Chivalry is Dead. Long live Chivalry!
A friend and coworker of mine prompted an interesting debate on Facebook by asking if it’s sexist for a man to offer his seat to a woman on the bus.
It brings up all sorts of interesting issues, one of which is the concept of chivalry. Chivalry is in itself a very interesting topic, with a fascinating history that pulls together a variety of institutions and world views, many of which are out of vogue amongst the cultures I circulate.
When I was composing a list of 12 virtues I wanted to articulate through a coming of age ceremony I created for my sons, ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WOZx1TYuqE ) Chivalry was on the long list. Though it got cut as I boiled the essence of that giant list down to just 12. And I think that same process I did can be used to “salvage” this anachronistic value for our post-modern gender-equality, post-Christian western cultures.
What I did was to break down what I thought the heart of chivalry was about. Or at least the parts that are relevant in a world where small fiefdoms are not always threatened internally and externally by barbarians and briggens. I think we can “afford” to create the fiction of equality because our technological and governmental institutions keep us safe enough to keep up the game. But before our modern age, women and children really did suffer much more than men BECAUSE they did not have the power to defend themselves as well. Now we’ve built a society where power takes more forms that brute strength, but our brains still have that trajectory baked in through evolution. So re-orienting ourselves is not a simple thing. The gender roles may be institutionalized, but I’m pretty sure those institutions developed as a reflection of our animal heritage. (Probably why most people instinctively love traditional gender roles and are uncomfortable with less traditional approaches.) I’m all for overcoming our animal heritage, so I’m all for reconstituting our institutions to reflect a new and more Christlike set of power dynamics. And I think a good part of that process could be examining what makes long-standing traditions like chivalry compelling, and seeing if we can’t utilize them in some form to shape our cultures towards a posture of Love and justice.
I think a lot of what chivalry is about is applying the golden rule to those with power and privilege. And amazingly, it was about SELF-enforcing that, not creating constitutions and laws the simply punish behavior that the masses dislike. In the late middle ages that was quite a progressive idea!
So what can we pull from chivalry? There are a lot of specific elements that don’t really fit our cultures such as “Show no mercy to the Infidel. Do not hesitate to make war with them.” and “Believe the Church's teachings and observe all the Church's directions.” So maybe it’s not worth salvaging. But then there are many parts which even the most liberal social justice advocate would agree with:
“Respect and defend all weaknesses.”
“Never lie or go back on one's word.”
“Be generous to everyone.”
“Always and everywhere be right and good against evil and injustice.”
So it seems to me that the definition of chivalry can be expanded and adapted to a equality-oriented society. Certainly the part about helping/defending the weak. As long as all sexes are included. AND "weakness" is recognized as a relative, contextual thing. When I'm holding four bags of groceries trying to get on the bus, I'm weaker than a little girl with no bags in regard to the task at hand. In that context she could be chivalrous and hold the door for me. The only problem comes when entire groups are designated as "Weaker", as if there is only one axis or sphere of strength in life. I'm pretty sure I could beat Steven Hawking in a triathlon. But he could beat me in a book-writing, science, and influence triathlon. So who is "Weaker"? In the late middle ages I’m sure he would be weaker in every way related to survival and thriving in that time and place. But we’ve created this incredible infrastructure and social values that has allowed people like him to wield great power, and that’s wonderful! Now HE can embody chivalry with his influence and writings.
But there’s no doubt that the word chivalry has baggage. And if that’s the case, why bother working to adapt it to our day and age? That’s a good and valid question, and I’m not sure I have a great answer except that it feels to me like it evokes powerful poetic rhetorical power. (to some people, but not others.) The IDEA (not the reality) of gallant knights fighting injustice can be so inspiring to positive action I feel like there’s still a place for it. It gives us mini-hero moments. It lets us go beyond politeness, (which is a whole other can of worms I’d like to examine at some point) and connects us with the underlying power-dynamics at play in our interactions with others in a more dramatic way.
So personally, I like the word and the positive power it can do.