By MASON MCCLAY – CENTO WRITER
Editor’s Note: This article provides the male perspective. The accompanying female perspective is found here.
As the Roman Empire helplessly fell, these words issued a steadfast code among European men, resulting in the urgent protection of civilization: “Love the commonwealth as thyself, and let thy life be as a mirror in which thy soldiers can see their duty clearly,” said Fulgentius Ferrandus, a sixth century scholar and theologian.
Though duty is not a foreign concept to our world today, the original warriors, from nearly every culture, held this stringent code in much higher regard. To live by the duty of the warrior was to survive, otherwise ostracized, execution, or even the collapse of the community was inevitable.
For every culture of soldiers, from the Roman Legionnaire to the Japanese Samurai, there was only one way to think, to feel, and to behave. However, as the Medieval Ages saw a shift in the expectations of the common European warrior, energy spent by the knight towards service to the community began to be concentrated on one thing in particular: women.
Thus, the duty of bloodshed had morphed into a romantic duty, where the stories of the knight’s tales were the main attraction. As men shifted their protective tendencies from kingdoms to women, a culture of romantic chivalry was created.
Fast forward to the modern era. What has changed significantly over the past several decades? Although women have not yet been given congruent treatment or rights as men, it has been taught for the past few generations that women are equal to men throughout most first-world Western societies.
Strangely enough, as the contemporary perception of women’s role in society has seen a vast transformation, the concept of chivalry formed from an archaic perspective remains steadily understood and practiced.
One may argue that chivalry is simply an expression of respect for many males toward their female counterparts. However, with renewed views of equality for women, the implementation of chivalry has become much more ambiguous. The question now becomes whether or not what chivalry inevitably implies is dated and should be disposed of by current society. Should it be considered wrong for a man to be expected to be chivalrous? If he is taught to treat women as if they are in essence weaker than he (as many men are through chivalrous expectations), then how will he be able to see a woman as his equal?
A girl I once knew in high school used to wear her radical feminist identity like a badge. The day I offered her help on a project was nearly traumatic when she quickly said, “Mason, I am going to castrate you if keep treating me like I can’t do anything myself.” Fearing for my life, I remember trying to understand why she was so uncomfortable with my ‘integrity.’ I quickly realized that in placing her, and most women I am chivalrous to, on a pedestal, their personal qualities they want others to understand are quickly diminished.
With further speculation, the underlying problem with chivalry appears to be that the nature of most people is to select something about them to concretely identify with, then often allowing no room for this construct of identity to expand. The entire culture of chivalry itself is by historical definition dependent on the firm, unmoving identity of the heroic male and the proverbial damsel in distress. When this model of chivalry exists, there is constant behavioral expectation radiating from both the man and the woman involved.
Contemporarily speaking, the man may guess at whether or not their chivalrous actions would be considered offensive, whereas then the women may expect proper chivalrous treatment without end, or the other options to be treated just as a male would treat another male. And when one of the parties involved in the centuries old custom is not satisfied, judgment ensues. And from judgment? I think you understand the problem.
Would new understanding of what chivalry means begin to reshape how chivalry is used and seen in society? Upon asking these questions, further questions then begin to arise. If people saw themselves and others as more than their gender, then how would the concept of chivalry change? Would men and women treat both other men and other women with similar respect, and would expectations and judgments begin to fall away? What if the only motivating factor was for each person to treat each other with mutual acts of kindness?
To me, the existence of the expansive mindset of self-respect as well as respect towards others is where true chivalry stems from, “…for even if one’s words and deeds are always chivalric, it is by the truth of the thoughts hidden in one’s mind and the feelings buried in one’s heart that one’s chivalry must ultimately be judged…” Sir Valtorr of Oslo said.
Even if one is not capable of operating from that viewpoint, the simple understanding that chivalry’s goal should be centered on such virtue will help redefine the intent and essence of our culture of chivalry for and by both men and women.