Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Spittoon and the Veil



I've been trying to find an essay on spittoons I read long ago--the sort of thing Chesterton might have written. In lieu of it, the best I could do was this: The Spitting Syndrome

The gist of essay I couldn't find was that while spittoons were regarded as a necessity of civilized life--the assumption being that all men by their nature must spit--we now don't even miss them.

Veiling, purdah and all the machinery of female modesty were the first civilized response to sexual exploitation and male violence. I'm skeptical about the received view that the whole purpose was to isolate and control women--after all, it wasn't as though before purdah women were free and equal, running peaceful, prosperous matriarchies. Women were bought and sold, beaten, raped and enslaved. Men stole them and fought over them, individually and tribally, from the Rape of Dinah to the Trojan War.

Assuming that men's urges for sex and violence were uncontrollable, in the interest of civility, the obvious solution was to keep women inaccessible and out of sight. If men must spit, spittoons must be one of the amenities of civilized society. The trouble is that the more spittoons there are, the more people spit--and the more firmly entrenched the idea that they must spit becomes. And to right thinking people, radical proposals to unveil women or retire spittoons will seem like an invitation to barbarism--brutality, violence, public disorder and spit all over the floor.

Still, somehow we managed to become a spittoon-free society without even an unsanitary transitional period: without fanfare, the spittoons vanished and men stopped spitting. Women walk unveiled in the streets without the protection of male relatives, but men don't run amok. It's never even occurred to most that they should.

1 comment:

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