A matter of degree

May 15, 2014 • 3:10 am

I’m off to Kamloops, British Columbia today to attend the Imagine No Religion conference, but hope that some posting will continue somehow (it always manages to). Can I get a Darwin?

Over on his website Pictoral Theology, reader Pliny the In Between has a graphic take on Monday’s kerfuffle about whether American women who can’t take off their tops everywhere are treated just as badly as their Muslim sisters forced to wear veils, bags, and other face-and-body-obscuring garments. (Correct answer: “Hell, no!”)

But I digress:


53 thoughts on “A matter of degree

  1. There is nothing wrong with being careful about pointing fingers. Long treatises could be written about cultural norms. A problem may arise when you show up in a foreign country insisting on your own cultural norms even if they happen to differ very much from those of the native citizens. Think burkas in France – illegal! in Afghanistan – practically required! in the US – whatever!

    1. Of course, the other side of the cultural norms in dress is the reaction sanctioned by the state. Showing more skin than the law allows here gets you a warning or a fine. Showing some skin in other countries can get you a lot of lashes… or worse.

  2. It doesn’t seem so obvious to me. Why should women be held responsible for the response of men to them being topless?

    There are other cultures where toplessness is gender neutral, so it’s not a law of nature, is it?

    Reminds me though of a Rodney Dangerfield joke. “So I’m walking past a bar. The sign says ‘topless, bottomless.’ So I go in. No one’s there!”



    1. Is the reverse true? If a man exposed himself to a woman on the street, would you ask “Why should a man be held responsible for the response of women to his penis? After all, there are cultures where nudity is taken for granted, so it’s not a law of nature.”

      1. If it makes a woman uncomfortable for a man to expose himself, then he should be held responsible. He is in the wrong, not her. If a man is made uncomfortable by the sight of an exposed woman, that is his problem, not hers. Again, he is wrong, not her.

        Inconsistent? Of course it is, and I’m not sure if I’ve seen any good arguments to justify the inconsistency, but that is the way it is.

        I have given up worrying about minor doublestandards (microinconsistencies) that favor women over men, and are thus technically sexist against men, because they are not worth the trouble to argue against. As a white male, my opinion on these matters is immediately considered suspect and uninformed, and that presumption of ignorance and bias on my part is very difficult to overcome.

        I’ll save my outrage for serious inconsistencies, on the level of what women have suffered in that past or continue to suffer today.

        1. I don’t see the inconsistency. As far as I can understand, flashers expose themselves before the opposite sex mostly for the same reason that rapists rape the opposite sex mostly: because it places them in a situation they feel (shortsightedly, to be sure) secure them power over that sex.

          The idea who is being felt “uncomfortable” and by whom seems not only superfluous here, it feels constructed after the fact.

          Is the idea to allude to that some men say they feel “uncomfortable” by how women dress? It seems to me that it is a meme that, again, is used to place mostly men in a dominance position over women.

          1. I think that there is some confusion over the term “expose oneself to women”. If we are talking about flashers, committing an aggressive act of assault, then I agree, there is no inconsistency. But if we are talking about a man merely being naked in the presence of a female, then her taking offense would be unreasonable.

            Of course, this would mean that if a woman “flashed” a man, this would be considered an act of assault as well.

            1. Many,many,many years ago I was a young police constable in London,England and, as such, I attended a three-month training course at Peel House before I could be considered ready to be released on the unsuspecting citizens of London. I recall that we only spent a short time on the subject of “flashers”, but I seem to recall that before a male could be found guilty of this offence, two sine qua non elements had to be proven. The penis had to be naked, it had to be erect and, according to one of our instructors, you would have a slam-dunk conviction if you could prove it was steaming,which would be further evidence of insult to a female. I should add that WPCs – several women trainees attended the classes as well.

      2. There’re two dynamics at play in your scenario.

        First, as you phrased it, you’ve conjured up images of a man in a trench coat sneaking up on perceived-vulnerable women and flashing them as a dominating intimidation tactic as a prelude to rape. That’s quite reasonably considered assault, even if he was “only joking.” It would be “only joking” in the same sense as pulling a knife and shouting, “You want a piece of this?” would be “only joking.” Maybe in some contexts between certain types of friends, but never with strangers.

