Rav Shimon Eider, z"l, is a well-known author to the English speaking frum community. Before Shemirath Shabbath was released in English his Halachos of Shabbos was the standard for learning about the 39 melachos. His Halachos of Niddah is still an important introductory work along with all his others although other than his Halachos of Pesach they're all getting harder to find.
In the introduction to his Halachos of Niddah he notes an interesting way of looking at the trend towards stringency when one is uncertain of one's halachic options. He notes that some people aren't that familiar with checking post-menstrual stains to determine if they are tahor or not and often, instead of asking a shailoh they simply decide to be stringent and put off mikvah night. He saliently points out that while the couple might think they're being stringent, mikvah night at the right time is a very important mitzvah that should not be wrongly delayed. By being stringent and thinking they're being careful the young couple is delaying the mitzvah which is a big problem in its own right. By being machmir they're really also being meikel, something they surely think they're avoiding.
This idea has a far broader application to almost every area of daily life. Being machmir is the big buzzword these days. It's certainly the trend du jour in the Chareidi community where everyone always seems to be looking for the chumrah of the week. Even in the Modern Orthodox community people are abandoning family customs and community standards when the occasion to be stringent comes up, just so as not to look less religious. However, this can backfire and often does.
For instance, everyone following the Jewish news has read the story of the anonymous Chareidi man on a recent El Al flight who refused to take his assigned seat because it meant sitting next to a woman. Now, put aside that other than those who were there we are all dealing with second hand accounts of what happened and that one self-centred nutjob does not represent his entire kehillah. Let's assume, for a moment, that the story is accurate.
What was this guy thinking? Again, the trend within Chareidism today is towards stringencies wherever possible, especially when it comes to man-woman interactions. Clearly this guy doesn't want to be left behind. He probably only rides on mehadrin buses too. Fine, that's his decision and with the state of education in his community being "What we do is right and other ways are just wrong" it's no wonder there was no reasoning with him. For him it's an aveirah to sit next to a woman.
However, that does not justify the behaviour he apparently exhibited. Yes, he was machmir about arayos (remember the days when arayos meant actually sleeping with your sister's wife as opposed to saying "hello" to her in passing) but he was definitely meikel about chilul haShem. I doubt any of the non-Chareidi passengers (and maybe even a few of the Chareidi ones) were impressed with his actions and more than one probably thought: "If this is Judaism, count me out". At any point did he realize that? Did he even care?
As a religious Jew I long ago learned that I live a more limited life than my non-Jewish friends. They can go to movies I can't watch. They can go out on Friday nights when I can't. They can eat whatever food they want wherever and whenever they want to. I know I can never run for prime minister because I can't campaign on Shabbos or eat at community barbeques. I could complain but I recognize that this is the price of being Torah observant. As Rabbi Eliezer famously said, what can I do? The will of God is upon me.
I recall once eating with two non-religious friends in med school. I paused to make a beracha and one of them looked nervously at me and asked: "Do you expect us to do that?" I told him that what he chose to do was up to him. Yes, I could have said "Absolutely, you're a Jew and a Jew makes a beracha before he eats" but I knew that such an answer would not have gone over well. I would have accomplished nothing by my missionizing except possibly to alienate him from his already weak connection to Judaism.
Perhaps someone needs to have whispered something similar in this Chareidi gentleman's ear. Something to the effect of pointing out that his insistence on remaining on the flight while refusing to take his assigned seat and making his female neighbour feel less than human was a bigger chilul haShem than the kiddush haShem he thought he was accomplishing by demonstrating his public commitment to gender segregation.
Had he asked quietly for a different seat, had he responded to a refusal for such an accomodation by saying that he wanted to leave the plane the negative response to his actions would have been far more limited, especially as such actions would have not created a news story at all, along with the all the requisiting Chareidi-bashing that accomplished those stories.
As the new year beings let's all realize that our knee-jerk desires to be machmir must, like chess moves, be well thought out less unintended consequences result.