Many lament the loss of Chivalry in our society. They decry that knights of our realm have lost interest in honourable deeds for women: things like holding a door, carrying a suitcase and pulling a chair out for a woman (although not like I did when I was a child, pulling it far out enough that my mother fell…..sorry again Mama!). The amazing writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote Americanah, just challenged chivalry and to my surprise it received a huge backlash. It is clear, chivalry is not dead.
In this post I argue that we should let chivalry die and instead resurrect common courtesy: a sign of more, not less, respect for women. However, this may also come at a cost…
The code of Chivalry was developed in Western Europe in the 12th Century as ‘the medieval knightly system with its religious, moral, and social code.’ It remained informal and was only written down decades later in Gautier’s Ten Commandments of Chivalry in 1883. The system relied on consensual norms to enforce the idea that the knights of the realm had to help the damsel in distress and act gallantly.
Today, it is usually associated with men ‘lending a hand’ towards women simply because they are women. In this sense, it is apart of the broader term of ‘gentlemen’.
Common examples include opening doors for a lady, letting her walk in/out of elevators first, offering your coat when she is unprepared for the weather, helping carry objects, paying for dinner and ‘save the women (and children) first’. Examples I only recently became aware of are cycling/walking on the side nearer to traffic and walking up/down the stairs in front of women – both with ideas regarding safety.
The Chivalry Con
Hang on, all those things sound like a nice thing. Why is it a bad thing?
Chivalry is, probably, meant with good intent and of all patriarchal tendencies, it’s probably one of the best. At its core, it is about helping (a specific) someone out. I was raised by my mother with such chivalry in mind, although thanks in part to my inability to chat with girls, I never got a chance to put her advice to the test at school.
Upon reaching university, I began to question the origins of chivalry and reconsider. Why were such courtesies assumed and offered only to women? The problem with chivalry is encapsulated in the chivalrous Prince Charming who, much like many movie heroes, saves a damsel in distress. The implicit assumption of this deed is that the damsel is in distress. She may not be shouting ‘I am in distress’ but because she was born a damsel, she therefore must be in distress. It sounded rather patronizing.
In the hilarious clip below Larry David considers his equation for chivalry = Type (perceived gender) + Distance (inconvenience). Whilst hilarious, its demeaning that ones ‘Type’ should dictate kindness.
As Peter Glick said in this article, “the idea that women should be cherished and put on pedestals fosters is what’s known as benevolent sexism, which subtly demeans women as fragile and less competent. It reinforces a sexual script in which a man takes charge while a woman remains passive.” Benevolent sexism has been shown to correlate with hostile sexism, with threats to women “who don’t fit the idealized mould of women as pure, faithful and compliant. It’s important to promote a masculinity that’s not all about ‘protecting women,’ but rather about standing up for whoever is vulnerable.”
Courtesy as a Counter
Courtesy is chivalry sans sexism, i.e. benevolence – the best of both worlds! I abstain from Chivalry but I still believe in being Courteous. I have no contention with helping a person in distress, but their gender should not assume and decide if they are worthy of helping. It is ironic that chivalry denies help to the group who support it, i.e. men. The reason men would refuse to let another person, especially a woman, help them is tied up with the same stereotypical notions of ‘manliness’.
I try to hold doors as much as I can and help those who seem to be struggling with carrying an object – based on perceived effort not gender. However, I won’t actively try and walk on the side of traffic of a woman. To do so would be to demean her and treat her as unequal. Call me a coward but I also care about my life and won’t devalue mine just because I am a man. Michael Scott from the Office doing the same in regards to ‘save the women and children first’, albeit for slightly different reasons….
If, by contrast, I was a lollipop person and had a higher level of traffic awareness and the power of a huge stick – then I would be better equipped for such danger. (Lollipop cops are fantastic but not all councils agree, one was recently banned from High-Fiving. More here.)
Caught in a Catch-22
This post was prompted by recent discussions with several men and women where it became evident that both parties still expected chivalry from males. I was clearly out of whack and it highlighted the very real possibility that I had, and will, seem rude when I have not walked on the side of traffic of a woman. And herein lies the challenge. What to do in a society which expects “benevolent sexism” without necessarily recognizing it as such?
For now, I remain courteous in keeping with my principles at the risk of offending.
Common Courtesy is only possible through Chivalry?
One fear of moving away from such benevolent sexism is that we lose the benevolence along with the sexism. As discussed in previous blogs, identity is a very strong motivator and chivalry attaches certain duties to the male identity. The meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson has been thanks to reclaiming the power of ‘male identity’. Chivalry becomes a matter of pride for men. This can spur on the ‘benevolent sexism’ with its positive and negative consequences.
Moving towards a social norm of common courtesy would require people to subscribe to the ideal of being a ‘good person’. This, historically, has not been a powerful enough motivator. As Yuval Harari points out in Sapiens, we need strong ‘imagined realities’ to enforce good behaviour. Instead, common courtesy might be stronger if we ingrained it into another form of identity. The Japanese have a strong culture of respect for elders. Perhaps nationality could be the way forward?
A Tentative Conclusion
Chivalry may have been well meaning but its also demeaning. It is anachronistic with a world view which treats everyone with the same level of respect and a common courtesy. However, as one tries to ditch the sexism are we at risk of losing the benevolence? In a world of compromise, is this one we have to be willing to accept? Comment below!
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