        But there’s another dynamic at play. If the man is simply minding his own affairs but doing so without clothes on, no, the man shouldn’t be responsible for other people taking offense. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to step out of the shower, see through the open window the mailman putting the mail in the box, and walk out to the mailbox to get the mail without bothering to put on any clothes. Yet I’d be arrested and branded a sex offender and have my life ruined if I did that — especially since the mailman often reaches my house about the same time the schoolbus arrives to let out kids.



        1. I remember that this was discussed in a newspaper column (Ann Landers?) ages ago. If a man walks around his house in the nude with his curtains open and a woman looks in and sees him, then he’s an exhibitionist. If a woman walks around her house in the nude with her curtains open and a man looks in and sees her, then he’s a voyeur.

        2. I have clearly led a very sheltered life, but I was under the impression that the exposed penises of flashers were in an erect condition. This is not the same as a dangly one which just happens to be hanging there while its owner gets the mail. The main reason why such a thing would cause concern is that it is so far beyond what is acceptable behaviour that one would be worried for the sanity of the bearer of said naked member, not because a naked dangly penis is so threatening. I can’t imagine the circumstances in which an erect penis would be considered a normal part of attire.

          1. I wasn’t aware that state of arousal had anything to do with flashing, but I’m hardly an expert on the subject.

            And it’s not exactly something under conscious control — either for flashers, or for people just going about their daily lives. I mean, there are conscious things you can do to influence the reflex (in either direction), but not entirely and not necessarily reliably.


            1. I would do some investigation but it’s not the sort of thing one can Google without having to wash one’s eyes out with soap!

  3. When I’ve thought about I haven’t been able to find a good reason why there should be laws against nudity, or particularly why it’s worse to force people to cover their face than their torso. It seems to all be about culture/religion and how we were brought up rather than any particular ethical idea.

    1. Norms of dress are certainly derived from culture or religion, and they mark you as a member of the country and your class.
      One example I remember is that the ancient Romans required men to wear a toga (or a similar ‘polla’ in women) or a skirt-like tunic. So men wore dresses, if you will. One could absolutely not wear pants, for that would get you arrested. Of course the reason for that prohibition was because pants marked you as a northern barbarian– an enemy of Rome.

    2. I was curious about the “kerfuffle” so I went back and read the discussion. It seems most of what I would have said was already said by Ben Goren and others.

      The part I found a bit troubling was the reluctance to even have the discussion.

    3. Nudity, for me, is simply not a moral issue at all. If someone else is offended by my naked butt, that offense is manufactured within them.

  4. I generally just read this website 🙂 without commenting, but in this case I cannot resist:

    I do think it does not do justice to the nuanced opinions that were voiced concerning this matter to imply that commenters claimed that “American women (…) are treated just as badly as their Muslim sisters”.

    I am not a native speaker, but as far as I could see, every single commenter who brought up that particular comparison or other similarities between the clothing rules in islamic and western societies made it very clear that this was not what they were saying.
    On the contrary, the commenters in question stressed, again and again, how much worse Muslim women in Islamic countries are treated.

    One can concede this even without accepting the “it is a matter of degree” – argument.

    Admittedly, I do think it is a “a matter of degree”.

    As a comparison:
    Would I bring up how much still remains to be done in order to truly separate church and state in my home country Germany in a discussion about the persecution and possibly execution of anyone even mildly critical of Islam in Saudi-Arabia or Pakistan?

    No, I would not.

    Still, this is, in my opinion, also “a matter of degree”. And if I brought it up, for example in order to make the point that this is a matter of principle (as some argued concering clothing rules) – would that not be an opinion we could discuss? Would it be OK to imply that I thought that “German atheists are treated just as badly as Saudi atheists”?

    1. Thanks for this comment. I agree. I think our host is now intentionally misrepresenting the comments he disagrees with. No one ever said American women are treated “just as badly” as veiled women.

      1. Nope, I’m not deliberately misrepresenting it by much; I believe that some commenters were drawing a rough equality between American nudity and Islamic veil requirements, saying that they differed inconsequentially. Yes, the “just as badly” is a slight exaggeration for effect, but I don’t think I misrepresented the attempt to depict these things as roughly equivalent. And I still maintain that people who even brought up the issue of American nudity have misplaced their moral compass given what my post is about.

        Your comment, by the way, is rude.

        1. I was not trying to be rude. I guess the word “intentionally” is what makes it rude? If so, I apologize for I should not have tried to guess your intent. In your response you note that you are “not deliberately misrepresenting it by much.” I guess it’s a matter of degree? Seriously, though, I guess it comes down to a question of how closely the comments should relate to the original post and what counts as “derailing the thread.” The main disagreement seems now to have been “Is this thread an appropriate place to discuss this?”

