreetheNipple crowd, for example, is pushing this beachwear…
…which is sure to be a big hit when Kate Upton or Jennifer Lawrence wears one, but perhaps less popular when the model is Rosie O’Donnell, Cloris Leachman or Nancy Pelosi. Is this really going to make society more pleasant, fair, respectful and accommodating, or just more crude, callous, and chaotic?
Our late neighbor, a colorful veteran of two wars, used to walk his dog on hot summer days shirtless, well into his nineties. The sight was not far removed from some of the horrors that greet viewer’s eyes on “The Walking Dead,” but no one would ever have been so unfeeling as to leave a letter like the one above in my neighbor’s mailbox. But should he have been more considerate?
I think maintaining some degree of modesty and respect for onlookers in public is still a worthy societal goal. It is a value, however, that requires intelligent self-regulation and common sense, as well as some tolerance and compassion. Between the #FreetheNipple crowd, the narcissists, the clueless, the slobs and the author of the despicable letter, I doubt that we have much of a chance at arriving at a reasonable and ethical balance.