Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Exposure helps build immunity

Two unrelated recent news stories seem to me to be connected in a way. I find it interesting when I see this sort of connection, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

The first story is a report explaining what many people have suspected for a long time. The modern tendency to keep everything clean and sanitized may be partly responsible for an increase in certain diseases, such as asthma and auto-immune diseases. This was reported with headlines claiming that "some dirt may be good for you".

The explanation proposed is that our immune system requires some exposure to dirt and bacteria in order to develop its resistance. Living in an overly sanitized environment might cause the immune system to turn against the body's own cells, since it has not encountered enough foreign contaminants and learned to protect against them.

Many people now are extremely paranoid about exposure to anything that is not clean and "hygienic", but for most of the history of the species, and for most of the population of the world today, such circumstance are not available, and yet, these "dirty" conditions do not necessarily sentence people to a life of sickness, and many sufferers of some modern diseases seem to have developed them precisely because they live in such "clean" surroundings.

The second story concerns the ideas of modesty in Orthodox Judaism (and similar ideas exist in other religions). For a long time, Orthodox (haredi) men in Israel were exempt from military service because it was considered incompatible with their way of life. In recent times, efforts have been made to integrate them into the army, and to find ways to allow them to maintain their religious practices. One of the habits Orthodox Jews consider essential is modesty. They try to avoid contact between the genders, and one of the rules is that men are not supposed to hear women sing. At a ceremony in a military base, a few Orthodox soldiers walked out when female singers appeared. They were dismissed from the officer course they were attending, and the case has sparked controversy among the Israeli population.

On the one hand, proponents of religious freedom argue that people should not be required to do anything that goes against their religious principles. On the other hand, many people find it offensive that women should be treated as a threat to men's "purity".

It seems to me that the whole attitude of the fear in some religions that men will be unable to resist the charms of women if they see an "immodestly" dressed woman or hear her singing voice, therefore enforcing a sort of "hygiene" to prevent exposure to such risks, suffers from the same faulty logic as the thinking of the extreme cleanliness trend.

Men who grow up in a liberal society, exposed to "immodest" women, do not end up constantly thinking sexual thoughts, let along acting on them. They develop an immunity to the temptation, and learn to live normal lives in the presence of women. Of course there are some who act inappropriately, but this is also true within religious society. In some cases, the very lack of exposure among religious men can create the sort of hypersensitivity that I would consider unhealthy.

Since I believe that a healthy society involves giving freedom and equality to women, I find any attempts to restrict their behaviour counter-productive. I think that several religious attitudes toward women are blaming the victim by considering women inherently seductive, referring only to their physical aspect. These religions also seem to give men very little credit, considering them naturally incapable of controlling their urges. So these attempts at "modest" behaviour are demeaning to both genders, and leave them incapable of confident, authentic interaction with members of the opposite sex.

The lesson from these two stories seems to be that exposure increases immunity. To be healthy, people have to be exposed to the things they want to be capable of resisting. Avoiding exposure weakens and distorts the natural responses, and is an unhealthy impulse. I doubt many people with strong beliefs in cleanliness, whether literal or metaphorical, will change their opinions and embrace exposure to the very things they fear, but perhaps this is an argument people who favour exposure can use when explaining their position to such believers.

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