    2. I think you hit the nail fairly squarely on the head. I am not sure why some people, who’s opinions, ideas, thoughts I have come to admire, that are regulars here, were so opposed to the “our society has similar issues of a much smaller magnitude, and of course I don’t mean to say that we therefore should not criticize the much more serious issues in Islamic countries,” point of view.

      Perhaps they heard merely “it’s only a matter of degree,” instead of, “it’s a matter of degree and degrees really do matter.” But most, if not all, of the commentors opining about that bent over backwards to rather clearly make that point. And to make the point that they were in full agreement that criticizig Islamic societies about this issue was very appropriate.

      Perhaps they were thinking that bringing up the similarty issue was in poor taste in the context of that particular discussion. That bringing it up looked like an attempt to change the focus from the intended specific issue.

      I do agree with that criticism. But I am willing to be a bit more forgiving because the start of that “derail” was when a third commentor responded to the firm chastisment administered by a 2nd commentor to the initial comment to bring up the “similar” issue. And then it just kept going.

      Perhaps the “similar” pov is just so “no shit” as to be cliche. Making bringing it up in the context of that particular thread even more of a derail. I agree with that too. I don’t think anyone who participated in that thread wasn’t already aware of the similarities. Spending a large number of words carefully laying out the case for it, in that context, could be perceived as somewhat insulting to other peoples’ reasoning abilities, ethics, and or savvy.

      But I don’t think any of those negatives warrants some of the mischaracterizations that have been made. I think a “yeah, no shit, don’t derail the thread,” would have sufficed.

  5. It is a matter of degree, and I remember the Bible has something to say on the matter

    ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’

    Except that here we seem to be the other way round:

    ‘And why thou considerest not the beam that is in thy brother’s eye but only beholdest the mote that is in thine own eye?’

    Enough degrees come full circle.

  6. American women who can’t take off their tops everywhere are treated just as badly as their Muslim sisters forced to wear veils, bags, and other face-and-body-obscuring garments.

    Jerry, I don’t think that’s at all fair on your part. I repeatedly and emphatically made the opposite point: that Islam is horrific, but the fact that they’re so much worse doesn’t excuse our own moral failings on the same subject.

    Leigh Jackson posted a must-watch video from Maryam Namazie that demonstrates the matter quite forcefully. From your own statements yesterday about keeping genitalia covered, it seems you would have had Maryam arrested for her protests, or at least not found such an arrest unconscionable. Probably just as well she was protesting in France rather than the States.

    The video:



    1. …that Islam is horrific, but …

      This reminds of this clip of Christopher Hitchens talking about Saddam: youtu.be/3eaEuf5Z6yA?t=1m26s

      Christopher Hitchens: “I used to find in arguments I had about Iraq, that I knew right away when somebody didn’t know what they were talking about, and the dead give-away would always be when they would say “all right, I agree. Saddam Hussein is a bad guy”. And I’d say that means you don’t know anything about him if that’s what you think.

      For same reason, saying that “I agree Islam is terrible but we have the same problem but of lesser degree in US” means you don’t know what you are talking about.

      1. Please, let’s not drag this even further afield with Hitch’s hawkishness, especially considering it’s now obvious even to most conservatives that he was on the worng side of history with respect to Iraq.


    2. There are parallels, but what is interesting about the West is that women seem to be, overall, more free to expose parts of their bodies than men. At least in any work enviroment that I’ve ever been in, it’s always been suits, long-sleeve collared shirts, trousers or slacks (never shorts), and the occasional golf shirt. So at most, I can expose my forearms. Yet women’s acceptable work attire allows far more real estate to be shown.

      Even outside of the work environment, women’s fashion tends to allow more skin to be on display. At least in the US, shorts for men are much longer, and tank tops or other attire that exposes the upper arms and significant portions of the shoulders and back are generally considered less acceptable for men than women.

      And what about bathing suits? Yes, women have to cover their chest, but Borat’s swimsuit aside, what is the male equivalent to the string bikini?

      All in all, this assertion that women have less freedom to display their bodies in the West does not seem to hold up, especially when the claim is also made that women’s clothing choices are too objectifying.

      1. Western men are free to walk down the street in a Speedo. Just because none of use choose to doesn’t mean we aren’t free to. Your comment appears to have completely missed the point of the discussion.

