is it good manners, or something more sinister?

Basic Black

Manners maketh the man … the age of chivalry is gone.  That of the sophisters, economists and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.

Edmund Burke wrote those words back in 1790 and the chivalry he mourned was one we wouldn’t recognize today.   He was referring to the qualities expected of an ideal knight: exceptional courage, dedication to honour and justice, a readiness to always help the weak and disadvantaged.

Over the next couple of centuries the concept of chivalry devolved to become a loose code of manners  — gentlemanliness, if you will — and most particularly, courteous behaviour towards women.                                                       

That’s the way I was raised. I learned early on that it was okay to roughhouse with Pat and Mike, but not with Patricia and Michelle. I could swap dirty jokes with the guys but not the girls. It became second nature to hold open doors, surrender my seat on the bus or subway and to offer to carry the parcels of anyone who looked like they could use a hand.

Sounds quaintly innocent now. Back in the newly-liberated ‘70s such behaviour almost got me lynched.

It was circa 1973, I was approaching the front door of the CBC studios in Thunder Bay, and a woman I knew slightly was coming behind me. Instinctively, (suavely, I thought) I grasped the door handle, stepped back out of the way and gestured for the woman to enter.

She unloaded a tirade on my head that could have blistered paint.

I don’t recall all the words she said. “Condescending” was in there for sure, and I think I heard something about “paternalistic superiority” and “centuries of male oppression.”  The gist of her sermon was: “I can open my own damned doors, thank you very much.”

I was displaying, I was told, the classic symptoms of a benevolent sexist. In other words, I was treating someone with excessive courtesy just to show that I was really in charge.

It’s an idea that hasn’t gone away. A recent issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly published a report showing that everyday acts that imply women should be cherished and protected are actually sinister forms of patriarchal control.

Offering to carry a woman’s shopping bags to her car? You’re implying she’s weak.

Volunteering to walk a colleague to her car after dark?  You’re suggesting she’s incapable of looking after her own safety.

Stopping to help a female motorist with a flat tire?  You’re insinuating that she is congenitally clueless about mechanical problems.

Huh. Let me just say that if anybody ever sees me standing at the side of the road beside a baffed-out car, feel free to pull over and give me a hand. 

I don’t know a tire iron from a windshield wiper.

You want to carry out my groceries? 

Sure. I’ve done that — it’s tiring. Fill your boots. 

If it’s after dark and a dodgy part of town I’ll be happy to walk you to your car. It’s not that I’m a Kung Fu expert or even an NHL defenseman, but I’m big and ugly enough to qualify as masher-repellent. 

As for holding open doors, I still do that — for everybody, male or female. So sue me.

Mind you I’m careful not to say anything while I’m holding the door.  I am mindful of the time Clare Booth Luce collided with her rival, Dorothy Parker, in a doorway.  Ms. Luce stepped to one side and hissed “Age before beauty”.

Sweeping through the doorway, Parker purred over her shoulder, “Pearls before swine”.

Arthur Black is a regular columnist with The News. He lives on Salt Spring Island

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