Thursday, August 8, 2013

Response to: "Chivalry vs. Kindness: Which enables rape culture?"

This past week I read a blog that weighed heavily on my heart on two counts. First, I love words. As an amateur philologist I have an ongoing passion for using words creatively and well. Second, I love history. And as someone who has read widely and in some depth the Medieval tradition, I was distressed to encounter such a modern disconnect and misapprehension of the concept of the Chivalric Code.

This remarkable young writer had many good points to make, gave four concrete suggestions for ameliorating our social outlook, and shows that she has a heart for humanity. Rather than develop these constructive elements, she chose to focus on her perception of what chivalry looks like in her world-view and turned it into a straw man argument. She misrepresented the meaning and original world view of chivalry to make it the fall-guy for present day rape culture.

 A young, self-described  “single mother/student/waitress/feminist” wrote an essay entitled: “Chivalry vs. Kindness: which enables rape culture?” in which she tears down the notion of chivalry in general and then proceeds to blame it as a “subtext” for the rape culture. Let’s start with the title. She presents a dichotomy (of two words we often link in our society) and then insinuates that one and not the other enables rape culture. This is ill-founded thinking because it assumes that one of these two (not both or neither) is an enabling element in the rape culture. She gives no basis for the assumption or the false dichotomy.

She is right in her assertion that: “Chivalry is one of the most misused, misunderstood terms today.” Sadly, she is proof of that. She recognizes that it comes of “knightly” origin and refers to the behavior of knights and that over the years it became known as courtesy and politeness to “control the dangerous male nature” and encourage gentle behavior toward women (as the weaker and less aggressive sex). So far we can track with her understanding of how the word has shifted. Then she jumps to a “bunch of white guys lifting heavy stuff and opening doors” which is quite a leap. Here the tone of her language reveals the strong resistance to negative connotations of chivalry and this seems to me to be her true objection. Society has an awareness of the word that she disagrees with and her thesis is that the word and its heritage is part of the problem and generates more of the rape culture than would otherwise be.

She comically notes: “Perpetuating the stereotype of men as beastly, uncontrollably violent monsters that need to tip their hat or bow down in order to tell women they will not rape them is crazy.” Of course it’s crazy. We agree. What we wonder is how the understanding of chivalry has been watered down to that minimalistic notion. Tipping hats and bowing are part of 19th century gallantry and haven’t a direct correlation to the origins of chivalry.

Here she moves into a correlative fallacy (a faulty assumption between two variables that one causes the other): IF chivalry encourages men “to tame their barely controllable violent urges,” THEN it directly correlates with narratives of the rape culture. Without giving a foundation for this presumption, she moves on to explain that this is why feminists are offended by the legacy of chivalry. I.e. something that may or may not be related to chivalry is the basis for some people to object to chivalry. I beg to point out that chivalry is not definable or accurately describable as a mindset for men to tame their violent urges. It is hardly that and it is much more.

For a moment, let’s look at what chivalry is, rather than what a 21st century (nearly ten centuries removed) woman perceives it to be. Briefly: the chivalric code of medieval tradition had three basic tenets. 1. Duties to king and countrymen, to the point of self-sacrifice. 2. Duties to God, being a man of faith. 3. Duties to protect the weak, identified as women, children, and elderly. This does not sound like it has as its primary agenda “patriarchal male privilege and female subordination.”  That those two items existed in the society in which chivalry originated is granted--but they also existed in societies far removed from chivalry. The contrast is that chivalry appears more to be designed to address those as flaws rather than perpetuate them. Strong men using their strength to defend king, faith, and those weaker is not “controlling violent urges.” It seems an attempt to counter those strong men who are not exercising self-control. Notice that protecting women and children is only a third of the whole, but is being redefined as the cause of rape. At the risk of my own weak parallel: blaming chivalry for encouraging the rape culture is like blaming oncology units for causing cancer. They exist because cancer exists, they don’t cause it.