        1. A man may be legally free to do so, but he would certianly face negative social consequences.

          Not all barriers and deterrants to behavior are legal. As such, my comment is directly relevant. For instance, this weekend my wife and I will be going to an outdoor BBQ. She will no doubt wear shorts that expose most of her legs, and a light garmet that exposes all of her arms and upper shoulders. If I tried wearing shorts that short and a tank top, I would face a different set of social responses. That is assuming that my wife would even be caught dead with me in that outfit.

          No, for me, just like all the other men in attendance, it will be the uniform of golf shirt and long shorts that cover almost all of the thigh. So we see that men are compelled to cover themselves up in a way that females are not, even in the absence of laws mandating us to do so.

    3. Ben, I agree with you here. What is erotic is in large part determined by culture. In many societies breasts are normally exposed and, in the context of ordinary daily life, are not particularly arousing. I’ve had many nudist friends when I lived in Austin TX and can attest that even someone from our own culture quickly reaches this level of acceptance when faced with breasts (and more) everywhere.

      If you never see a woman’s face in the context of everyday life, a beautiful face could be far more intensely erotic than a breast (in fact, speaking for myself, I think that can be true even in this culture).

      As a side note, my nudist friends once invited the famous tropical botanist Al Gentry to a nudist cook-out. When my friends came to take Al and me from the University of Texas (where he was giving a talk) to their nudist apartment complex, they had their genitals covered but not much else. As we walked through campus the campus police began following us and radioing our whereabouts, but nothing else. Al was not at all bothered by the total nudity once we got to the nudist apartment complex. He said it made him feel like he was on a field trip.

      The major difference between the Muslim and US cases is the severity of the punishment for violating the cultural norms.

  7. But was the point of the graphic to demonstrate that a comparison of the West with Muslim theocracies isn’t useful? If so, it isn’t an appropriate analogy since it actually is useful to compare Venus to Earth. In fact, Robert Hansen does just that in Storms of My Grandchildren. Of course, the Earth’s CO₂-generated greenhouse effect, feedback-amplified by the effect of water vapor, has the salutary effect of raising Earth’s mean temperature from –18˚C to 14˚C. While on Venus, the effect is much more extreme. If I recall, that was the gist of the statements being made by people making the comparison of the West with Muslim countries.

    1. But was the point of the graphic to demonstrate that a comparison of the West with Muslim theocracies isn’t useful?

  8. I may be the lone dissenter concerning the matter of degrees argument between Islamic clothing requirement s and toplessness in the US. I don’t see this as a matter of degrees because there are places in the US where women can go topless and there are also naturist resorts where you can bare as much as you like without consequence. We also have the ability to change the laws by majority vote. If for instance, there were enough women who wanted to change the laws that prevent them from being topless, I’m sure that could happen. I don’t see that as being any different than the fight for women’s right to vote or any other change in political policy.
    In Islamic countries, women have no such rights. Although many women hold high political positions, they do not appear to hold sway over laws or religiously based opinions that would grant them personal autonomy. I know that women do not have total autonomy in the US either, but the point is that we have processes to address issues.
    If it is a matter of degree, what would the process be for a women to seek redress in a country that counts her testimony as half that of a man’s, if at all?

  9. Like everything, there are at least two sides.
    1. There is no comparison between the day to day intrusion of islamic law and custom in the lives of women and anything experienced in the west.

    There is a continuum of blaming women for men’s sexual thoughts and actions, BUT.

    Example – if the discuusion was about a person who lost home, possessions, pets, photo albums and more to a tornado, I wouldn’t jump in and say that thanks to the same storm, I lost power and my ice cream melted. It makes no difference that these are on the same continuum of impacts of the storm. They don’t belong in the same conversation.

    2. It’s normal to focus on what is within our zone of control. I don’t think there is anything I can do for islamic women other than grieve for them. Closer to home, I can rant about the “blame the sluhht” response to sexual assault. By talking about it and pointing out the absurdity of crazy assumptions (like that by having sex last week,hh a woman has consented to sex with anyone and everyone today), attitudes here can change.

    I can discuss how to preserve food in a power outage, but not in the conversation about how someone lost everything.

  10. Hypothetically, if we could run time forward and consider there might be 1000 or so different societies with different rules and ideologies, I would argue that the one that would most likely be favored is one that a) has genuinely advanced science and technology equally available for all of its citizens and b) probably considers what clothes (if any) you wear the least important thing.

    All other permutations are less likely to be adopted, especially, if they involve religious restrictions for women.

