Monday, January 26, 2015

The Death of Chivalry? A Plea for Human Decency

A few years ago my family and I were heading into a restaurant for lunch. I was herding the kids, trying to keep them from running into the street or smashing their faces into concrete posts. Hence, my wife reached the restaurant door before I did.

A man who watched this scene responded with horror, surging forward to save the day. He managed to do what I should have been doing instead of keeping my children alive. It was a near thing, but he got to the door before my wife did and held it open for her, rescuing chivalry from the clutches of my negligence.

And then he gave me the kind of withering look reserved for people who push old ladies into traffic.

At first I was baffled. But then I realized what was going on. Watching to make sure the kids didn't commit unintended suicide in the manner of small children--that was my wife's job. My job was to take care of her by making sure her Ironman-triathlete arm muscles weren't strained by the task of opening a door.

This case was hardly unique. I'm not at all good at the chivalrous-holding-open-the-door-for-a-lady thing, at least not the Oklahoma version. I was raised in upstate New York by Scandinavian parents. My mother, a Norwegian raised mostly in Denmark, reserved a distinctive kind of scorn for those American men inclined to inflict Chivalry on her. (My father never dared.) She'd make this scoffing noise--very Danish--combined with an expression that was part bafflement and part eye-roll. Sometimes she'd follow it up with something like, "I can get my own chair."

I'm not a child was unspoken but implied.

If she was trying to be polite to the chivalrous agent of condescension, the scoff would be stifled and her face would wrinkle up in a way that mostly expressed discomfort. Sometimes she'd enact the expected ritual responses in a playfully mocking manner: "Oh!" Big Dramatic Expression. "What a gentleman!" The guy would usually catch on, and pretend that all along he'd been play-acting as a way of expressing their shared disdain for such things.

So perhaps I can be excused for growing up without the habits of chivalry that Oklahomans generally treat as normative. But I've tried, for the sake of form, to catch on a little bit when I'm out in public. Unfortunately, I'm a bit dense about it. A couple of years back I thought that I was doing it right. I got to the door ahead of my wife and held it open. I silently congratulated myself on remembering the ritual.

But I did it wrong. I did it in the way that I hold doors for people coming up behind me as I'm entering a building. You know, that common human decency which leads you to make sure the door doesn't slam in the other person's face. Once they get there and their hand is on the door, you let go and continue on into the building.

It turns out that chivalry isn't about common human decency. I may have held the door for my wife, but people glared anyway--because I didn't continue to hold the door until she'd passed completely through ahead of me. I'd forgotten about "ladies first."

I remember having a conversation about this with my students once. "Why," I asked, "have I done something wrong if I fail to run ahead of my wife to get the door and hold it for her, but my wife hasn't done anything wrong if she fails to do the same for me?"

"Because," my students answered, "you're the guy."

And that's it exactly. Chivalry isn't about common human decency. It's about gender differences. It's a ritual reinforcement of differential gender roles. And insofar as it is a holdover of a patriarchal culture--one in which women were rendered dependent on men--rules of chivalry reflect and reinforce that patriarchal culture.

Here's how I look at it. In a patriarchal society, rules of chivalry have an important function in symbolically encouraging men to restrain how they use their privilege in relation to women. In patriarchy, that privilege makes women's life prospects depend on the good will of the men in their lives. Fortunately, there have always been men of good will in the world. Hence, many women have had decent lives despite patriarchy. And the rules of chivalry have helped to promote that. Every time a man makes a chivalrous gesture, he's reminded to use his privilege to care for rather than exploit women. He also sends a (possibly deceptive) message to women that here is a man who will not exploit his advantage over them: a man of good will, who will use his higher status in the cultural hierarchy to care for those lower in it, rather than abuse them.

But at the same time that chivalry symbolically communicates the importance of not exploiting a privileged position, it symbolically reinforces the hierarchy itself. When women ritually allow men to do for them what they are fully capable of doing for themselves, they symbolically hand over to them the power to take care of them. Rather than being autonomous agents who take care of themselves, they transfer the power to a paternalistic caretaker.

