The Atlantic posted an article last week by Acculturated’s own Emily Esfahani Smith entitled “Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance,” a reconsideration of the old-fashioned medieval ideal. The piece has garnered, as of this writing, an astonishing 590 comments which devolved into heated debate about everything from the origins of chivalry to lifeboat etiquette on the Titanic. But most interestingly, they reveal a seething anger about the topic from both women and men. Why such a visceral reaction, especially from men?
The commenters largely dismiss chivalry as an outmoded term loaded with sexist and classist baggage. They confuse it with politeness and point out that courtesy knows no gender. “BOTH sexes should be chivalrous,” wrote one woman. But chivalry is more than merely opening a door for someone. It used to be understood as the expression of the noblest and most honorable qualities of manhood. Edmund Burke called it the “nurse of manly sentiment and heroick enterprise”; Irish writer Kenelm Digby called it the “spirit which disposes men to heroic and generous actions.”
And yes, that heroick, manly sentiment includes a gallant, respectful deference toward women and a devotion to protect them if necessary, because that’s what a real man does. Only cads and cowards do otherwise. A chivalrous man doesn’t shove women and children aside to flee danger like a panicked George on Seinfeld.
Baker’s contempt is indicative of decades of cultural and academic indoctrination that have demonized chivalry into near-obsolescence. Young people have been pumped so full of politically correct theory about “gender power structures” and the like that they consider gentlemanly behavior oppressive and “immoral,” as at least one Atlantic commenter put it. A woman now believes that a male who holds a door for her is trumping her in some kind of demeaning, patriarchal power play. And so today we have a culture in which young women proudly call themselves sluts but bristle at being called ladies (Baker’s reaction to that word was “BARF”). They have been taught to imitate the coarsest behavior of men while showing contempt for men who behave decently and honorably.
The result is twofold: one, women like Baker mistakenly believe they are liberated when they are nothing more than parodies of frat boys; two, men end up feeling emasculated and defensive, so they simply adopt the attitude of the Atlantic commenters who said “We'll start acting like gentlemen when modern females start acting like ladies” and “I was raised to respect women… but now I treat them like the guy next door.”
Being a lady and allowing yourself to be treated like one isn’t about being a helpless prude – it’s about respecting yourself and embracing your authentic nature. Being a chivalrous man isn’t about condescension or oppression – it’s about embracing the duties of manhood, including being prepared to defend women in a world that’s no less violent than it ever was (despite our self-delusion otherwise), whether they need it or not. Women today claim, “We can take care of ourselves!” Perhaps so; nearly every female friend of mine has mad gun skills. But that doesn’t absolve a man of his responsibility.
Equality is good. Equal pay for equal work? Absolutely. Equal rights under the law? Unquestionably. Those are the positive, hard-won legacies of the feminist movement. But where feminism went off the rails was in its relentless assault on manhood and its obliteration of traditional gender roles. Denying age-old, hard-wired differences between men and women isn’t equality, except insofar as it makes men and women equally resentful, confused and polarized.
Rather than redefine chivalry as unisex civility for a post-feminist era, both sexes would benefit if young men embraced it once again as an intrinsically masculine ideal, and if women welcomed it as such. A modern renaissance of chivalry will produce more men of exemplary character, and fewer cads and cowards.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 12/14/12)