America Needs More Gentlemen
The age of social media has worked against the ideas of decorum, dignity and self-control.
I used to think America needed a parent to help it behave. Now I think it needs a grandparent. Our culture has been so confused for so long on so many essentials, and has gotten so crosswise on the issue of men and women, that we need more than ever the wisdom of the aged.
That was my thought as I read a recent sexual-harassment story, about the 30-something TV star, the girl in her 20s and their terrible date.
The woman in the story, recounted on the website Babe.net, went unnamed, and it doesn’t feel right to add to the man’s social-media misery. Nor is it necessary to assign blame since they were both such hapless representatives of their sex.
They had one thing in common: They were impressed by his celebrity. He deploys it to get what he wants, she wanted to be close to it. They met at an industry party, flirted by text; he asked her to his apartment and took her to a restaurant where he rushed her through dinner. They returned to his home, where he immediately made overt sexual advances, which she accepted but did not want. She seems to have had no sense that any outward show of respect was due her. Taken aback by how quickly he was moving, she tried to slow things via “nonverbal cues.” Among them was allowing him to perform oral sex on her, and performing it on him, which in fairness he might have interpreted as an indication of enthusiasm. She is an articulate person but was for some reason unable to say, “Stop, this is not what I want. I have to leave.” At no point does she allege he threatened her, either physically or professionally, or tried to bar the door.
He was boorish, a slob, what used to be called a wolf. He wished to use her sexually and didn’t understand her reservations. Isn’t that what first dates are for?
Is he a creep? Of course. She has been accused of trying to jump onto the #MeToo movement, painting herself as a victim, and exhibiting no sense of “agency.” (Though she is at least competent at revenge.) She expects us to understand why she didn’t walk out. Why did she stay, and expect such a gross figure suddenly to show sensitivity? In his interactions as she reports them, he never pretended not to be a pig.
Here is why we’re discussing this. All the stories we’ve read the past few months about predators — not those accused of rape and sexual assault, which are crimes, but of general piggishness, grabbiness, manipulation and power games — have a common thread. The men involved were not gentlemen. They acted as if they’d never heard of the concept.
We have lost track of it. In the past 40 years, in the movement for full equality, we threw it over the side. But we should rescue that old and helpful way of being. The whole culture, especially women, needs The Gentleman back.
A person of the cultural Left would say that is a hopelessly patriarchal thing to say. But one thing the #MeToo movement illustrates is that women are often at particular risk in the world, and need friends and allies to stand with them. That would be men. And the most reliable of them are gentlemen.
There are a million definitions of what a gentleman is, and some begin with references to being born to a particular standing. But in America any man could be one who had the guts to withstand the demands.
The dictionary says a gentleman is a chivalrous, courteous, honorable man. That’s a good, plain definition. The Urban Dictionary says: “The true gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will … whose self control is equal to all emergencies, who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity.” That’s good, too.
A website called Gentleman’s Journal offers a list of 20 traits that make a man a gentleman. I liked “A gentleman always walks a woman home.” He doesn’t pack her off alone to an Uber downstairs, in the back of which she weeps as she sends her friends horrified texts, which is what happened with the Hollywood star and the girl. I liked “A gentleman ruins his lover’s lipstick, not her mascara.” And “If a woman comes with baggage, a gentleman helps her unpack it.”
A gentleman is good to women because he has his own dignity and sees theirs. He takes opportunities to show them respect. He is not pushy, manipulative, belittling. He stands with them not because they are weak but because they deserve friendship. Once at a gathering of women in media, I spoke of a columnist who years before had given me helpful critiques of my work and urged me on. “A gentleman is an encourager of women.”
It goes deeper than memorizing and repeating certain behaviors, such as standing when a woman or an older person enters the room. That is a physical expression of inner regard. Being a gentleman involves not only manners but morals. The 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman — an Anglican priest who became a Catholic cardinal — said a gentleman tries not to inflict pain. He tries to remove the obstacles “which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him.” He is “tender toward the bashful, gentle toward the distant, and merciful toward the absurd. … He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage.”
David Gandy, a fashion model, wrote a few years ago in London’s Telegraph that his work had taught him “being a gentleman isn’t about what you do or what you wear, it’s about how you behave and who you are.” A gentleman “holds chivalry and politeness in great regard. He holds the door for people; he gives up his seat; he takes off his coat to a lady on a cold evening.” These are old-fashioned actions, but a gentleman still holds to them “even though the world has changed.”
Yes, a gentleman does.
A man once told me it’s hard to be a gentleman when fewer of the women around you seem interested in being ladies. But that’s when you should step up your gentleman game. We are all here to teach and inspire.
By the way, I notice there are definitions of what a gentleman is and how you can be one all over the Internet.
Someone must be looking for this information. That’s good.
The age of social media has worked against the ideas of decorum, dignity and self-control — the idea of being a gentleman. You can, anonymously, be your lowest, most brutish self, and the lowering spreads like a virus.
But you can’t judge a nation by its comment threads, or let’s hope so. You can judge it by its struggle to maintain standards. For inspiration we end with Hollywood, with Jimmy Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story.” The character played by Katharine Hepburn makes a pass at him, and he notes he could have taken advantage of the moment but she’d been drinking and “there are rules about that.”
Here’s to the rules, and the gentlemen who help keep them alive.
Reprinted by permission from peggynoonan.com.