Modesty 101: The difference between being skilled and being silent

By Christine Woolgar

“I started questioning gender-based assumptions when at eight I was confused at being called ‘bossy’ because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on for our parents – but the boys were not.”
– Emma Watson

Silencing is just as much a part of modesty culture as shaming is.

The quote at the top of this post comes from a speech Emma Watson made to the UN (watch it here). It’s an example of modesty culture stifling creative expression. Her character in Harry Potter, Hermione, also had similar experiences in regard to her intelligence.

In fairness, silencing and shaming aren’t entirely separate from each other. But modesty culture may focus more on stifling or silencing the expression of a person’s glory, when that glory isn’t immediately visible.

You see a person often has unseen, intangible, glories. Intelligence, wisdom, compassion – these are all qualities of a person that can only be intuited from observing how a person expresses themselves, both in terms of their behaviour and what they say. Other glories might be tangible or physical, but you’ll only see when a person’s body is in motion; for example, as their hands play an instrument or their body competes in a sport.

Both of these kinds of glory – the purely intangible and the tangible-in-motion – are only truly seen when a person is expressing themselves. When they are doing, not just being.

Hermione’s intelligence is one such glory. And modesty culture doesn’t like it. (For all posts in the series, click here.)

The common ground for Hermione’s fans and critics

Hermione’s context is a school, a place of learning. In theory she should be welcome to express or show her intelligence. And some teachers are happy to see her do so. Professor Snape on the other hand isn’t. And then there are her fellow students Harry and Ron, neither of whom have much time for Hermione’s condescension when they first meet her, but who become firm friends later.

Before we look at their differences, let’s note what they have in common: no one says intelligence is a bad thing.

Her critics may resent the fact that she is intelligent, but they can’t criticise her for being so. Either they have to deny she is intelligent (which is difficult to do with any credibility in this case) or they have to focus on how she expresses herself.

Snape: calls Hermione ‘an insufferable know-it-all’

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Snape conducts a lesson to cover for Professor Lupin. Instead of following the teaching plan, he jumps several steps along the curriculum. He asks the class a question and even though Hermione puts her hand up, he doesn’t invite her to speak. She then gives her answer anyway and Snape responds:

“That is the second time you have spoken out of turn, Miss Granger,” said Snape coolly. “Five more points from Gryffindor for being an insufferable know-it-all.”

It’s possible that Snape hates Hermione for being intelligent as well as for expressing her intelligence, we can’t be sure. But whether it’s one or the other or both, his actions are the same: he seeks to suppress and silence Hermione’s expression of her glory by shaming her in front of the class.

(Shame is a powerful and awful tool for silencing someone.)

Now, we can guess that Snape wouldn’t penalise Hermione for displaying her intelligence in a homework assignment set by him. Why? Because, unlike answering a question uninvited, doing an assignment would be playing by his rules. Snape is concerned not so much about Hermione’s glory, but her position in his system.

This is the essence of modesty culture. The motives for silencing people get dressed up as matters of morality, but ultimately modesty culture is part of the coercive culture of control that can be seen so clearly in the example of Professor Umbridge. (See the previous post in this series for more.)

That said, Snape probably doesn’t target Hermione because she’s a girl. It’s more likely to be because she’s friends with Harry (and he hates Harry) and also because he’s annoyed he has to cover for Lupin’s class (and he hates Lupin). In real life, however, modesty culture’s oppressive influence is often biased according to gender. Hence, Emma Watson remembers how she was called ‘bossy’ but the boys weren’t.

Ron: also calls Hermione a ‘know-it-all’

The next bit in the book reads as follows:

Hermione went very red, put down her hand, and stared at the floor with her eyes full of tears. It was a mark of how much the class loathed Snape that they were all glaring at him, because every one of them had called Hermione a know-it-all at least once, and Ron, who told Hermione she was a know-it-all at least twice a week, said loudly, “You asked us a question and she knows the answer! Why ask if you don’t want to be told?”

The film plays out this moment differently; there, Ron mutters to Harry “He’s got a point, you know.” That said, Snape’s take-down of Hermione is a little different too. He asks:

“Tell me, are you incapable of restraining yourself or do you take pride in being an insufferable know-it-all?”

