I’m far from ever being a hero, but I detest bullies and I come from a generation of blokes that was raised to be chivalrous:
I despise bullies of all flavours, but will often, in that nicely-mannered middle-class white collar way, fail even to recognise dastardly behaviour aimed at myself and am slow to react to it, if it is aimed at me. I have to think about it first, partly because I can’t quite believe it.
However, I have no such qualms if I perceive ill-treatment being meted out to third parties, be they men or women. Immediately, I become enraged, and will wade in. I remember once, in the 1990s, crossing the Hungerford footbridge in central London, on my way to work. It had rained during the night, and three louts, by-products of their mums being too drunk to remember to stay on the pill, wearing athleisure, were having fun with the office-bound commuters by stamping in puddles as they passed, kicking water over them and jeering. I saw this from a long way off, and immediately fell into a bad mood.
Tiring of their little game, the bullies turned to walk down one of the side stairs exits from the footbridge. I quickened my step, fearing they might get away. I was wearing a stout pair of Church’s brogues, with hard storm welting. I was always able to punt a ball well, and still have a pretty good kick. Good follow through. The largest of the 3 miscreants was just stepping on to the top step, and I let him have it – paraphrasing Stephen Fry, playing the part of Jeeves in the wonderfully archaic Wodehouse-inspired TV comedy show of the 1990s, I applied my foot with considerable force to the apex of the young gentleman’s fundament. I lifted the fucker into the air with the force of the kick. To this day, it makes me smile. Nowadays though, you’d be in danger of being arrested for assault. I remember his shocked expression as I kicked him. I suspect it was the first time the fat lout had ever been checked from doing anything in his self-indulgent and consequence-free life.
Similarly, late at night in an Internet café in Dublin in Ranelagh in the early noughties, a half-drunk lad started hitting on the pretty little English woman who was behind the counter. The café was full of blokes, some, like me, doing work (I was in cheap mid-week digs and there was no Internet connection); and others doing that boring loser gaming shit. Our boorish swain’s conversation degenerated from clumsy compliments to intimidating (he was a big lad), leering, insistence. “Please leave”, said the obviously concerned woman, to no avail. Under the guise of paying up (I wasn’t finished), I went over to the counter, and interrupted to make my payment. Then, turning to yer man, I looked him in the eyes and simply said, quietly, “It’s probably time to be going home, mate”. Amazingly, he just smiled and nodded, and we both went to the door. I left him around the corner and bade him good night. Then I went back in and continued my work. “Thanks!”, said the wee woman. Not another bloke stood up.
I wasn’t surprised though – the other blokes were all considerably younger than me.
None of them gave a shit; and there’s a cultural reason for this.
The death of chivalry.
Chivalry has a bad rap, and it’s been falling out of favour for decades. It was a long time ago when I first read, in the late 1980s, that it was now considered hip, in NYC, for blokes to hit women. I felt disgust.
That was how I was reared. There is reverence in chivalry, and it’s founded in respect.
It could sometimes be amusing. Once, as a kid, our primary school boys Gaelic football team played a neighbouring primary school in a Gaelic football match. Our school had a larger pupil intake. That meant we didn’t need to pick shrimps, to make up the numbers. Accordingly, while the other school’s lads did their best, we simply hockeyed them, in a very one-sided encounter. As we finished up however, the neighbouring teams female pupils approached the referee and asked if we’d be up for a game of boys v girls? They had been disgusted at the poor efforts of their male classmates, and clearly wished to retrieve their school’s honour. Spoiler alert, we beat the girl’s team in the end, but only narrowly, after a very competitive game. They were miles better than their male counterparts – bigger, faster, and more aggressive too. What I remember most though was how inhibited I felt, how inhibited all my team felt. Marking a bloke, the first thing you do is you hit him with a shoulder, and put him on his ass. Throughout, you give him a hard time – shoulder hits at every opportunity, body checks, pulls, punches, standing on feet, etc. You do that to him; he does that to you. Nothing personal of course, and after the battle is over, it’s shake hands and all forgotten, unless you’re marking a headcase. But, playing the girls, we could not do any of that. It was simply out of the question. Essentially, I played the second game, as did my team mates, without doing any tackling whatsoever. My only recourse was to always try to get to the ball first, because if the girl I was “marking” got it before me, I was simply going to let her keep it. Besides, I sort of had an instant schoolboy crush on her anyway : ) The idea of crashing into her with a shoulder seemed alien, and utterly abominable. OK, we won the second game (just about), but we knew we had been in a proper game, and felt relieved that we had got out unbeaten.
Judging from the miserable headlines I read this week (e.g., this week, a young girl in Liverpool stabbed by a gang of teenage boys – her poor parents – what sort of excuses for men are those?), you have to wonder what the hell has gone wrong.
It’s not as if the culture I grew up in was in anyway soft or do-goodish. Like young lads of any era, fighting, bloke-on-bloke bullying, horseplay, messing about, porn magazines (pretty innocent, by today’s standards, admittedly – mere nudity was the appeal, whereas nowadays, it’s humiliating women that seems to be the “appeal”); all were widespread. But something fundamentally has changed, and changed for the worse. I was often out with gangs of lads, and when we were in female company, we all instinctively moderated our behaviour. That was just what you did.
“This past spring marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. On April 14, 1912, as the ship was on its maiden journey from Southampton, UK, to New York City, it hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic. About three hours later, it sank. Three-quarters of the women on the ship survived; over three quarters of the men, by contrast, died. In Washington DC, there is a memorial to these men. The inscription on it reads: “To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic…They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”
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. One Australian woman on board reported at the time:
“The people that pushed their way on to the boat were then trying to tell them to shut the door, not to let any more people on the [life] boat after they had pushed their way on…We just couldn’t believe it—especially the men, they were worse than the women.”
This contrast is indicative of a larger trend—the decline of chivalry and the rise of boorish behavior among men.
A story from the life of Samuel Proctor (d. 1997) comes to mind here. Proctor was the beloved pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Apparently, he was in the elevator one day when a young woman came in. Proctor tipped his hat at her. She was offended and said, “What is that supposed to mean?”
The pastor’s response was: “Madame, by tipping my hat I was telling you several things. That I would not harm you in any way. That if someone came into this elevator and threatened you, I would defend you. That if you fell ill, I would tend to you and if necessary carry you to safety. I was telling you that even though I am a man and physically stronger than you, I will treat you with both respect and solicitude. But frankly, Madame, it would have taken too much time to tell you all of that; so, instead, I just tipped my hat.”
Somehow, we need to find a way out of the “men and women are identical” bullshit, and resurrect chivalry. If manliness and respect for women can once again become synonymous, you can put all your consent classes and safe spaces stuff in the bin, as they would no longer be needed.
However, in an era where it can be career-suicide to raise the possibility that sex differences even exist, the chances of resurrecting chivalry are remote.