Entry from July 27, 2012

Three of the 12 dead in the Colorado cinema last week, Jonathan Blunk, Matt McQuinn and Alex Teves, all young men in their 20”s, died by deliberately getting between the young women they were escorting and the shooter, the usual pathetic nonentity who in this case was pretending he was the Joker in the previous Batman movie. Hanna Rosin, the author of a book called The End of Men, wrote about the three men’s chivalry in Slate, but she denied that it was chivalry:

Chivalry is a code of conduct connected to social propriety. Throwing your body in front of your girlfriend when people all around you are getting shot is an instinct that’s basic, and deeper. It’s the same reason these Batman and Spider-Man franchises endure: Because whatever else is fading away, women still seem to want their superhero, and men still seem to want to be him.

Calling chivalry “a code of conduct connected to social propriety” is a way of dismissing it, of relegating it to those mysterious ages past when people are supposed to have cared so much about “social propriety” that, looking back on them, we sometimes think they cared about little else. But this is to make ourselves the captives of liberationist oversimplifications dating from the 1920s, when people fancied themselves as romantic revolutionaries merely by becoming what they saw as the enemies of social propriety. At this distance of time, we ought to be able better to understand that they were simply replacing one set of social proprieties with another.

At any rate, we are as much the creatures of our social proprieties as they were of theirs — so much so, indeed, that at moments like this, when one of the old social proprieties suddenly and unexpectedly reappears, we feel the need to explain it, somehow, as something other than a social propriety. As instinct, in the case of Ms Rosin. It is nothing of the kind. Instinct by definition is species-general. In other words, everybody does it, and automatically, merely by virtue of being men. By calling these men’s chivalry instinctual, she suggests that they and others who thus behave heroically have no choice in the matter as they must be doing what they do from mere biological urges. We know that is not true. Heroes are heroes precisely because we know that they could have chosen not to be heroes and yet made the self-sacrificing choice to be heroes anyway.

She’s also wrong about another thing. The more recent Batman and Spider-Man movies, anyway, eschew the chivalric model of men protecting or rescuing women, rather than celebrating it. Batman’s love interests in the movie these heroes and their dates were watching are both eager combatants in the same fantasy war he is supposed to be fighting, and one of them turns out to be on the other side — in fact, Batman’s would-be murderer. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is depicted as being as doughty a fighter as any of the men and repeatedly rescues herself when threatened by multiple bad guys, all of whom are several times her size. Among the social proprieties today, we may count the bad taste that people attribute to any mention of the implausibility of this feminine prowess. Such women would obviously consider it far beneath their feminist dignity to submit to being rescued like some poor damsel in distress from the primitive days of “social propriety.”

Our post-honor culture is threatened with exposure as the mean-spirited, cheap, cowardly thing it is by acts like those performed by the heroes of Aurora and so must find its own means of self-rescue by denying the obvious — which is that, amazingly, after nearly a century of cultural degradation of the Victorian honor culture which gave us our modern idea of chivalry, chivalry nevertheless survives. Not robustly, to be sure; not with any degree of self-advertisement or even the slightest appeal to freely available cultural precedents for itself. But it survives out of the cultural mainstream — here and there, in odd places where we would least expect to find it, like a midnight showing of a fantasy movie likely to be populated overwhelmingly if not exclusively by fan-boys and losers like the guy who did the shooting. It’s a heartening thing for those of us who haven’t, like Hannah Rosin, taught ourselves to loathe the very idea of chivalry.

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