  11. There is a difference parallels and degrees and tangents. Tangents are fun to discuss – how much skin can each gender show, law v. custom, sex stereotypes and roles, etc. But none of these approach the impact of clothing requirements on islamic women.

  12. To people from tribes where public nudity is accepted, our standards are as ‘opressive’ as is the burqa to us (as a culture.)

    Plus veiled women can be quite liberated according to cultural comparison, for example old primary sources about moslem Tatars reveal the high status of women.

    The women who seem to find veiling most oppressive, appear to be lookist and consumerist airheads, the sort of women who go on expensive shopping trips for clothes. Frankly most of us are surely better off in Iran or somewhere rapists are executed, instead of ‘rehabilitated’ among us.

    The persistence of veiling isn’t a valid criticism of the status of women in Islamic societies.

    1. Your opening sentence is pretty accurate, I think, B&B.

      I’ve never read any primary sources about Tatar culture, so I have no opinion about sentence two.

      Paragraph three is something I would expect from any fundamentalist Islamist, and a great many US Christian hardliner scriptural literalists as well.

      If mandated veiling of women only in a society is not a matter of gender status, why is this veiling mandated?

    2. Wow. Saying veiled women are quite liberated is a lot like saying enslaved people are actually quite liberated bacause they don’t have to worry about earning a paycheck. The slaves who find slavery most oppressive appear to consumerist airheads.

      There is simply no intelligent comparison between a fluid, changeable expectation to wear something and a misogynous system that requires women to wear unpleasant and confining clothing under threat of assault or arrest.

  13. Caveat: I am no expert on the following laws, just a California resident who follows the local news.

    California’s treatment of public nudity is dependent on the nature, intent, and locality of the activity.

    Statewide, there is a strong criminal prohibition against “indecent exposure,” which is characterized by conduct that might best be described as lewd and lascivious. It is conduct – such as the display of genitals – intended to satisfy the perpetrator’s sexual desire or to deliberately offend others.

    Mere nudity is not criminal or banned by state law. Instead, the local governmental units (cities and counties) can regulate casual, social nudity, or ban it altogether.

    After much publicity, in early 2013 San Francisco banned most casual nudity in the city, aside from certain beach areas, events, and parade license holders.

    On the other hand, the famous “Naked Guy” in Berkeley got a lot of media attention but didn’t trigger a bunch of demonstrations or legislation.

    These seemingly conflicting rules, though, do provide some insight into the difference between intentionally offensive, sexual, intimidating use of nudity and mere casual or social nudity.

    And as to the criminal laws, those who get charged may be fully clothed, with just a quick “flash” of the genitals, while a casual, fully nude sunbather, isn’t generally covered by the statewide criminal provisions.

    But don’t assume you can safely strut your stuff anywhere in California. Some local ordinances can seem rather draconian!


  14. But American women CAN take off their tops in public and not be killed, severely lashed, or imprisoned for life.

    Harassed by asshole members of the public, yeah. Put in jail for a few days, sure. Some aggressive DA might even go for a Meagan’s Law conviction though I doubt it would stick.

    Executed by the government? No.

  15. Is it at all possible to have a discussion of topic X without the majority of commenters feeling a ritualistic urge to bring up topic Y?
    This is a tweet I see Dawkins making often by the way, usually about fGM, where apparently it has become a weird reflex for many to blurt out, as if they had no self-control, something like “what about those males and their penises?”

    Look, everyone, we can all be perfectly on the same page about topic Y being important, but this is Coyne’s blog, and he writes about the topics he finds interesting, and no one is saying that people who bring up topic Y in discussion X do not find topic X interesting or important, but it would be nice if we could make progress on a single topic first, which is on its own difficult enough, without bringing in everything else, either very related or peripherally associated.

    Going off topic isn’t some strict rule, and indeed going off topic to explore other venues inspired by the discussions in the original topic, can be a very stimulating and even enlightening thing. But when topic X cannot EVER be raised without it almost immediately being qualified, complicated, obscured and even ignored, we have a problem of an atmosphere stifling constructive dialogue in our hands.

    1. Did you notice that even the post talking about how the previous post was highjacked has been highjacked with “but I’m a man and I can’t wear short shorts to a BBQ.”

      The topic here is “don’t compare your petty 1st world nitnoids with life altering situations faced by people in another land”. The topic of the other post was the impact that islamic laws have on the ability of women to live their lives.

      The illogic of US clothing customs is a fun conversation, but not here.

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