Saturday, June 15, 2013

Chivalry and Honor Codes

I grew up reading stories of brave, martial men and steadfast women. I was fascinated with Ivanhoe and G.A.Henty, with stories of knights and honor and the best and bravest of men. My parents tried to teach my brothers to be men of honor, and I try to instill a sense of honor in my children. However- not all chivalry is equal, and not all stereotypical expressions of the honorable man or woman are compatible with the realities of our culture and the dictates of scripture as I read it. (And for the record, I am well aware that the version of "chivalry" that is taught in the whitewashed and idealized books we read as children was not generally an accurate depiction of the societies represented by the stories. "Courtly love?" "Knightly chivalry" a la the Eroll Flynn Robin Hood? Yes..... I'm not sure that ever existed outside Hollywood. But that's another story for another time.) There is much good in having a code of honor, and in maintaining personal standards and convictions and taking responsibility for our actions. There is also danger in blindly accepting a code of honor from generations or cultures past, with all its accompanying ideological assumptions, without some careful scrutiny. 

What is a code of honor? As I understand it, it is a set of ideals and philosophies, and the rules and assumptions one chooses to live by. By implication, transgression of one's honor code will result in some form of consequence, be it a personal feeling of shame or failure or some sort of social stigma or in some cases even legal/criminal consequences. Honor codes, real or fictitious, vary immensely with location, time and culture- from the honor codes of fictional pirates or cowboys to the honor codes of historic American pioneers to the honor code of a traditional muslim family in Saudi Arabia. One dictionary defines "Honor Code" as " A code of integrity, dignity, and pride, chiefly among men, that was maintained in some societies, as in feudal Europe, by force of arms" According to Wiki, "An honor code or honor system is a set of rules or ethical principles governing a community based on ideals that define what constitutes honorable behavior within that community. The use of an honor code depends on the notion that people (at least within the community) can be trusted to act honorably. Those who are in violation of the honor code can be subject to various sanctions, including expulsion from the institution." There is a code of honorable behavior here in America as well, though it is not legally enforced or universally adhered to by any means; it is what was taught to my spouse, my siblings, my self, and many of our young friends as children to help us understand how to be a person of reliable, excellent character.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about a code of honor in a positive (and very general) sense is a passion for truth and justice, even at the expense of personal comfort or inclination. This is one I'll keep, and teach to my children; it is completely and repeatedly compatible with the teachings of Scripture. That, and it builds an unselfish and responsible character and its widespread existence would lead to a free and safe society. When I think about honor, I also think of the "golden rule"- treating others as we would like to be treated, regardless of their status or ours, and considering the effects of an action, not only on ourselves, but also on others, before we undertake it. The "honor code" I'll teach my children, in a nutshell, is justice, mercy, kindness, unselfishness, a love for truth and goodness, and both a sense of our personal responsibility for our actions and the effects of our actions on others and our responsibility to consider those effects. Too often, in our American society, children are raised with an inflated idea of their own importance and a feeling that they are entitled to various things. My goal, with my own children, is to fight the sense of entitlement and imbue them in its place with a careful consideration for others and a passion for justice and truth.

More specifically, we were taught that honorable men and women would not break a verbal contract, would not lie, and/or would be committed to being truthful and keeping agreements even at personal cost. This is a very positive thing, in my estimation- imagine how pleasant society would be if you could depend on people's truthfulness and reliability in general.... this idea of truthfulness/clarity/reliability, too, is a part of the teachings of scripture, the following of which is synonymous with my Christian faith.

Other specifics I think of when I think of honorable behavior include things like deferring to/assisting those weaker than yourself, E.G. holding a door for an elderly person, (some would say for women) a person with a heavy load, or giving your seat to a such a person in a crowded place, etc. Honesty in romantic relationships is another example- for instance, an honorable person will not lead a suitor on, implying more investment or feeling than is accurate for the sake of any personal benefits they might gain, and an honorable person will be decisive about whether they do or do not want a relationship, and will be willing to define both their feelings to the degree that they can and to share their goals and intentions for the relationship in an honest and forthright way.

Now, the negative- because the teachings on honor and chivalry I've heard generally originated in a culture and generation in which gender equality was not a widely accepted concept and gender roles were more rigid and static, some of the "honorable behavior" code promotes inaccurate and harmful assumptions and behavior. For example, take some of the rules on men relating to women in public: not sitting when there are women standing, holding the door for women, men paying for their female companions, etc. These rules assume that men are stronger, and women weaker, and thus men deferring to women in these conventions is conflated with the idea of the strong protecting the weak. The ideal of the strong protecting the weak is very, very good, but in our society it does not make sense to apply it strictly along gender lines. Any person should be willing to  hold the door, give up their seat, or physically assist a person who is weaker than they or who is dealing with heavy loads, cumbersome strollers, or vivacious young children. Sometimes, this ethic will lead to men holding doors for women; sometimes it will not. When I am out with my elderly grandfather, I hold the door for him. When my husband is carrying our youngest, who at 11 months is, together with his carseat, quite heavy, I hold the door for him. (my husband, at 6'8", is far stronger than I am in my 5'2", un-athletic self; in this case it makes perfect sense for him to do the heavy lifting. Thanks, babe! :) )When I see a man pushing a stroller or carrying bags, I hold the door for him. To be clear, I don't mind guys holding doors or giving their seats for me; no, not at all. I do think, however, that while those actions are nice and well-intentioned we should make every effort to separate a convention that a person may enjoy retaining from the flawed ideological assumption that may have originated it.

When it comes to the man paying for the lady, I think it is logical to assume that this came from a time when women were far less likely to have self-supporting careers, or even to be employed and earning wages, than their male counterparts, and so males were naturally left with a degree of fiscal responsibility that is thankfully unnecessary today.

Which brings me to my next point- male responsibility. One of the most negative aspects of the code of honorable male behavior I've observed in my culture is the idea that the husband/father bears ultimate responsibility, not only for children he may father, but for his wife/girlfriend as well. For example, the unequal alimony laws in some states still reflect this idea, as well as the assumption that the male will be more able to fiscally provide for the support of a family. (I'm not denigrating fatherhood or a male's reproductive or familial responsibility here- I'm simply saying that a man/husband/father does not have more responsibility than a woman/wife/mother. They are equally responsible.) This inflated idea of responsibility can be an unnecessary weight when a man's wife or adult children are not being great people and he must deal with feeling responsible, even though he cannot, and as per their adulthood should not, change them or manage their behavior. It can lead to a man, who is married to a woman who is mired in learned helplessness, feeling responsible for her welfare to a degree that he should not and putting up with more in his marriage than he should because he fears that to stand up to abusive, manipulative, etc behavior is somehow failing in a sacred manly duty. By holding males to a different standard, this hurts men and women both- men, because it binds them to situations to which they should not be bound, and women, because their voices are not valued to the same degree because of their reduced perceived responsibility. For example- if a man marries an adult woman with little to no education or job skills, and finds that he has also married a poor mother and a manipulative, emotionally abusive wife, he may hesitate to take steps to protect himself or his children because he feels responsible for his wife and her future welfare, even though she is a mentally capable adult. Then, too, a man may feel pressure to control his wife since he considers himself responsible for her; this can lead to very, very unhealthy relational power dynamics. Additionally, if a woman is raised to believe that she has/needs a man to be responsible for her, she may well not be as motivated to acquire the education or job skills that make such responsibility fiscally unnecessary, or she may remain in an almost childlike state, incapable of independence, lacking the mental independence and informed mind that make dependence on the responsibility of males unnecessary or even untenable.

Personal responsibility is a great thing, and teaching our kids to take responsibility for themselves, their choices, and their children is critical. But that responsibility should not be gender based, and when we decide to take responsibility for someone else, whether it's because they are mentally incapable, or our beloved parents or grandparents who can no longer be independent, or adorable little humans that we made, that responsibility should be thoughtful, intentional, and- again- not gender based. While many people fail to take enough responsibility for themselves, some people tend to feel responsible for others when they shouldn't, especially males, older siblings, and people with "care taking" personalities, from my observation. (older sibs and caretakers generally for very different reasons.)

Basically, I think that some of the ideas of honorable behavior, particularly for males, would be great if they were not based on gender and were regulated with common sense. The concept of honor, responsibility, altruism, etc is great, but it should be gender neutral. Every time.

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