Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Lament for Chivalry

Chivalry is dead, but second-wave feminism didn’t kill it. It was a casualty of rugged American individualism.* A medieval code of gallantry and honor, chivalry was a mere byproduct of a social structure founded on recognizing one’s God-given role in life and dutifully submitting to it. In contrast, our society is plagued with people who have no sense of social obligation. It’s socially correct to blame a self-absorbed, nearsighted materialistic culture committed to promiscuity and fatalistic eschatology, but I’m naming a different cause: the democratization of our traditionally hierarchical economic, political, and religious systems, a.k.a. free-market “capitalism,” liberal philosophy, and evangelical spiritualism.

With a growing public concern for the individual’s rights, privileges, and wants came a new attitude about living. No one thinks in terms of what preserves society. We’re committed to a neo-Smithian doctrine that says what’s desired by the individual is best for society…theoretically, of course, since in practice we really don’t care what happens to everyone else. How amazing it is that we are starving from lack of altruism in a country known for its astronomically high levels of charitable giving.

Over the last half-century, Miss Manners and others have written books on what we might call “common-sense” or “Golden Rule” manners because society degraded further than even Paul Fussell would have thought possible. Today, middle class Christiandom obsesses with the finer points of European court etiquette while neglecting the weightier matters of the law such as Thou shalt not use argumentum ad hominem against thy neighbor on an online forum. Worse still, our religious leaders, whom we seek to emulate, devote their careers to poking fun at others in a condescending pharisaical manner.** Like the nineteenth century snobs who refused to help “undeserving” single mothers, we use others’ weaknesses as an excuse to mistreat them and exclude them from receiving a welcoming Gospel message. We do this because it makes us feel better about our own failures, and we do this because we have no sense of duty to our fellow man.

Case in point: The lesson of comparing Jane Austin’s Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice with Mr. Knightly from Emma is completely lost on our young men. Helping someone in need (e.g., asking a wallflower to dance) plays second to the pursuit of one’s selfish ambitions (e.g., dancing only with attractive ladies) despite the promise of winning the approval of God (for putting others’ first) and the respect of onlookers (including any pretty ones). The strangest thing is not that this sort of behavior is a regular occurrence but that it’s committed by those who honestly believe themselves to be well-bred, gentlemanly, chivalrous. With white knights like those, who needs dragons?

Since chivalry was first pronounced dead, many have asked how to go about reviving it. No chance of that happening by women acting vulnerable and helpless. This oft-promoted “solution” hasn’t worked. Feminist independence was a reaction to masculine individualism (e.g., the right to drink, gamble, beat and starve one’s family, and not come home at night). Essentially reinstating gender relations of a bygone era doesn’t bring back chivalry. This just sets us back to a point when women accepted the fact it was on life support. The only difference is that today women become more angry faster when no one comes to rescue them. It only takes one dreadful experience to learn that we can’t depend on strangers. Until people learn how to reach out and meet others’ needs first, we can’t teach others to rely on them.

* In case I haven’t made myself clear: Yes, I’m blaming a modern masculinity. Or better put, I’m admonishing the sons of Adam for following his lead.
** Let the record show that I called Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church a “Pharisee.”