Chivalry has nothing to do with respect and everything to do with manipulation

If that’s respect, I’m Chrétien de Troyes.

So feminists don’t do chivalry? Frankly, I find the very suggestion reveals a complete lack of politesse. I’m a feminist yet I’ve always been a friend of courtoisie. Indeed, I’ve read whole books that seek to define appropriate ritterliches Benehmen (I didn’t study medieval literature for nothing  – well, actually, it’s starting to look like I did. But still …).

The debate on chivalry has been “restarted” by an article in the Atlantic (a publication which I sometimes feel was set up with the sole purpose of rewriting Femail in Pseud’s Corner-friendly language). You know all that stuff about how feminists get really mad if men hold doors open, so then men get told off for holding doors open, then women – who are not the same as feminists – get pissed because the told-off men have stopped holding doors open etc. etc.? Well, it’s that. Again. “The breakdown in the old rules, which at one extreme has given rise to the hookup culture, has killed dating and is leaving a lot of well-meaning men and women at a loss.” Blah blah blah – you know the drill. Except – except! – there’s a sort-of social sciencey bit.

According to Emily Esfahani Smith, a recent study has shown that “chivalry is associated with greater life satisfaction and the sense that the world is fair, well-ordered, and a good place” – so a world not unlike the end of an episode of Mike the Knight. Who could possibly be unhappy with that? Well, the authors of the study to which Esfahani Smith refers, for starters. What Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker actually observe is that benevolent sexism – a term which the Atlantic piece immediately dismisses as a kind of Orwellian doublespeak – “is indirectly associated with life satisfaction for both women and men through diffuse system justification”. This isn’t quite the cause and effect scenario that Esfahani Smith would like to suggest. Still, never mind – where made-up social science stumbles, let’s throw in some made-up history instead!

Here’s Esfahani Smith’s handy potted history of chivalric codes:

Historically, the chivalry ideal and the practices that it gave rise to were never about putting women down, as Connelly and other feminists argue. Chivalry, as a social idea, was about respecting and aggrandizing women, and recognizing that their attention was worth seeking, competing for, and holding.

The trouble with making such sweeping statements about what chivalry “was about” is that you end up treating those who actually lived in the Middle Ages not as complex, thinking human beings but as cardboard characters in a substandard morality play. It’s taking what was effectively medieval marketing speak and assuming that it broadly corresponded with mindsets and motivations. Rather like someone in a thousand years’ time arguing that women with low self-esteem were highly valued because “what made them beautiful was not knowing they were beautiful” (1D, 2012).  It’s the kind of thing historians do if they’re lazy and normal people – like me (the mere partner of a medieval historian) – do all the time. So I asked my partner how he’d define chivalry instead – and I quote:

Fucking hell. I don’t even know which type of chivalry you mean. It can mean anything from a Davidic ethic – you use your power for the good of those who are weaker than yourself –to just the mores of the medieval aristocracy, with a particular focus on masculinity and warfare. But in terms of medieval aristrocratic women’s lives – even then you had the tension between the professional, managerial role of the woman managing a whole castle while her husband was away and the chivalric ideal of the weak, elevated woman. Women and men carved out partnerships within existing inequalities that were very different to what a trite narrative of chivalric conduct might suggest. And in every society there’s always someone saying that it was better when women knew their place because they were more respected. And dig deep and you’ll always find women and men being unable to live their lives in this way, which is why the recurrence of this narrative is so poisonous.

I do disagree with my partner on a number of things – the correct interpretation of Chris de Burgh songs, for instance – but on this particular point I think he’s right. After all, he’s looked into this in far greater depth than “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers, whom Esfahani Smith nevertheless quotes approvingly:

Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, [Hoff Sommers] explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. 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 leap between men not beating/raping/murdering women simply because they can and said men actually valuing women is unclear, part of a twisty narrative used to justify oppression. And yes, some men might risk their lives to protect women, but the threat won’t come from dragons or sorcerers – usually it will come from other men.

I agree there are some basic truths underlying all this, to wit: people are different from other people! And that means they can do different things! For instance, my partner is almost a foot taller than me and several stones heavier. So he’d be better at fighting a burglar, whereas I’d be better at, um, Middle High German. So if our house were invaded in the dead of night, I’d have to pacify the burglar by quoting selected extracts of Walther von der Vogelweide’s poetry (if that failed I’d attack him with my size 13 knitting needles – I’m also better than my partner at knitting). Anyhow, what I’m saying is, human beings have this amazing ability to be flexible and to share. Mutual respect is not based on the idea that half the human race could defeat the other half but kindly chooses not to because they, like, totally respect women and their womanly ways. This is psychological manipulation. At best it’s irritating and at worst it’s plain abusive.

And as for door-holding? Well, I’d put it on the more benign end of the spectrum. That’s not to say I like it when it happens to me. To be honest, I usually feel stressed because I haven’t quite reached the door and I can’t decide whether to run (which will make the door-holder feel guilty for rushing me) or walk (which will mean he has to wait around door-holding, and that’s hardly fair). It’s a bloody minefield (metaphorically of course – although it’d be even worse if it was a door at the end of a minefield). And yet, what’s really going on? Is it still about power? Or does someone just not want to slam a door in my face? I’d like to think it’s the latter. Because that’s why, despite the risk of social embarrassment, I, a mere woman, hold doors open, too.

This post first appeared on Glosswitch's blog here

A gallant deckchair attendant rescues a woman from the advancing tide. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder