The Center for Inquiry’s Michael De Dora brought my attention to a piece in the Atlantic on Monday by Emily Esfahani Smith, who has written an article that comes out every now and again from various writers about how chivalry should make a return to our lives. It’s the kind of bourgeois writing that typifies most pieces in places like this, wherein the prose makes it seems very nice and very reasonable, but in fact it is a veneer over the same old misogyny, sexism, and straw feminism that is the contemporary campaigner for chivalry loves to indulge in.
Now, I write this as someone who was raised in a chivalrous culture. Both my mother and father emphasized and drilled into me many aspects of classical behavior, i.e. holding the door, helping women with their coats, all that stuff. And I still do a lot of it reflexively. Now, though, thanks to the reality checks handed down to me by my awesome, awesome friend group here in Chicago, I like to think I act in such a way that is polite, rather than chivalrous. The distinction between the two should hopefully become clear below.
Smith begins her argument with an utterly bizarre anecdote as to why the world is icky and we need knights in shining armor again:
This past spring marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. On April 14, 1912, as the ship was on its maiden journey from Southampton, UK, to New York City, it hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic. About three hours later, it sank. Three-quarters of the women on the ship survived; over three quarters of the men, by contrast, died. In Washington DC, there is a memorial to these men. The inscription on it reads: “To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic…They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”
About a year ago, a group of today’s men were tested the way that the men on board the Titanic were. When the cruise ship Costa Concordia hit a rock and capsized off the coast of Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, last January, men pushed women and children out of the way to save themselves.
We would think everyone would have learned about anecdotal evidence at highly respected news outlets by now, but apparently not.
Don’t worry, it gets better.
Charles Murray, the libertarian social scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, summed up the study with tongue-in-cheek, writing “the bad news is that gentlemanly behavior makes people happy.” He goes on to ask, “When social scientists discover something that increases life satisfaction for both sexes, shouldn’t they at least consider the possibility that they have come across something that is positive? Healthy? Something that might even conceivably be grounded in the nature of Homo sapiens?”
Yes, you read that right, Smith just cited someone who works at an ultra-conservative think tank in an article about chivalry and feminism. Furthermore, she cited a man who wrote an entire book about how black people are naturally less smart than white people. Oh yes, readers, this article is that kind of fucked up. Now, how about some veiled slut shaming?
Perhaps because of women’s ambivalence about chivalry, men have grown confused about how to treat women. Will holding doors open for them or paying for the first date be interpreted as sexist? Does carrying their groceries imply they’re weak? The breakdown in the old rules, which at one extreme has given rise to the hookup culture, has killed dating and is leaving a lot of well-meaning men and women at a loss.
It is, apparently, now all about teh secks, romance is dead, etc. If you need to throw something at a wall or vomit quick, that’s cool.
After these few paragraphs of unsubstantiated awfulness, Smith’s poor use of sources and reasoning resolves into a fairly simple point; that our society is suffering a breakdown on an interpersonal level, and the reintroduction of chivalry as an essential part of the male psyche would be A Good Thing that would help to save us all from our savage, sex-crazed selves.
She’s right, in part. People seem to have serious ethical issues with how they treat their fellow humans in this day and age, particular when it comes to divisions along the gender binary. However, where Smith gets it wrong is that a lack of chivalry is not the problem; the issue here is that not enough people are down with feminism.
Chivalry, in short, is a gender-based practice of the patriarchy wherein men, being the favored party, treat women as delicate flowers, too weak to go about their daily lives without special assistance from men, who are the strong, rational types. In a chivalrous world, women are still second-class citizens, still treated poorly, and still viewed as objects for exploitation and status building than as autonomous human beings with their own agency. All acting chivalrously does is put a glossy veneer on that, ruffles and lace to draw attention away from the oozing sore of misogyny. That is the reality of chivalry, not the glorious wonderland Smith envisions.
She wants a world where we treat each other better. She implores feminists to link up with “traditionalists,” claiming they are not so far apart (emphasis mine):
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.
In the words of Inigo Montoya, I do not think she knows what chivalry means. What she’s talking about right here is a basic equality feminism. And that’s awesome, even if she doesn’t know quite what she’s getting at. But I want more, and the world needs more.
We need a feminism that doesn’t simply seek equality for everyone, but a more activist feminism that seeks to end sexist oppression. bell hooks spoke of living in a world “where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction. Imagine living in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and possibility.” That is the world we should strive for. For that, we are going to need to broaden our vision, look beyond normative conceptions of equality, and most importantly, refuse to give lip service to outdated and unhelpful concepts like that of chivalry. For feminism to succeed, we need a revolution of thought, on an individual, grassroots level, as well as a revolution of social systems.
In short, feminism offers us everything that chivalry does on the level of interpersonal relations, with true respect and a desire to mak the world a better place. The knights are gone, so let’s have an activist order instead.
UPDATE: Stephanie has written up her own thoughts on the article, and is, as usual, excellent.