The last time I wrote about chivalry, I received 44 comments in the first 48 hours. Looks like chivalry is a hit again. Or at least discussions about it, if the response to my last column is any indication.
And it’s not just here. The link to the column went viral on Facebook. I’ve been asked to do a radio interview about the subject. I’ve written a follow-up for my syndicated column.
And I’m seeing lots and lots of comments in lots and lots of places. Some positive, some negative. I appreciated all of it. But seeing them made me want to clarify a few things.
The first was the comment that “Chivalry is really just kindness.” Many of you talked about how kindness is lacking in this culture—particularly between men and women—and how we all need to take the time to be thoughtful and considerate of each other, regardless of gender.
On one level, I agree wholeheartedly. I think kindness of all varieties is in particularly short supply, and I am heartily in favor of anything we can do to remind ourselves that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, and that we need to act accordingly.
But I want to clarify that chivalry and kindness are not interchangeable.
All chivalry is kindness, but all kindness is not chivalry. Chivalry, as we understand and use the term today, refers to a particular type of kindness. It is an act of kindness done by one type of person (men) on behalf of another type of person (women), for a specific reason.
Why is there an expectation that men will do these specific things for women, but not vice versa?
Because men and women are different. Males and female are, according to Blessed John Paul II, absolutely equal in dignity before God, but constitute different ways of being human.
And part of that difference is that women are physically weaker than men. Now every man is not physically stronger than every woman, but on the whole, men average a significantly higher percentage of muscle mass than women. And hence, most men who are not yet eligible for Social Security benefits are capable of physically overpowering most women who aren’t Olympic weight-lifters. And, whether we admit it or not, that causes a certain feeling of vulnerability in women.
Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this because I was recently on the receiving end of a man’s misuse of physical strength. He was convicted of third degree assault. And I was left feeling shaken, vulnerable, and extremely thankful to the nearby men who came to my defense.
Modern chivalry is supposed to be one way that men signal to women that they respect them and would never use their physical strength against them. As the chivalry article in Atlantic Monthly said, “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.”
The article goes on to describe an incident in an elevator in Harlem where a pastor tipped his hat to a young girl and she retorted “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The article continues, “The pastor’s response was: ‘Madame, by tipping my hat I was telling you several things. That I would not harm you in any way. That if someone came into this elevator and threatened you, I would defend you. That if you fell ill, I would tend to you and if necessary carry you to safety. I was telling you that even though I am a man and physically stronger than you, I will treat you with both respect and solicitude. But frankly, Madame, it would have taken too much time to tell you all of that; so, instead, I just tipped my hat.’”
And a note for those of you who asked “Why should I be chivalrous? What’s in it for me?” The answer is the same as it is for any other act of genuine kindness. Nothing. Kindness is not a quid pro quo arrangement whereby you give something and get something tangible back as a result. What does someone “get” from giving an elderly person their seat on the train? What do they get from helping a lost child, or shoveling a neighbor’s walk, or any other random act of kindness? They may get a warm feeling. They may get gratitude from the recipient. But that’s not why they do it—or at least why Christ commands them to do it.
What we get is the realization that we’re doing the right thing. That we’re respecting the image and likeness of God in this flesh-and-blood human person. That’s what we’re all called to do, and chivalry is just one small way in which we do it.
So if chivalry is so very respectful of women, why do so many well-intentioned and chivalrous men find—like the pastor in the Harlem elevator—that their efforts to be respectful are rebuffed by these very women themselves?
I’ve been thinking about that question. And I think it’ll be our next topic.
Do you have a question for Mary Beth Bonacci? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.