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    In Defense of Propriety

    May 11, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Back in February I wrote a review {or rather a non-review} of the book How Strong Women Pray. At the time of its writing, I knew that my perspective would not be a popular one. If I could rewrite the post, I would explain myself more thoroughly. Upon a rereading last night, I also think that it did sound harsh. I didn’t mean it in that way, and I should have sat on it long enough to write it in a softer tone. If any of you were offended by this, I apologize. Since I received an additional unhappy comment yesterday morning, I have decided to resurrect this subject long enough to {I hope} better explain what I did and did not mean.

    If you do not recall the post, it might be helpful for you to read it if you intend to converse in the comments. The comment I am responding to is here, and I will be going through most of it piece by piece.

    Wow! I understand your point, but almost think you could not have been more insensitive. I’m sure you didn’t mean it to seem that way, but I just truly don’t think you understand the issue – at all.

    I think I do understand the issue I am talking about, but I think the commenter here does not. So let me briefly explain what is and is not the issue.

    What is not my argument: Women who have been abused in some way should stay silent and never tell anyone, no matter what.

    What is my argument: Women who have been abused in some way must use wisdom concerning who and when and where and how they share the information concerning their abuse. Even though they have done nothing wrong and are victims, sharing extremely graphic details concerning said abuse has the potential to be harmful and/or inappropriate depending on the circumstance.

    This is a hard truth, which is why some people will call me insensitive, and I understand this, which is why being called such doesn’t offend me. I am actually arguing in favor of sensitivity, though. What I am saying is that we must be sensitive to the circumstances at hand. So I am being sensitive in another way than that which is preferred rather than insensitive altogether.

    It must be noted that I do not think that this particular commenter is a regular reader of this blog. If that be the case, now might be a good time to explain that Afterthoughts is an ideas blog, for the most part. This means that, in a situation like this, I’m trying to establish a certain behavior as normative {sharing experiences within the right context and using discretion concerning precise details} while discouraging other behaviors {sharing whatever is on our minds at the moment}.

    This is an idea that extends well beyond the specific circumstance of abuse.

    This is a good place to introduce the concept of propriety. In 1828, Noah Webster defined this to mean

    Fitness; suitableness; appropriateness; consonance with established principles, rules or customs; justness; accuracy. Propriety of conduct, in a moral sense, consists in its conformity to the moral law; propriety of behavior, consists in conformity to the established rules of decorum; propriety in language, is correctness in the use of words and phrases, according to established usage, which constitutes the rule of speaking and writing.

    One of the reasons I chose to go ahead and write my review despite possible controversy is that I believe our culture is having a crisis of propriety. This is symptomatic of a tendency toward chaos and is not a sign of cultural health.

    You say that you can understand someone sharing “such things” privately. What about women/girls who have no one to share “such things” with? Who think they are the only one that this horrible thing has happened to, or at least have no idea how to find someone else who can understand and support them? Coming across the writings of someone who has had a similar crime perpetrated upon them and survived and even triumphed very well may be that victim’s saving grace. You can’t even imagine, I’m sure.

    When we talk about the establishment of norms, we should never argue from exceptions. There will be exceptions to every norm in an imperfect culture, which essentially means that if we argue norms from exceptions, there will be no norms.

    This sort of argument is often raised when someone says that Christian children should receive a Christian education because education is, by nature, a spiritual endeavor. Immediately, we will find the person who says, “What about the one-legged, impoverished, widowed, illiterate mother of nine?” Even though this is a sad circumstance and, if I met such a family in person, I would certainly be responsible to help in any way that I could, it does not address the nature of the argument. The argument was made in an attempt to establish a norm, not to deal with an exception.

    Exceptions are interesting, and in real life they demand true, prayerful attention.

    I can definitely see how it would be encouraging to read about or meet someone who had triumphed over similar circumstances to the woman who feels alone. Though I have not faced this specific issue, I have faced some of life’s pains, and knowing that there are others who have overcome gives us heart.

    With that said, I feel the need to emphasize that this particular book I am referencing contained explicit, graphic detail. I believe the context of the book {genre, target market, etcetera} did not merit this. One of the verses I shared in my original post was Ephesians 5:11-12:

    Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.

    This verse actually contains the distinction I’m trying to make. The Greek here has the sense that “exposing” is done in such a way that condemns and confronts the behavior while “speaking” of the deeds deals with naming them, explaining them. This is part of God’s directives for Christian conversation, and the Bible is revealing that there are two different ways to talk about an issue, one that will be helpful and one that will not be.