I suppose a paternalistic caretaker is better than an abusive tyrant, if you have to put your life and happiness into someone else's control. But equality is better still.

Let me be clear. I believe in human relationships. I believe that they should be shaped by care and compassion. And I believe that in an intimate partnership, we need to be willing to trust our partner, and sometimes rely on them to do things for us, even things that we could very well do for ourselves. Self-care and self-control have to make room for trust and interdependence. We are not wholly autonomous beings. We need to form intimate partnerships where we can care and be cared for. We need to make space for both--and that means letting others hold doors for us, even when we have the muscular strength to open them ourselves.

But the problem with chivalry is that what it symbolizes goes only in one direction. The woman gives up her self-reliance to the care of the benevolent man. There is no symbolic parity.

When I asked my students why my failure to hold the door for my wife was a big deal, but her failure to do the same wasn't, it was a very serious question with a very serious point. I would eagerly try to learn cultural rituals that affirm interdependence and mutual care between men and women. But the door-holding ritual doesn't do that, precisely because it is gender-specific in what it demands.

Chivalry is, in other words, a set of rituals designed for a society in which gender relations are not egalitarian, a society where women are vulnerable to exploitation and hence dependent on making sure that the men in their lives are men of good will, men who will use their privileged social position to care for those women rather than abuse them.

I believe we should be aiming for a society characterized by gender equality, a society where neither sex is uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, a society where women don't need gestures of chivalry to assure them that this man won't abuse his privilege--because he doesn't enjoy such privilege.

For that, we need new rituals. We need symbolic acts of human decency, acts that communicate our openness to egalitarian partnerships, to interdependence, to a balance of vulnerability and self-reliance, trust and care.

That said, we do face a world in which women are far more vulnerable to sexual abuse at the hands of men than the other way around. And this fact may call for ritual acts and gestures that are specifically for men--ritual acts whereby men symbolically express their rejection of rape and the culture of rape.

I don't think the rituals of chivalry are well suited to this aim. First of all, their focus is on a kind of paternalistic care-taking in which the woman is passive and the man is active--and the message here is hardly an unambiguous repudiation of rape.

He opens the door. She walks through.

He takes off her coat. She passively lets him.

He pulls out the chair. She sits down.

He orders the wine. She trusts his judgment.

He pays. She relies on his financial privilege, feels indebted, and wonders how much he thinks he's buying in return.

He directs and she follows. He acts and she allows. It's almost as if the whole thing is aimed at habituating her into a pattern of acquiescence...all in preparation for that moment when he finally makes his move.

The truth is that all of us are vulnerable to abuse, to being used by others in various ways. All of us can benefit from a culture that, in its little rituals, symbolically repudiates such abuse. And if there are special gestures that men should convey to women that women aren't expected to reciprocate, it makes sense for them to be special forms of these more general rituals.

What would these rituals look like? I'm not sure. What do we do now to show common human decency through symbolic gestures? Can any of them be adapted to dates, to romance, to intimate relationships in ways that affirm interdependence, equality, and mutual care?

The death of chivalry is often bemoaned, but I doubt that anyone would really miss it were it replaced with something that is truer to an ideal of gender equality--something that is about our shared human condition, our shared vulnerability, our shared need to be cared for and to be relied on.

That's what we want and need--but men want and need it as much as women do, and chivalry falls short not only in terms of reciprocity, but in terms of subtly imposing a patriarchal hierarchy on expressions of care.

So let chivalry die. But let's not merely let it die. Let's strive together to replace it with something new.


  1. I think it's on its way out, except maybe in Oklahoma ;)
    But I hope women and men can still open doors for another out of basic human kindness and decency, instead of chivalry.

  2. YES. Bless every single thing about this post.

  3. I find this odd. There is nothing wrong with opening doors for women or being polite. You describe your wife's arms in a way that makes me wonder what you think about her being so physically strong. As for your mother, did she have a job during her marriage? Was her scoffing at what you deem chivalry for other reasons? Perhaps she did not want to be financially dependent on anyone, but was she? Now you sound confused actually. I think the confusion is far past the opening of doors issue but you will have to figure this out for yourself. I could be entirely wrong.