Modesty wraps rock! Or, getting public theology right

Posted on February 9, 2012

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Over the last couple of weeks I have become aware of a campaign in the UK to make ‘modesty wraps’ (that is, plain covers) compulsory on all magazines displaying sexually explicit content on their covers. I am not sure who started it – there was an earlier, and linked, campaign concerning the placement of such magazines in Cooperative stores – but my friend Carl Beech has been energetic in promoting it on Twitter and elsewhere.

This strikes me not just as a campaign I want to support, but as an excellent example of the doing of public theology. Public theology, it seems to me, should always be a rather ad hoc activity: as I have argued in print before now, confession of belief in the Incarnation demands that we believe that theology does not give blueprints for a perfect society that are applicable at all times and in all places; instead, there are theologically appropriate ways (plural deliberate) of approaching all political questions that might happen to arise, and theologically driven critiques (again…) of the set of questions that at any given time assume prominence in political debate.

In some cases these theological positions will appear hopelessly idealistic; in others, they may appear achievable. A proper Christian political witness will constantly recall every goal that is gospel-mandated but unobtainable, whilst restlessly exploring ways of gaining those goals that appear possible, particularly when they might contribute to a shift of public perception on broader issues that might begin to make other, presently seemingly-hopeless, goals appear possible. So, for example, pressing for basic humanity to be shown to the children of asylum seekers was both potentially-successful and a chance to plead for respect for the humanity of all asylum seekers, not just the children. It was also a very clever piece of political positioning, forcing the standard, and cross-party, rhetoric that demonised asylum seekers into a profoundly uncomfortable disjunction with the fundamental British assumption of the innocence of the child.

The modesty wraps campaign has something of the same potential.

I hope it is not necessary to argue that pornography is evil, but just in case… The porn industry is a primary driver of people traffiking (sic, ‘slavery’) across the world today; even if the images and films were positively wholesome, they generally depend on the ‘performances’ of girls who were sold into slavery as children and who are forced, often by violence, to do what they do. But the images and films are far from wholesome: they portray women as objects rather than people, and promote and invite mendacious assumptions about sexual behaviour that can and do destroy relationships.

I was about to claim that a healthy society would ban pornography. That is, however, not true. A healthy society would not need to ban pornography, because no-one in a truly healthy society would ever want to watch porn. In contemporary British society, porn will not be banned: our moral discourse is so vitiated that, in general, we are unable to see that the right to free speech – a necessary and important right – carries with it concomitant responsibilities to speak wholesomely. If we all understood what free speech was adequately, we would have no pornographers; however, we do not, and so we suffer this evil (and others, of course).

The modesty wrap campaign succeeds as a piece of public theology because it does not challenge free speech: the pornographers are not threatened with a ban, which would be culturally unacceptable, however ethically desirable. However, it begins to locate the right to free speech within a broader matrix of goods – of course you may publish that, no-one is denying your right to, but we are asking you to do it in such a way that does not offend against the moral sensibilities of other members of society, and that does not force such images on our children. (The rhetoric of childhood innocence remains extraordinarily powerful in contemporary Britain.) At the same time, the campaign pushes back against the assumption that it is necessary, in our liberal society, to allow any and every image to be published and freely distributed, and so winning this battle would claim at least some ground in the bigger war against the porn industry.

Again, the time is right. The chief proponents of the normalisation of pornography in our culture are not primarily ‘Lad’s Mags’, but daily papers, particularly red-top titles. It will be no surprise to anyone adequately schooled in ethical reflection that ‘page 3’ is published by the same organisation that hacked Milly Dowler’s phone after her murder – the two actions are ethically coordinate, in that both involve treating a female teenager not as a person, but as an object that might be exploited for commerical purposes. It is unfortunate, but obvious, that such connections are presently beyond the imagination of our culture. The horrific practices exposed in the summer, and the ongoing exposures of the Leveson enquiry, have, however, rendered the press vulnerable in a way that they have not been for a generation, if only because we have a – probably brief – moment when politicians are willing to condemn, rather than court, the press. There is a chance of a ‘win’ just now, then, that would not have been available a year ago, and might not be available in a year’s time.

The heart of the modesty wraps campaign is a petition that the Westminster parliament debate the issue; you can add your name here.

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