    So, to focus in on my point: my problem with the author’s writing was not that she stated a simple fact, but that she had shared inappropriate graphic detail.

    No one can force someone to read a book. If your delicate sensibilities were so offended, then you did the right thing for you by closing the book. But to insinuate that there are some things that should NEVER be written about is the height of hubris. It simply perpetrates the misogynistic viewpoint that when a girl or woman is victimized in this way, it is something that SHE should be ashamed of. The opposite is true: the more these CRIMES are brought out into the open, the better we can do as a society {not to mention the church} to acknowledge them, address them, and prevent them.

    First, it should be noted that I never said that something should never be written about ever, ever, no matter what. I didn’t mention this here before, but there is a woman at my church who has written an amazing {so I’ve been told by my mother} book that helps women struggling with this exact issue. It’s called Growing a Passionate Heart, and I would highly suggest it for women struggling with this issue. Our church has also developed a support-type group so that women have a safe place to heal from childhood hurts like this.

    You see, it is all about context. Growing a Passionate Heart is written in a way that exposes darkness for what it is and then soothes souls with the truth of God’s Word. It isn’t that we shouldn’t write at all, but that we should use wisdom in all that we do and say, especially when we are writing a book for general audiences.

    To say that we should use wisdom in this area is not an act of hatred toward women, nor does it insinuate that they are somehow guilty. On the contrary, it reaffirms that the deed itself was shameful and so we must take extra care when talking about it. This is not the same thing as saying I had ice cream on Tuesday, and it shouldn’t be treated as if it is.

    In addition, the idea that saying whatever we want whenever we want to say it and including as much detail as we wish will somehow stop a crime is illogical. Words are powerful things, and we must be careful how we use them. I would actually contend that speaking of things too frequently and without appropriate care normalizes them and creates a culture in which crimes will be more likely to happen rather than less likely.

    Propriety reinforces a peaceful society. A young boy who is taught manners from early age, who is instructed on his place in society of a man and how he is to treat women, who is tutored in self-control, this is a young boy who is less likely to commit a crime.

    We either act with decorum or we don’t. A culture which allows anything to be said at any time is not a culture that values propriety, but is rather a chaotic culture. A chaotic culture does not raise self-controlled boys. Very few things are neutral and we cannot isolate our opinions to one sector of life. These things spill over and create what is commonly called a culture. If the culture is full of wild boys, there will be more crime rather than less.

    I also highly doubt that including graphic detail in a book on prayer deterred crime.

    Silencing anyone has never been on my agenda – I passionately believe in speaking out, especially for those who cannot speak for themselves – and I do not suggest that you should be silent on the way that you feel. But perhaps you could just educate yourself first and attempt to put yourself in another’s shoes instead before you write about things which you apparently know nothing about.

    This is not just a way that I feel. I was actually seeking to establish an ideal norm for cultural behavior. I do not think that I need to have been abused to do this.

    In conclusion, I would like to explain once again that this was an idea post on an {mostly, save my occasional indulgences} idea blog. Afterthoughts, you see: I am thinking about things after I experience, read, or hear them. I am considering broad, big ideas, and underlying all of this is the idea that everything is connected rather than fragmented.

    I say this only to explain that this is, again, a contextual issue. If I had a friend show up on my doorstep, crying, and in need of compassion, that would not be the time to talk about broad cultural ideas. That would be a time to extend a loving arm. It also would be a very appropriate time and place for my friend to pour her heart out and expose what had been done to her, and I, as a friend and Christian sister, should be expected to accommodate that.

    The Bible explains that to all things there is a time, an appropriate context. Ideas are a good context for a place like Afterthoughts. But loving arms are expected of all people, even idea people like me, when we are one on one in real life with people who need us. The original post and this follow-up post were not intended to discuss abuse, but rather the way in which we discuss matters as a culture.

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  • Reply Brandy May 19, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Meredith! I am so happy for you. And, perhaps I am biased, but I love the name you gave him. Thank you for sharing this precious news.

    And thank you for your encouragement.

  • Reply Anonymous May 18, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Brandy, hi; I haven’t popped in a while. I just have to say that this was an excellent post. Wish I could have written it (if I had a blog – Ha!). You expressed yourself extremely well.

    In Him

    Meredith in Aus
    BTW, last time we “spoke,” I was expecting our 7th little one. He was born just before Christmas. He’s beautiful. We called him Josiah. :o)

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