Do Short Shorts Matter?

There are those who live their lives with no moral struggles. To them, nothing is right or wrong. Things are simply desirable, or they aren’t. Self interest makes the choices. The laws of man or God may get in the way, but only as barriers to get around. 

Most of us aren’t able to live that way. Most of us have a nagging conscience raising questions of right and wrong. This can be a burden or a blessing . . .  depending. Most of us struggle to develop our standards of right and wrong, and struggle even more to follow them.

I was reminded of this at a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. A wonderfully clean and healthy place. A great place to live if you’re a cow or calf or human child. A place where Amish buggies come driving in to buy milk and eggs, delivering children to enjoy ice cream and animals.

The folks who run this farm work hard, love one another, live modestly, help their neighbors, study their Bibles, and go to church on Sundays. And like most of us, they consider the rightness or wrongness of their words and deeds. So as I read the polite request bullet-pointed in a list on the wall, I smiled but did not scorn it. It said:

To many, such a sign will seem quaint and belonging to an earlier time. When I first read it, I had that reaction. But then, the very next day, I read about the funeral of Aretha Franklin in Detroit. There was much discussion of the mini-skirt worn by one of the singers, and whether it was appropriate for a funeral or not. Many considered it “immodest attire.” And former president Bill Clinton was accused of gazing at the singer in an inappropriate manner by a Fox News panel. They called it “leering.” So the sign I read in rural Pennsylvania is more current than it appeared.

I grew up in a small town in east Tennessee. Most people were either Baptists, Methodists, or Presbyterians. Most went to church on Sunday. Local ministers took turns preaching in our schools. Revival meetings were common, and you could listen to preachers preaching on the radio almost non-stop. They preached against a variety of sins including drinking and dancing and women wearing shorts. Kids were forbidden to play sports on Sunday afternoons because it was “the Lord’s Day.” On the campus of my own “Christian college,” couples were forbidden from holding hands while walking together. I can say this for sure because I was once caught doing it.

In my lifetime, norms have gone from this to now having a President whose third wife used to pose for nude photographs, who has spoken on television of grabbing women by the genitals, and who has paid hush money to silence women about alleged affairs. We now have explicit photos and video free-for-all on the Internet, explicit how-to articles on sex available in women’s magazines at grocery checkout counters, and all sorts of revealing dress and language on television and in public places. One cannot but admire the fortitude of religious communities that have maintained their norms against such times.

But it all seems so arbitrary, so relative, so ambiguous. How short must shorts be to qualify as “short shorts?” How low must a neckline dip down to be an “inappropriate low neckline?” I can hear teenage girls asking these questions, and mothers having a hard time explaining. Then there are the other religions that insist on covering their women from head to toe, even the eyes. For them this is necessary to “maintain pure thoughts and actions.” For them, the Amish country norms are far too liberal.

Just where did the conscience of human beings come from? The religions think God gave us our conscience, all built in and set up. But if this were so, how come the definitions of right and wrong vary so greatly? And why do they vary so much from age to age, person to person, and religion to religion? Some people have a taste for broccoli, and others don’t. Are views of right and wrong like that? Are they that variable and individual? Are there things that are universally good or evil, and if so, what are those things?

The religions usually speak of their sacred writings as defining what is right and wrong. For example, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is Moses and his ten commandments, given by God on a mountain and carved into tablets of stone. One of the ten says very simply, “thou shalt not kill.” But what do we make of that? What have Jews and Christians made of it? In its plainest, simplest meaning, it forbids the taking of another life. But over the years many exceptions have been proposed and carried out. These include euthanasia, capital punishment, assisted suicide, killing in self defense, killing under “stand your ground,” targeted killings by remotely operated drones, defensive wars, aggressive wars, and “pre-emptive wars,” a new term which seems a euphemism for wars of aggression.

Think of all the things that have been debated over the years from a moral standpoint: gay marriage, gay sex, premarital sex, breast feeding in public, contraception, masturbation, genital mutilation, pornography, inter-racial marriage, inter-faith marriage, human slavery, capital punishment, racial segregation, abortion, public nudity, private nude beaches, bull fighting, the torture of prisoners, the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, chemical weapons, and, of course, war itself.

Many of these discussions are far away from Amish country around New Holland, Pennsylvania. But it’s all part of the same. We’re all trying to figure out the right and wrong of things in life, and hope it matters.

3 thoughts on “Do Short Shorts Matter?”

  1. Trying to figure out what to do with “Silent Sam” (the Confederate soldier statue on the campus at Chapel Hill) is one of those “right or wrong” matters, or at least it is in my view. The statue was toppled by a “mob” of angry students because some of them said they felt hatred for the symbolism it represented to their personal views, and because they were offended or uncomfortable by the sight of a “traitor” they were forced to see as they go about their walks about campus. Others, besides those who participated in the destruction of the statue, have expressed equal offense that a “mob” of angry youth could get away with taking the law into their own hands. For those citizens from the State who have expressed their feelings about having their heritage disrespected and attacked, “Silent Sam” represents a memorial to those students who lost their lives during the War Between the States. And there is a basis upon which to consider their side of this matter, as well.

    Dr. Joe B. Fulton, professor of English at Baylor University, has written about Mark Twain’s resentments against the cruelty of the Union and its invasion of the South in “The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature.” “Scholars criticized the revised edition about Huck Finn’s adventures as whitewashing classic literature that reflected the language of its time,” wrote a reporter for the Newsroom at Baylor University, “but they themselves have whitewashed Twain’s southern-leaning writings in the 1850s and 1860s, Fulton said.” The reporter also quotes Fulton as saying that such views present a challenge: “honestly,” said Fulton, “I didn’t know what to do with the pieces of the puzzle. I think may scholars have glossed over them because they are uncomfortable with them. They don’t fit in with the image of the mature Twain.” What it comes down to for me is that anybody can be uncomfortable with images or with raw history, no matter which side of the matter one’s feelings reside. In the reporter’s article about Fulton’s book, published during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s beginning, the author is quoted as stating that Twain was “angry at the North for the destruction of the South, angry at his upbringing and angry at the hypocrisy of the Union. He was mourning the South, guilty about the South he grew up with and angry at the American government for using idealism to destroy the South–but then not honestly reconstructing the South or the North.” The reporter went on to note that while living in Nevada and California in the 1860s, “Twain witnessed horrific treatment of Chinese immigrants and was further disillusioned by imperialism in Cuba and China in the 1890s. ‘I think that’s what turned him into a satirist for the rest of his life,’ Fulton said.”

    Not until the presidential campaign of 2016 did I begin to take an interest in the “Civil War.” What I discovered in my reading startled me, angered me, because I was confronted with a raw history about our nation and the horror of a conflict that took the lives of 850,000 American lives, North and South (a revised estimate from 2015). The conflict is a history and over which we continue to debate and argue. Furthermore, what I discovered is that the buried facts about this tragic history are altogether far more interesting than the cookie-cutter version that Americans argue and debate over.

    Ed, thank you for the “satire” you so eloquently have composed in “Do Short Shorts Matter?” If Twain were here now to read your insightful essay, I imagine he would appreciate the observations that led you to express the thoughts you have written for our consideration.

    1. Roger, thanks much for your thoughtful comments. I think “Silent Sam” is a perfect example of the ambiguity I discuss. I read your entire piece with much interest, especially the struggles of Mark Twain that you reference.

  2. Ed,. You made me think. It seems that we are too eager to set strict moral rules for others and too apt to neglect our own responsibilities for controlling our urges and actions. It seems disingenuos when people say “the devil made me do it”. If you along with God are not stronger than the devil (what ever that is) well God is pretty weak.

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