Mark Reidy: Is chivalry virtue or contempt?

28 Jan 2009

By The Record

When the Titanic sank in 1912, many men went down with her.

“Women and children first was neither the rule of captain nor of sea”, said one of the surviving officers later, “but of human nature”. Chivalry, the ideal of men choosing to respond to a situation with courage and self-sacrifice, was obviously still alive and well at the beginning of the 20th century. So what has happened since?
I found myself pondering the demise of this ancient practice after taking my six year-old son to see “The Tale of Despereaux”, an animated story about a mouse who modelled his life on the Code of Chivalry that was born in the Middle Ages. Despereaux overcame many life-threatening obstacles and personal hardships in his quest to save the Princess in distress.
It was an inspiring tale that embraced and encouraged virtues such as: courage, honour, justice, mercy, truth, loyalty, nobility, and self-sacrifice. I came away with a deep yearning to teach my son these beautiful attributes and explain to him how the Knights of old lived and died by them. But then I had to check myself.
The very foundations of chivalry, the principle that men, with their stronger physical characteristics, would be the protectors of those more vulnerable, that is, women and children, is considered outmoded and sexist. What sort of father would I be if I filled my child’s head and heart with such “primitive” ideals?
Historically, chivalry reached its peak of practice and popularity between the 11th and 13th centuries when Muslim aggression inspired a Crusade-driven marriage between the Church and the feudal knights who where seconded to defend them. These resulting defenders of faith laid the foundation stones of honour and courage that morphed over the proceeding centuries into a less dramatic form of gentlemanly conduct that occupied western society in the earlier stages of the 20th century. Behaviours such as opening doors, offering seats and carrying heavy loads were hereditarily embraced by men and were seen as endeavours to protect and respect.
However in the latter half of last century things began to change. Such practices were interpreted as signs of dominance and superiority, indicative of a patriarchal desire to keep women subordinate. US novelist and social commentator, Albert Guerard, went as far as describing chivalry as, “the most delicate form of contempt” and it seems that he had many supporters, as acts once described as gentlemanly became scarcer with each passing generation. 
So now I must decide whether I will continue this trend. Do I teach my son that any action that suggests that women are different in any way is an affront to the progress that has been made over the last fifty years? Or do I adhere to my belief that God has indeed created men and women differently and that, although we are equal, we have never and will never be the same; that each gender has been given specific qualities that are designed to complement one another, and that many of these are not transferable.
Eventually my son must make his own decisions, but I believe it is my responsibility to teach him that any action toward another should only ever extend from a heart of love, never superiority. I want him to understand that although actions can appear to be chivalrous on the surface, they can indeed be, “delicate forms of contempt”, if that is the attitude that dwells in the heart of the giver.
That is why I must also teach him to constantly gauge his motives towards others, particularly women, so that any interaction is guided only by honour, respect and self-sacrifice. I must let him know that to do anything less is to undermine the masculinity that God has bestowed upon him.