Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The Persistence of Chivalry

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks (Wednesday November 1, 2006 at 10:43 pm)

It’s not so very long since the “progressive blogggers” alliance promoted a “Five Things Feminism Has Done For Me” theme, proving once more that nothing advances understanding (or elicits wisdom) like arbitrary numerical targets.

One point consistently failed to make the list, though:

A helping hand can hobble, too.

Why should it be there? Because overcoming socially rooted stigmas takes careful, self-conscious reflection. Sometimes, the best-intended plans to help oppose prejudice can also reinforce it.

Consider the many progressive bloggers decrying Foreign Affairs Minister Peter McKay for referring to MP Belinda Stronach as a “dog”.

It’s not the first time shameful personal insults have been tossed across the Commons floor. It’s not even the first time in recent memory. But the response raises some questions.

Stronach’s response has been admirable. She asked for an apology the following day, and has since clarified the request as follows:

I asked for an apology to the House. This is our place of work. This is the nation’s boardroom and I still feel that it’s inappropriate for a colleague or a minister to refer to another colleague as his dog.

Given the context (the two had a relationship awkwardly end) and highly personal nature of the remark, it would seem, well, exploitative to suggest that it represents a deep and abiding misogyny. It would have been equally specious to suggest that the “Libranos” poster created to lampoon the investigation into graft involving former Liberal Minister Alphonso Gagliano and other Liberal members represented an abiding belief that people with Italian heritage are all mobsters. Women aren’t foolish enough to believe that what one person says by way of insult represents everyone else in the party’s beliefs. Isn’t that insulting their intelligence?

Moreover, Stronach (repeatedly) demanded an apology. Is there a reason why a chorus of men should add their voices? Is it proof of their sensitivity? Does it conjure up an image of gallantry? Doesn’t that imply a woman unable to defend herself? Isn’t that itself an unacceptable prejudice?

Stronach understands the problem — that’s why she emphasised that her complaint was over the violation of Commons decorum. Have others done the same, or have they emphasized the harm done to (poor, downtrodden, defenseless) women in their rush to protect (poor, downtrodden, defenseless) women?

Chivalry can be one of the most resonant parts of romance; and it’s not because it portrays women as weak. It’s not about weakness and strength at all. Chivalry is about trust — that one person can trust another so completely as to rely on them for their preservation; and it goes both ways.

But it’s hard at times to know whether chivalry really helps its intended ward. The extra level of consideration needed to know when gallantry supports and when it subverts is what feminism asks; and those who stand for it deserve better than exploitation, prejudice, and insult.

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