Over the past year, our colleague Meghan Clark has made a series of posts concerning the growing cultural tolerance, even acceptance, of violence against women; in particular against girls and young women by boys and men. The world she describes, which has deteriorated to the point of having a growing culture of rape in many places in society, is alien and truly terrifying to me. These incidents should be incentive alone to push back against this expanding culture of anti-female violence Meghan speaks of, not only to bring justice to victims and prevent more women and girls from becoming victims, but sustain and expand those realms of our society where the thought of such violence is repugnant to even think of, never mind engage in. This is important if women and men can hope to continue to enter into authentic relationships of trust, friendship, and love.
I wish to argue that the men and boys who perpetrate this violence did not receive the proper formation to comport themselves as gentlemen. This brings up the problem of what it means to be a true gentleman. The origin of the title of “gentleman” is medieval, entering the English language from French in the 12th century. Originally, it meant someone who belonged to the lowest rank of nobility, but then its meaning rapidly expanded to the point where, by the 17th century, a gentleman included male commoners who came from a good family. Later still, the term was expanded to include any man or boy who comported himself well, at least in public. Here lies a problem because, as Meghan articulated in her October 30, 2013 post, this same medieval culture planted some of the seeds of the culture of violence and rape women and girls are suffering today. Moreover, as Meghan demonstrates with the example of sexual assault in the military, any culture that emphasizes gentlemanly behavior may only get men and boys to behave as gentlemen externally. It does not automatically translate to conversion to true gentlemanly behavior toward women in every way, which must include respect for women as persons. So, to answer the question “what is a gentleman” will be an exercise in critical retrieval and purification of the idea.
Romano Guardini, in his book The Virtues, speaks of courtesy as a virtue where people exercise daily a reverence for each other as persons created by God. Gentlemanly behavior, within the context of the virtues, could be located within the virtue of courtesy. Courtesy, according to Guardini, was developed in medieval royal courts. The king ruled by divine right (with the understanding that he ruled justly, lest that power be removed), and the first courtesy or reverence due a king by virtue of his person and office radiated outward to include all ranks of society. This was the ideal, though Meghan reminds us that the actual practice of courtesy, the true reverence shown to women by men as creatures of God, would not always be practiced at the same level of courtesy shown by men to other men. Now, Guardini argues that the breakdown in courtesy in today’s society is a symptom of the democratization of society. The practice of courtesy depended in part on hierarchical political and social structures that no longer exist. Democratic societies, according to Guardini, replaced a hierarchical structure with a flatter social structure, but have not succeeded in providing a reliable foundation for courtesy to continue to be practiced. Democratic societies need to recover courtesy through our practicing a mutual reverence to each other as persons created by God. (Perhaps Christine de Pizan would have found in Guardini a good dialogue partner.) Perhaps a critical retrieval and purification of courtesy as a Christian virtue from its abuse is in order too if true gentlemanly behavior is to be defined. Courtesy needs to be snatched from its false friends: persons who use it as a show of good behavior to mask cruel intentions and evil acts toward others.
I would add one caveat to Guardini’s argument about democratization being a cause (perhaps unwittingly so) for the breakdown in courtesy. Democracy itself is not the cause. Populism, of a certain kind, within democratic society is the cause. Democratic societies can do one of two things: either work to secure for all people that which was once reserved for aristocracy, including the attainment of high levels of education and culture, or pull everyone down to a least common denominator in the name of a warped notion of equality. American history is marked by swings between one of these two poles. Two examples of the former include how Federal and State governments collaborated on the Morrill Act of 1862, establishing land grant institutions of higher education across the country whose quality of education, directed for all Americans who’d qualify for admission, would match Eastern private colleges and universities. And, historically, our nation has had a history of philanthropy to support institutions which support the arts and other expressions of high culture for all. An example of the latter is found with our society today, which regretfully portrays high culture, courtesy, and gentlemanly behavior as somehow inauthentic. Or, it is viewed a a veil of hypocrisy masking the true reality and expectation that “men are pigs” by nature. Men are not encouraged to enter into authentic relationships, be gentlemen, and then friends, husbands, and fathers, and enjoying an edifying good life of culture. A “real man” spends time in a “man cave,” drinking and snacking too much, grunting broad hints of support over a televised athletic event (or a spectacle like the WWE), and asserting his strength and power in a myriad of boorish, coarse, vulgar displays of “manliness”. