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Is chivalry dead? No, it is not

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In the Dark Ages of what we now call the United Kingdom, kings and dukes needed a way to raise an army that did not require large payments of cash. This led to the beginnings of feudalism, by which land was given to people called vassals by the land’s lord in exchange for a percentage of the land’s produce. Vassals also guaranteed that they would raise men to form a small part of the Lord’s army when needed.

These men were knights. Life expectancy in the middle ages was low, thanks to rampant diseases. So most knights were young, 18-25 and giving unlicensed power to kill to a bunch of young men would be reckless even by modern standards. So the church came up with a code which governed how knights should act in battle and towards women and the church. This code is what formed what we call chivalry.

Some aspects have changed, kissing a woman’s hand is hardly socially acceptable these days but some aspects have persisted on into our everyday lives. You can never visit a restaurant without seeing a man hold open a door for a woman at some point. Men are still expected to pay on dates. On an airplane, if a woman is pushing a heavy suitcase into the overhead cabin, a man will most likely help her. The code of men being overly courteous to women has been around for centuries.

But some are asking if it’s about time we let it go.

Chivalry has been widely criticized by modern feminists but most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She caused an international stir during her interview with Daily Show host Trevor Noah when she made the statement:

“I think the idea of sort of holding the door for a woman because she is a woman, I have trouble with, I’m quite happy for people to hold the door for me (but) I hope they are not doing for the sort of idea of chivalry because chivalry is the idea of women are somehow weak and need protecting but we know that there are many women who are stronger than men.”

Chivalry in its origin is sexist. Medieval Europe believed women were inferior to men and unable to perform basic tasks without aid or male supervision. But is the modern practice of it harmful?

A new study out of Northeastern University in Boston says yes.

The study, believed to be the first of its kind, involved 27 pairs of US undergraduate men and women. Participants were filmed while they played a trivia game together and then chatted afterwards.

Experts then scrutinised their interaction by reporting their impressions and counting certain non-verbal cues such as smiles. Word count software was also used to further analyse their behaviour. The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, says the way a man smiles and chats to women will reveal his true attitude towards the female sex. The study discovered there are two types of sexists out there: “benevolent” and “hostile” sexism.

“Acts of so-called chivalry, like paying for dinner, offering up jackets and calling a women ‘love’ or ‘dear’ can be signs of “benevolent sexists,”according to psychologist Jin Goh, while “hostile sexists” are those who specifically leave housework to wives and girlfriends or wolf whistle at women walking down the street. People don’t typically associate sexism with the warmth and friendliness, benevolent sexists display, Goh explained to the Telegraph.  

Prof Judith Hall, a co-author said: “Benevolent sexism is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing that perpetuates support for gender inequality among women at an interpersonal level. “These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing, and harmless.”

Can you practice chivalry and not be benevolent sexist? The answer is no. Chivalry in itself is a negative practice regardless of the motives of the person behind it and a new study shows chivalry makes hostile and aggressive acts of sexism more acceptable.

Over the course of three separate, seven-day-long trials, two sociologists Swim and Becker asked 120 college undergraduates (82 women and 38 men, ranging from 18 to 26 years old, some from the U.S., some from Germany) to record in a journal sexist comments they encountered on a daily basis.

According to Swim, she and Becker hoped to determine whether forcing people to pay attention to less obvious forms of sexism could decrease their endorsement of sexist beliefs. During the trials, subjects were instructed to note instances of sexist behaviour toward women, sexual, verbal and physical.

They were also asked to record subtler actions that many would consider harmless: men calling women “girls, “ complimenting them on stereotypically feminine behaviour and sheltering them from more “masculine” tasks. Swim and Becker described this less obvious sexism to participants as “benevolent sexism,” a term coined by psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske in a 1996 study to refer to “a paternalistic attitude towards women that idealizes them affectionately,” Glick told The Huffington Post.  

But the negative effects of chivalry don’t just extend to women-chivalry, like all symptoms of the patriarchy, harms men too. The code of chivalry dictates that women are vulnerable and must be protected but this doesn’t account for men. Men are expected to be strong and stoic and aren’t afforded the full spectrum of human emotion. Their vulnerabilities aren’t accounted for. And while this gives them several benefits socially, being the head of the house and having control over women, it also has severe limitations. Women are seen as weaker and in emergencies, women often receive preference-whether it’s life or death.

“Our study indicates that we think women’s welfare should be preserved over men’s,” observes Oriel FeldmanHall, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University and the study’s lead author of a study carried out at New York University on inherent sexist beliefs people have.

The research, conducted at Cambridge University’s Medical Research Council’s Cognition had study subjects read one of three versions of a “Trolley Dilemma”—a commonly used technique in psychology studies and akin to the “Lifeboat Question” (i.e., if you could save only three of the five passengers in a lifeboat, whom would you choose?). In the trolley scenario, subjects read one of three versions of the dilemma, where each vignette described a man, woman, or gender-neutral bystander on the bridge. The participants were then asked how willing they were to “push the person onto the path of the oncoming trolley” in order to save five others farther down the track. The results showed that both female and male subjects were much more likely to push the male bystander or one of the unspecified genders than they were the female bystander.

In a second experiment, a new group of subjects was given £20 and were told that the money would increase by tenfold if they repeatedly mildly electrocuted other subjects. However, if they gave up the money, it would prevent the shocks from being administered. Identically to the first experiment, women were less likely than men to be subjected to shocks, suggesting an aversion to harming females—even when this came at a financial expense.

If chivalry doesn’t benefit men or women why do we keep it around?

The main arguments for preserving chivalry focus on kindness, chivalry is simply being tender to another human being. If chivalry is simply kindness, wanting to help someone by opening the door or helping them carry something heavy-why does it need gender?

On International Women’s Day Emma Watson, UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women, took to Facebook to discuss, among other topics, the act of chivalry and how it should be consensual. Watson noted she wouldn’t be offended if a man held a door open for her since he’s just being courteous, but to her, the real question is whether or not he would mind if she held the door open for him.

Instead of making chivalry a duty or tool men can use against women to remind them they are inferior and condemn themselves as unemotional creatures why don’t we focus on gender-less chivalry? Women and men opening doors for each other, paying for dates and helping each other our not to prove self-worth but simply because, it’s the right thing to do.


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