Thursday, October 2, 2014

Chivalry is Dead? Good.



Empty bus seats.

Last week one of my wife's cousins posted on facebook that chivalry is dead because all the men on the bus to the rental car place didn't jump up to offer her a seat.  She is two - three months pregnant and was actively resisting the urge to throw out her stomach and yell, "Is chivalry dead in Denver?"  It was a humorous post, meant in jest, but I took real offence to it for a couple of reasons.   My wife just rolled her eyes at my offense.

Let's start with the lessor of the reasons for taking this post amiss.  Please don't throw aspersions on my City based on the actions of people on a bus from the airport to the car rental building.  The only person on bus from Denver was probably the driver, and I doubt you'd want him to give up his seat for you.  I have pride in my city, which is generally considered pretty polite.  Last Friday Alice Louise and I went to the aquarium lounge (which is awesomely cheap) for happy hour and met another couple with two children.  Conversation was stuck and at the end they commented that they'd never felt as welcome in a city as they did in Denver.  Conversation striking is apparently my new hobby.

I want to explore this idea of dead chivalry.  My first response to her post was to say that it's rude to assume someone is pregnant.  Her response was, "I  am a women."  And that's when we got to the meat of the matter.  The next comment, from someone I don't know was, "Men, you always, always give up your seat to a woman.  Always!"  My response to that was "I always give up my seat to someone who needs it.  Last time I saw you [cousin's name] you were a robust woman in the prime of life.  Why should I give up my seat to you?  I'm curious, what entitles you to that seat?"  I actually meant it in a conversational way.  And I am curious as to why being a woman means men have to give up their seats, especially from a woman's point of view.  But the nuance of language is lost on the internet, and the comment probably came across as more heated that I intended.   The next commenter called me rude, actually called me "RUUUUDDDDDEEEE!" so I let it drop.

Since then I've been thinking a lot about chivalry a lot.  I open door for people if I get to the door before them, without regard for gender or age.  Sometimes I get stuck in a door holding eddy, where I hold a door for a whole train of people pouring in or out of a building.  Almost everyone says thank you, and occasionally someone tries to take the door from me, thus rescuing me from the eddy.  But I don't consider that chivalrous, just polite.  Chivalrous is something darker, something less than polite.

Let's get a little historical perceptive here.  Bear with me, some of this knowledge I'm dredging up from my Chaucer class in College

Lamia by John William Waterhouse, 1905.

Chivalry actually got its start during the medieval period best characterized by the tales of King Arthur and his knights.  Chivalry was a code of conduct for knights.  The root of the word is actually horsemanship and a lot of  the code was dedicated to how worship god to make war on the infidel.  But it also encouraged knights to seek the favor of ladies, often the ladies of their liege lords.  Of course being polite to your liege lord's lady was important for keeping your own head.  It is important to note that these relationships were not based on sexual desire, but a more romantic ideal.  Doing deeds for the favor of a lady gained you esteem among the other knights.

This system evolved out of a real political necessity.  Knights were mostly powerful landless men on horses in full armor.  There was a real problem that when these men got bored, they would ride through the country side cutting down the common folk, folk who were vitally important to growing the food for the kingdom.  But you couldn't send these men away or they would return with some rival lord and take your land.  So a real effort was put on creating a code of conduct.  Part of that was connecting these men to a higher power.  The church did some of this work and a lot of christian morality was infused into the stories of the knights and ladies (hence the focus on the chaste relationship between knight and lady).  There were also many stories about the chaos that ensued when the boundary between idealized love crossed over to carnal love.  Here look to the story of Lancelot and  Guinevere whose physical love basically destroyed Camelot.  The lord could order you to battle, but the lady could inspire you to win.  Just don't expect to see her naked.

So Chivalry was really a system designed by men to control other men using women.

Pre-Raphaelite Painting
Lamia by John William Waterhouse, 1905.

In the more modern era, Chivalry sort of became the booby prize awarded to women for their unequal position in society.  It's like "Sorry women, you can't own property, or vote, or drive, but let me tip my hat to you, hold the door for you, or give up my seat."  Instead of actually giving women an equal stake, society gives them empty gestures and expects them to be sated.  The more chivalrous the treatment of women, the more unequal the genders.

However, as we move toward a more equal society, the less chivalrous the relationship between the genders become.  This is a good thing.  There is something cheap and fake about chivalry.  Its application almost always seems condescending, and self-serving.  Look at me.  I'm giving up my seat for a the weaker than me woman.  What I good man I am.

Now, I'm not advocating jettisoning politeness.  Give up your seat for someone who really needs it.  Hold the door open for people.  And say thank you to the guy or girl holding the door open for you.  Just don't do it because you want to be chivalrous.  And Ladies, when all the men around you don't jump up to give you their seat, don't be offended, be excited that you live in a society moving closer to equality.  The men around you think you're strong enough to stand, if they are even thinking of you at all after their long flight from Debuque.