in defense of chivalry

By now you’ve probably read, or at least heard of, HRC VP Rachel Wagley’s recent Crimson op-ed A Defense of Manliness, in which she argues for ideals that all of us Democrats simply despise, such as chivalry and nobility.

Oh, wait, we’re not opposed to those.  (To debunk another popular misconception, we also don’t engage in weekly baby-eating rituals.  They’re once-monthly.)

Then why did she even bother writing the editorial?  Well, you see, in it she seems to be arguing – or perhaps just assuming – that such attributes are specific and inherent to men.

Now, men and women do have some natural distinctions.  Each of my cells have one Y-chromosome; all of your cells do not.  I have certain parts; you have certain other parts.  I am more likely to be attracted to people with your parts; you are more likely to be attracted to people with my parts.  And beyond that, I find it hard to believe that men and women do not carry some average genetic difference in disposition, albeit one that is generally amplified and in some ways twisted by culture and society.  But with both of these dispositions come strengths and weaknesses; it is by the cultivation of these strengths and the tempering of these weaknesses in all of us (a process that I should think might lead to the fading of such differences), not by the promotion of the differences themselves, that we should seek to improve our engendered world.

Which is essentially what Michael Kimmel, the Harvard Men Against Rape speaker and pro-feminist writer against whom Wagley writes most of her op-ed, has spent most of his academic career arguing: that, while women have been casting aside the weaknesses traditionally assigned to them by society, men should be re-examining their own stereotypes and expectations, as Kimmel repeatedly summarizes in the following “rules” of masculinity compiled by Robert Brannon:

(1) “No Sissy Stuff’ – masculinity is based on the relentless repudiation of the feminine. Masculinity is never being a sissy.

(2) “Be a Big Wheel” – we measure masculinity by the size of your paycheck. Wealth, power, status are all markers of masculinity. As a U.S. bumper sticker put it: “He who dies with the most toys, wins.”

(3) “Be a Sturdy Oak” – what makes a man a man is that he is reliable in a crisis. And what makes him reliable in a crisis is that he resembles an inanimate object. A rock, a pillar, a tree,

(4) “Give ’em Hell” – also exude an aura of daring and aggression. Take risks; live life on the edge. Go for it.

Number 1, while it rejects stereotypically feminine weaknesses such as fear and emotional fragility, at the same time discards caution and empathy.  (2) promotes success itself, but its promotion as a masculine ideal can conspire to keep women away from work and men away from home.  While (3) seeks reliability, it can just as often yield stubbornness and emotional unavailability.  And (4) is perhaps the most dangerous: the bravery it represents will often lead to violence, hostility, and Darwin Awards.

Not only does this idea of a man-code often take masculinity to extremes that endanger men themselves, but it also excludes women from being able (or, more aptly, culturally permitted) to practice the positive ideals it may contain.  And that’s what Kimmel is combating when, in Wagley’s editorial, he contends that “there are no good distinctively manly qualities”: not that men cannot or should not be noble or chivalrous, but that nobility and chivalry are not distinctly and exclusively masculine; that they are traits that women can, should, and do seek and possess.

Which is one of the foremost reasons that male-only organizations should yet offend us: their exclusively masculine nature is one of the final vestiges of the idea that there are some activities in which men can and will participate but women cannot or should not.  However, in all honesty, a few such activities do exist, and therein lies a perhaps more sinister problem with all-male social clubs.  For the one such activity in which they probably participate the most, the one such activity for which they are perhaps best known, is the pursuit of heterosexual sex, which not only seems to go directly against Wagley’s principles as the president of TLR, but which can produce a certain sense of entitlement, a feeling that one has the right to have sex, the denial of which, as Kimmel describes about two-thirds of the way through this speech to the European Parliament, is precisely what leads to rape.

While there may be more noble ways to halt or, better yet, prevent this chain of attitudes that will occasionally lead from masculine exclusivity to rape, a simple request for consent is, rather than as Wagley asserts “a miserable substitute for nobility, a legalistic detour around an incredibly personal situation,” a way to ask, Am I really entitled to this?  Should I really be seeking this?  Is this right? – and if her answer is no, then your answer to those questions will be much more obvious than it would were they never asked.  Yet Wagley seems to believe that discussions of consent “lower the bar” from nobility, from an ideal where men will not seek sexual intercourse with a woman with whom they are not in a committed relationship.  But setting the “bar” there may be dangerous.  It seems to me that she is living in a fantasy world where everyone agrees with her, where everyone is capable of agreeing with her that an extended relationship should always precede sexual encounters.  I’m not saying she’s necessarily wrong; nor is Kimmel.  I’m merely saying that we must face the fact that a great number of people of our age do, always have, and probably always will seek more immediate sexual gratification; it is only once we admit that that we can recognize the importance of reminding ourselves that it is not a right.  And only with that recognition can chivalry be reborn.

But in order for men to find chivalry again, we must reject the notion of pure manliness, of the kind that our own Professor Harvey C. Mansfield promotes in his book Manliness.  I haven’t read that book, nor have I done significant research on it; I can only relate this New York Times review of it.  I’ll make the error that the casual reader of Wagley’s article makes with regard to Kimmel’s speech and suppose that the author of this review (who, after all, is a New York Times writer) understands the work he’s writing about: an entirely  outdated viewpoint in which men are dominant and masculinity is fully and entirely separate from femininity.  From this perspective arises the “confidence in the face of risk” that Wagley cites, a confidence that can give rise to stubbornness, incredibly dumb acts of thrill-seeking, and a determination to have one’s way with, subvert, take advantage of another person.  Chivalry and honor only arise from that confidence when mixed with the “patience, passivity, and committed endurance” that Wagley describes as inherently female characteristics.  Men do not need to embrace pure masculinity and eschew femininity in order to achieve a chivalrous state; nor can they.  At the same time, by the same mixture of traditionally masculine and feminine traits, women can and do become chivalrous themselves.

Rachel Wagley concludes by saying, “To Harvard men: You are worthy of honor and respect.”  To which I respond, to Harvard men and women alike: let’s earn it.