So is it different when Ron calls Hermione a know-it-all? Or when he says Snape has a point?

When Ron criticises Hermione, he does so as her peer, not her teacher. That doesn’t automatically make it OK, but it does mean (in Ron’s case at least) he’s not trying to propagate systemic suppression or coercive ordering of Hermione’s talent. It also means that Ron is more likely coming from a place of vulnerability and, maybe, personal insecurity. (He’s not exactly smart). Snape on the other hand isn’t.

Again, this doesn’t mean Ron is right, but it does mean we get into more complex territory. After all, Ron should also be able to learn in the school environment without feeling ashamed for not knowing as much as Hermione.

It’s important to recognise that there are two things at work here. One is Hermione’s intellectual talent. The other is her position relative to Ron, because, as Lupin says, she is the brightest witch of her age.

Modesty culture’s primary concern is about positioning. It would seek to silence Hermione as a means of putting her ‘in her rightful place’. Which is code for ‘underneath others’. It would do this under the false and moralising stance of ‘giving worthy people a chance’ but the real motive behind all this is fear and desire for control.

(An example of this culture is brilliantly portrayed in the film of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 where the Ministry of Magic has a giant monument showing non-magical people (muggles) crushed underneath the might of magic, and Umbridge has books in her desk drawers with moralising but false and scare-mongering titles, such as When Muggles Attack and Muggles And The Dangers They Pose.)

The irony is that Hermione doesn’t in any way want to block Ron’s or others learning. And even if she has some awareness of her position, she isn’t motivated by pride in it. But modesty culture doesn’t see that. Instead, it’s afraid that she’s out to establish a structure with herself on top – because that’s what those who practice coercive cultural ordering would want to do. Therefore, the suspicion that Hermione wants this is enough to justify clamping down on her and any ways in which she disrupts the status quo.

It remains though, that although Hermione may want Ron to learn and be the best he can be, her actions may still be stifling for him. So is it the time for her to exercise what I said was the essence true modesty in post one: veiling her glory so that Ron feels more included?

Actually, no.

The call is for self-moderation

Real modesty is a serving action that lifts up others and/or brings them into inclusion when they would otherwise be excluded. Ron doesn’t need including. He already is just as much a student in the school as Hermione is and the teachers are willing to educate him just as much as they are willing to educate her.

Also, Ron isn’t really looking for Hermione to lift him up and help him. He just wants an easy ride through school and would sooner use Hermione’s talent to save himself some effort, than learn from her. If anything, Hermione hiding her intelligence would allow Ron to feel more comfortable with a laissez faire attitude to his own studies.

All that said, Hermione does need to learn some self-moderation. I wouldn’t say this is the same as modesty, but it is modesty’s pre-cursor.

The thing about Hermione is that she is so in touch with her intelligence and unashamed of it (both of which are good things) that she wants to express it all the time. This means that in some contexts she takes it too far. For example, she can appoint herself, uninvited, as the teacher to her peers. But she’s not a teacher and her attempts to play at one come over as somewhat condescending. (Remember “It’s levi-OH-sa!” from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone.)

The answer for Hermione is not to stop expressing her glory, but rather to channel how and where she expresses herself.

This requires her to recognise the imbalance of her position compared to her peers. She’s the brightest witch of her age and is therefore more advantaged, for example, to succeed in her career. Knowing this, her peers may be more sensitive to what she says and more likely to interpret her as asserting her position over them. Because some people (particularly proponents of modesty culture) would behave that way and it’s hard to discern motives.

This is why Hermione needs to exercise some self-moderation. It’s not about modesty; it’s not about her hiding either her skill or her position. It’s about her being all she can be, but presenting herself in a way that demonstrates humility. And this is not about suppression, restraint, restriction or inhibition – it’s about skill.

Self-moderation is a skill of presentation that requires awareness of oneself, one’s context and others.

And the reason why Hermione doesn’t have this skill as much as she needs is simple: she is a child.

