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Big Idea: Let’s Bring Back Gentlemen (or Even Chivalry)

Here’s the abstract of a study that conservatives such as Charles Murray and magazines such as The Atlantic are having fun with:

Previous research suggests that benevolent sexism is an ideology that perpetuates gender inequality. But despite its negative consequences, benevolent sexism is a prevalent ideology that some even find attractive. To better understand why women and men alike might be motivated to adopt benevolent sexism, the current study tested system justification theory’s prediction that benevolent sexism might have a positive linkage to life satisfaction through increased diffuse system justification, or the sense that the status quo is fair. A structural equation model revealed that benevolent sexism was positively associated with diffuse systemjustification within a sample of 274 college women and 111 college men. Additionally,benevolent sexism was indirectly associated with life satisfaction for both women and men through diffuse system justification. In contrast, hostile sexism was not related to diffuse system justification or life satisfaction. The results imply that although benevolent sexism perpetuates inequality at the structural level, it might offer some benefits at the personal level. Thus, our findings reinforce the dangerous nature of benevolent sexism and emphasize the need for interventions to reduce its prevalence. 

Everything in bold was highlighted by Murray.

The feminist, social scientific article distinguishes between benevolent sexism and hostile sexism, but seemingly not fundamentally.  They’re both part of the ideology of sexism, which perpetuates gender inequality.  So even benevolent sexism is “dangerous” and must be rooted out through “interventions.”

The old-fashioned ways of describing benevolent sexism are, of course, being a gentleman or practicing chivalry.  Hostile sexism used to be called mistreating women or treating women as objects to be exploited.  Hostile sexism is not what the gentleman thinks or feels or does, because he knows how to treat a lady.

The social scientific authors admit that benevolent sexism, unlike hostile sexism, has “personal benefits” or is associated with “life satisfaction” for both men and women.  But that personal good must give way to the eradication of systemic evil. Benevolent sexism puts women down by suggesting that they need special treatment.  Now someone might respond that thinking that someone deserves special treatment suggests that someone is special—a lady.  But it also suggests, the egalitarian response is, that they’re especially weak.

All in all: The study shows that the bad news is that men and women are happy thinking of themselves as ladies and genltemen. Let the interventions begin!

Now the authors’ view is that the personal satisfaction comes form being seduced by the illusion that the present sexist system is fair.  If men think they know that to treat ladies as ladies is fair, then they have the satisfaction of knowing who they are as gentlemen and what they’re supposed to do.  That “honor code,” we might say, gives both men and women the indispensable orientation required to act well as relational beings.

Perhaps from a feminist view, things are getting better, even without draconian interventions.  The studies show men are acting less like gentleman than ever.  One reason is their desire to adapt to the new modes of egalitarian fairness.  Good men, if they come to believe that picking up the check, holding the car door, and doing a woman’s heavy lifting are unfair, will stop doing them.  But they do so in a confused and uncertain way: they remain romantic enough to believe that women are somehow special, to be protected and courted.  Surely one reason why young men seem so dazed and confused these days is that they don’t have a clue about how to treat women. Nature and society are giving them such conflicting signals.

Liberating men from being habituated to gentlemanly manners and morals also might be thought to be even more dangerous than benevolent sexism.  Surely we forced to admit that the “hook-up” culture of egalitarian reciprocal exploitation is harder on women than men.  Not only that:

About a year ago, a group of today’s men were tested the way that the men on board the Titanic were. When the cruise ship Costa Concordia hit a rock and capsized off the coast of Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, last January, men pushed women and children out of the way to save themselves.

Can anyone really say that the evolution toward egalitarian individualism from the relatively gentlemanly time of the Titanic to the dog-eat-dog time—a time when men when men are free from the illusions of benevolent sexism—of the Costa Concordia has made life safer for women in every respect?

A balanced view might be that the ideas of gentleman and lady surely can and should be reformed in an egalitarian direction without being abolished. 

Surely egalitarianism can be compatible with a moral and mannered recognition of sexual difference.  There remain differences, after all, between fathers and mothers.  And in general, can’t we say that women, as a class, are weaker physically than men as a class?  Maybe we can even add:  In the absence of benevolent habituation, men as a class are more predatory than women as a class.  Gentle men usually aren’t really born that way. We can see these differences without denying for a moment that men and women should both be treated as free individuals under the law.

One thing, as I’ve said before, that the subversive HBO series Girls teaches us is how clueless and unhappy young people are if they’ve lost all real touch with being ladies and gentlemen.  That’s might be why we see the young women in Whit Stillman’s recent film Damsels in Distress attempting to help disoriented young men recover lost manners through social dancing.

Conservatives like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  One reason is that Aristotle is so insistent that moral virtue is about habituation, about being raised right, about learning how to take pleasure in proudly choosing well as a free and relational being.

In a well-governed political community, men will take pride in being gentlemen, in being courageous and generous and magnanimous and friendly and, yes, just.  It is true that ladies and gentleman know that love and friendship always rank higher than political justice, but I’ll spare you the lesson in chivalry.

Well, Aristotle was a sexist, you say!  Not so fast, I will explain later.  Let’s agree for now that much about what he says about moral virtue remains applicable, at least in broad outline, in our more obviously egaltarian and high-tech time.


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