Balancing individual rights and the common good

Which is more important, serving the common good of a society or protecting individual rights? This is a question I ask my Civics and Government students. The answer is, “It depends on the context.” The issue I’m concerned with here is whether women should be able to wear whatever they want in public — it’s their individual right; or whether they should dress modestly because of the tendency of men to get easily aroused by a woman’s appearance — concern for the common good.

This is a hot topic right now in the #MeToo Movement. In a recent editorial comment in the “Morning News Tribune”, a woman strongly stated she should be able to wear whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Men needed to deal with it. She strongly disagreed with a mother of teenage boys who begged for women to dress modestly for the sake of her sons.

There are plenty of examples where men with power have exploited and abused women. Many of those individuals have been outed—in the business world, the entertainment industry, and even in the government at both the state and national levels. With a few seconds of thought you can call out names of offenders, or at least the accused.

According to a May 31, 2015 article called, “Harping the Bizarre,” women are given mixed messages: “If you show too much skin, you’re an attention-seeking slut. Too little, and you’re a prude. Too much makeup and you are vain, superficial and potentially insecure. Too little and you don’t care enough about your appearance and appear undesirable.”

If you look through just about any magazine, you’ll see ads portraying women in various forms of undress. The reason this occurs is because the female form attracts attention. Sex sells. It’s a part of our culture that is pervasive in its frequency. Before the Academy Awards each year, women are called on to pose in their expensive gowns by Versace or Ralph Lauren. Did you ever see the same attention paid to men?

And it isn’t just men who notice. I’ve been around women who have commented on various female political candidates’ hair hairstyles and clothing choices. There is a double standard that is deeply ingrained in our culture. It is true throughout the world.

I remember seeing a cartoon posted outside of a faculty member’s office showing one woman dressed in a bikini passing a Muslim woman dressed in a burqa, being covered from head to toe. Both are making silent comments about how the other is being exploited by the males in their culture. They are both right. This is a problem that is not going away.

Men are visually oriented and will continue to be attracted to a woman’s form and face. Testosterone is the cause.

So, what should be done? Who is right, the woman who demands that she should be able to wear anything she wants, or society that encourages modesty on one hand while exploiting women’s bodies and faces to sell their products on the other?

I’d like to suggest some middle ground between these two alternatives. For a woman who demands her rights in what she wears, I suggest a broader view. She needs to be aware that this attitude can have unhappy consequences. Dressing provocatively can open a woman up to harassment and attack. The reality is that men are the way they are.

At the same time, men should demonstrate more self-discipline and self-restraint. They should learn to look deeper and respect a woman for more than her looks, seeing her intelligence, maturity, and personality. That requires a radical makeover of our society’s values and how women and men are trained to deal with their own emotions and drives.

Concern for the feelings of others should take precedence on both sides. It’s not fair, but women are going to continue to struggle with wanting to be attractive, but not too attractive. Living with this contextual fact is the only realistic alternative. On occasion, the common good trumps individual rights.


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