Sunday, October 7, 2012

Is gender of relevance in ethical discourse?

Of ladies and gentlemen.

Jonnie Comet
25 June 1993

  Once upon a time, in another age, in another land, there lived a beautiful princess in a majestic castle.  Far below her tower window, she could see the knights practising their skills, sparring and jousting all the day long.  And her favourite was the king’s champion, the noblest, bravest, most honourable one of them all.  They met eyes only a few times, yet she dreamt of him every night, and could not embark on the morn till she had seen him.  It was all she could wish that she might have him one day.  And to the knight she was the most lovely creature of all, and all the more lovely that she stood there in the tower window and gazed down at him so adoringly.  To him she was the world and everything in it, and in his heart he had sworn to her a promise, that in every contest, every challenge, every battle, he should win, fairly and justly, so that she might think him all the more honourable, and that he might deserve her all the more.

  A thousand years ago, in the days of chivalry, the orders of knighthood were bestowed very sparingly, on only the bravest, strongest, most virtuous men.  For this honour they were charged with a sacred duty to which they soberly and solemnly swore allegiance with their lives before God: to uphold the safety and well-being of all good people under their king.  Implicit in this duty was the protection of the wives and children of those subjects who were absent or deceased.  Should the land be invaded by marauders, the knight would rush to the defence, literally placing the women and children behind himself, drawing his weapon, and fighting a fight to the death to keep them safe.  This was the responsibility the knight had accepted, the duty for which he was revered as a paragon among men to uphold.  Many were they who died for it, and despite what ‘revisionist’ lore would like one to believe, scant few and cursed were they who abused the position by seeking favours from those whom they were charged to protect.  The image of the lecherous, wenching knight is largely a modern myth.
  Modern-day ethics could stand to learn a lot from mediaeval chivalry.  For, unlike today, in the days of chivalry all men were expected to adhere to a certain code of conduct, and to pursue those qualities which were deemed good and desirable by both men and women. This code stressed the reciprocal nature of man-woman relations: one was not manly if he had not distinguished himself by the goodness of his conduct, and, finding himself in a lady’s favour, appreciate and respect her for having encouraged him; and likewise one was not womanly if she did not insist on such good qualities, and, finding them in a man, admire and respect him for them.  The basis for founding any kind of relationship was this ideal, this model, towards which all man-woman relations aspired.
  Now, many of us will giggle and marvel, ‘How quaint and naïve!’ –but whether or not we have actual empirical proof of such behaviour in days of old is not to the point.  Rather, like the knights and ladies themselves, the concept of chivalry was and still is worthy of our respect because of what it represents. It serves as a model, an ideal, to which we can aspire, and provides sensible roles for civilised men and women to follow. These roles are, at least in theory, not as limiting as many would believe.  Modern women may despise the notion of their men holding them at bay, as though to imprison them by their gender (or their sex, whichever you say it is).  I submit that the intention is precisely the opposite.  For in chivalry women are handed the specific role of bearing and raising children, true, but as they are by their biological design more physically vulnerable, and thus more naturally predisposed towards civility and virtue in their own behaviour, they are also charged with inspiring such good things in their mates.  The man who would deserve a ‘good woman’ would do well to meet her needs, requirements more likely determined by natural selection than by gender-specific role-playing and social counter-conditioning.  This puts the two sexes in a delicate and sometimes tedious balance, with the female placing often unspoken demands on the male, while he tries to earn her respect by living up to them.  The woman probably has the more difficult and esteemed role, compared to the man’s position of forever having to prove his worth to her and his fellow men; however, one should easily recognise the nobility in his role as well.  This constant and lifelong striving towards goodness for each other is at the core of chivalry.
  Today people have thoroughly cast aside such noble, well-meaning notions.  In modern society we legitimise each other’s shortcomings and accept failure as a daily matter of course.  The one seen as the ‘good woman’ of today is not the one who inspires her man towards noble deeds and virtuous life, but she who, having established her own independence by self-centred principles, allows him to be whomever and whatever he is, even if that means he be a failure.  In such the man of today, unchallenged and unrespected by the woman he loves, accepts his own moral transgressions and those of his peers, feeling no need to subscribe to any higher code of conduct than that which comes easiest to the lazy, the slovenly, and the ignorant.  Neither inspires the other to nobility, and so they are not noble.  It is in these circles of ‘emancipated’ women and morally dispirited men that chivalry is proclaimed to be dead.
  But what they fail to realise is that chivalry is not a one-issue concept.  Chivalry has nothing at all to do with the desirable woman being more a demure little fluff in pink chiffon sipping jasmine tea than a hard-working bricklayer in dirty overalls and steel-toed boots.  For the chivalrous principles which so richly inspire apply equally to all people, in all circles, involving both sexes in all occasions.  Now I will venture out on a limb here to say that sexual discrimination is a necessary fact of life, but let me point out that to say this is not to agree that it should be subjectively judgemental. Rather, it is merely the discrimination of the sexes, in that no man ever mistakes a woman when he sees one– I submit that no-one would ever want him to.  The courtesy and deference with which the best men still regard a woman in passing is intended to recognise her for the contribution she makes to all men in general, that she has a positive effect on their actions and their thoughts and intentions.  This is not ‘sexism’ in its negative connotation.  It is in fact a vestige of the forgotten chivalric code, whereby all men are deferential towards women simply because they believe all women by virtue of their sex deserve such respect.  Consider that by the code of chivalry, no real man would dare be lewd or disparaging in the company of a woman, just as no woman would appreciate such behaviour in a man.  Conversely no woman would fail to appreciate being politely and respectfully treated by a man, just as no real man would ever fail to go out of his way to be so polite and considerate to a woman.
  I maintain, therefore, that the sexes are now, have always been, and shall remain forever, separate and distinct, and at the same time perfectly equivalent and complementary.  Further, I will state unequivocally that this is a positive thing and to be encouraged, rather than what the modern ‘feminists’ would suggest, that society ignore the imposition of sex distinction on our everyday lives and assume (wrongly, I submit) that there need be no difference in regard for a human being, that all should receive the same consideration, no matter what the polarity of their inner workings.  I sometimes wonder if any of these ardent feminists would fail to be profoundly offended if they were truly treated exactly as men treat each other in every respect.  The social and even biological reasons for the ritualistic conduct of the members of one sex when in the company of the other are perfectly sound, and yet so easily and often overlooked; as Pope’s sage Clarissa states so succinctly in The Rape Of The Lock: ‘The woman who scorns a man must die a maid’.  And of course, the knights of King Arthur’s court remind men that no good woman would ever respect a man who would scorn a woman’s respect, either. But this is not to say that either sex should ever be deliberately subjected to the other, at least, no more than Nature dictates already. We must bear in mind Aristotle’s fanciful explanation of the spirit of love, the natural and unavoidable attraction of two unalike but complementary halves of the same being.  Neither will ever be able to do without the other, in the grand scheme of things.  And that is as it should be.
  And so I propose that we teach our children the chivalrous way, and encourage such behaviour in each other, that all might have respect for all people not in regard for their sex (or gender), but because it is the honourable, noble, virtuous thing to do.  Imagine a society that would assign paramount importance to such chivalrous qualities as honour, the championing of truth and the keeping of promises. –or nobility, the aspiring towards good deeds and accomplishments for the benefit of others. –or virtue, the adherence to purity and temperance in all thoughts. –and, especially, the seeking of such things in others, as well as the insistence of no less in one’s self.  Note that these qualities need not have anything to do with sex (or gender), but that they are to be desired in all people on an equal basis.  That, dear Reader, is the essence of chivalry.

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