If, during the lesson with Snape, Hermione had had more awareness of her context, she’d probably have known she’d get a sharp response from Snape by answering his question. That isn’t to say she’s to blame for Snape’s actions (which were deeply unkind and inappropriate, however valid his point). Rather, it’s to say Hermione was vulnerable through her naiveté.

Fast-forward to when she’s older and she’s a lot more aware, and this isn’t a problem.

Meanwhile, it’s the responsibility of the teachers to model modesty and lift up students who are at risk of being excluded from learning. And for those familiar with the story, Professor Lupin does this brilliantly with Neville Longbottom.

Concluding thoughts

The ancient Greek word for modesty is euschemosyne, which literally means ‘good form’ or ‘good outward appearance’. To me, this reflects the fact that modesty and self-moderation are both about the act of self-presentation. It’s not about denying the good of who or what we are, but framing ourselves and expressing ourselves in ways that are appropriate to our contexts.

In some parts of Christianity, this has been taken to mean that people should never advertise their strengths or leverage their privileges. But I would disagree. I’d say the key question to ask is whether the action works towards service and inclusion, or exploitation and exclusion. Whether it aligns with systems that have good purposes and methods, or bad ones (see post two on dress codes).

Meanwhile, if Christians can recognise that people are beings who are each created with bespoke craftsmanship and endowed with agency (free will), and that this is part of God’s good purposes, then they can recognise that ‘self-control’, which is a form of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, is not about ability to suppress any sinful desires or parts of oneself, but rather is about skilfulness of self-expression.

We should be able present ourselves both gloriously and moderately in our everyday lives.

Mistakes will happen as we learn about others and our contexts, but, as a Christian, I believe it only gets toxic when people take pride in positioning or point towards someone or something that does not point towards God.

Meanwhile, for all the fluffy talk out there about not judging people by appearances, it is true that some types of glory are not immediately visible. As for those that are – that’s the topic of the next post.


Modesty 101 part 4: the difference between being skilled and being silent

  • Coercive pressure to be ‘modest’ exists in non-tangible, non-body matters
  • Modesty culture aims to silence speech and expression of a person’s glory
  • Self-moderation is a skill of presentation that requires knowledge of self, others and context

A footnote about Asperger’s Syndrome

I talked briefly above about how awareness of context doesn’t necessarily correlate with intelligence. Being unaware of context (naiveté) is a form of vulnerability, and it can be easy for other people to miss this vulnerability because it’s not one that’s immediately visible or tangible. But this is one of the key vulnerabilities of people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is an inability to see social context. That means Asperger’s people are more likely to be chastised for not exercising self-moderation.

But the problem compounds further. People with Asperger’s Syndrome have areas of intense interest and boy, do they like talking about them! The level of self-moderation required for normative interactions is therefore particularly hard for them. To top it all off, people with Asperger’s care far more about what something is than they do about how it is presented (that is, they care about content over form). So trying to explain the presentation skill of self-moderation to someone with Asperger’s is like trying to teach them a language they can’t even hear. That doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t learn, it just means they need really wise and patient people around them.

I’m putting this here because Asperger’s Syndrome is under-recognised in women and girls. This is because they are more likely to demonstrate superficially social behaviours than men and boys and therefore fall under the diagnosis radar. What’s more, women and girls with Asperger’s are subject to the intersectionality of both gender bias and the way their mind works. (And, in many cases, anxiety problems.)

I would therefore urge anyone who’s actually got this far and still reading this to have a think about how they approach people who come over as dictatorial (always telling and never asking) and never putting a lid on their special abilities. Weigh their actions against the bullet list towards the end of the previous modesty post about Umbridge and see if they are willing to listen when you try explain context to them. It may be they’re not proud, they’re just unskilled.

Christine Woolgar 2Christine Woolgar is a theological thinker. Living in the UK with her husband, she loves to delve deeply into scripture. She entered marriage with an alarming ignorance of consent, sexuality and equality, but also an amazing husband who helped her overcome all this, and she now has a passion for shaping the church’s attitudes in these areas – as well as more widely. She is unafraid to tackle awkward questions, but aspires to do so with grace and understanding.

You can find her and more of her writings on:

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