The “inherent” problem with chivalry, she says, is that it is about one-way kindness. She has no problem with kindness. In fact, she is “all about kindness.” One-way kindness does not lead to healthy relationships. So she is advocating reciprocal kindness. This she sees as in opposition to chivalry (one-way kindness) and will be better received. I applaud her desire for reciprocity. This is where she does get it right. However, chivalry is not about kindness. She herself argues that “kindness and chivalry are not synonyms.” I want to stand and shout “Amen. Who said they were?” Chivalry has never been about something as innocuous as kindness. It was always about loyalty, honor, courage, and morality. The assumption that chivalry can be redefined as kindness or respect reveals a basic misunderstanding of chivalry. It is so much more.

She concludes: “So, is chivalry a part of the rape culture? Chivalry, as it can be taken with all of its historical context and breadth of connotation, can be considered to be a part of rape culture.” With no accusations other than that guys  in the 21st century who pay for the date, open doors, and carry heavy stuff ("acting chivalrously"), she implies they are perpetuating the rape culture. In fact, they are acting gallantly, not chivalrously. However, even gallantry is not the fall guy for the rape culture. 

All that being said, the author has four very excellent suggestions. She calls them “How to be Kind without the rape subtext of chivalry.” These are four admirable, doable goals. 

        1. She wants Kindness all around: men to men and women, women to women and men.
        2. She recommends we commit to genuine acts of kindness; basically, kindness with some ulterior motive is her definition of “chivalrous.”
        3.“Just don’t do it” is her piĆ©ce de resistance. Here she decries the pinching, groping, catcalling, whistling that women are subject to day in and day out. This, I believe, is her biggest issue. She thinks that men, in small “opening the doors” gestures are trying to signal that they won’t rape, rob or injure women. She would rather they simply didn’t do the nasty stuff. Perhaps many feminists see these small gestures as such signals, but I suspect the men have no such ideas in their minds. This is one area where, as she puts it, cultural ideologies need to change. Yes, they do.
       4. Communicate. And this one should be self-evident. Her slant, however,  has to do with the concept of chivalry. If you are someone who is offended by the word, then express the offense in an articulate way (as she has). And if you staunchly defend chivalry, explain it in a cohesive, respectful way (as I hope I have). 

In short, as I look at her very valid complaints: groping, pinching, catcalling, (all the crude stuff bully-type guys tend to do in a group), they do not align with the men who open doors and pay for dinner. The likelihood of these two men-types intersecting is very small. The one is known for crudity, the other for “chivalry”. To blame the rape culture on the latter is counter-intuitive for me and I struggle to attribute their “gentleness” to a mentality that denigrates women.

She has some great concepts, and my favorite is how rare it is for what one person intends to be communicated to be received in complete accuracy by another. For this reason, we need to give one another the benefit of the doubt and permission to express our opinions without judgmental or pejorative language.

I would like to add on a divergent thought at this point. Much of my reason for writing this is that it so clearly comes from a protected and powerful world view. We all write from our point of view, but there is the danger of the Mind-projection fallacy which considers the way one sees the world as the way it is in reality. Hmm, Sounds like something we all do from time to time.

In our work here in subsaharan Africa, I have met more girls and women from slum and township background than from anything that would correlate to what an American woman (suburban, urban or rural) would encounter. Most of these women have been routinely subjected to sexual abuse by the very men who are supposed to protect them: fathers, husbands, uncles, cousins. They have grown up in a tradition that has no chivalric code to blame for the rape culture in which they live. Where, then, did it come from? There is something much bigger going on here than a thousand year history of knights on horses going around to protect the weak. She described a “really bad date” as one who pays for everything, compliments her exterior attributes, and allows her no reciprocation. I tried to imagine explaining what a date was to an African girl: a date where the man paid for her and didn’t expect sexual favors. A time where minds might meet and thoughts might be shared.

Rather than focus on chivalry as the root of the issue and argue about telling the “truth” about chivalry, why not focus on the desired change: kindness all ways. Oh, and how about an extra dose of grace for everyone?