Can we resuscitate chivalry?
posted at 4:01 pm on December 11, 2012 by Ed Morrissey
Via Instapundit, The Atlantic published an interesting and thoughtful piece from Emily Esfahani Smith that asks whether feminists actually won anything by killing chivalry. Smith relates the historical development of chivalry and its beneficial role in society, perhaps more especially apparent in its absence. Can it be revived, Smith wonders — and shouldn’t feminists be trying to do so?
Chivalry arose as a response to the violence and barbarism of the Middle Ages. It cautioned men to temper their aggression, deploying it only in appropriate circumstances—like to protect the physically weak and defenseless members of society. As the author and self-described “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, “Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal.”
Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry. …
Chivalry is about respect. It is about not harming or hurting others, especially those who are more vulnerable than you. It is about putting other people first and serving others often in a heroic or courageous manner. It is about being polite and courteous. In other words, chivalry in the age of post-feminism is another name we give to civility. When we give up on civility, understood in this way, we can never have relationships that are as meaningful as they could be.
If women today—feminists and non-feminists alike—encouraged both men and women to adopt the principles of civil and chivalrous conduct, then the standards of behavior for the two sexes would be the same, fostering the equality that feminists desire. Moreover, the relations between the sexes would be once again based on mutual respect, as the traditionalists want. Men and women may end up being civil and well-mannered in different ways, but at least they would be civil and well-mannered, an improvement on the current situation.
I suspect that the insistence on gender equity — which Smith partly blames for the death of chivalry — has less to do with its decline than the breakdown of the family. Men who grow up in fatherless homes, or homes where fathers and stepfathers abuse and discard mothers, are not likely to get a sense of chivalry from their role models. Cultural pressures such as the rise of astonishingly misogynist themes in rap music in particular might both reflect and perpetuate that experience. But I think Smith is essentially correct that both genders need to rediscover chivalry and social graces in order to reverse the growth of coarseness and self-indulgence in our culture.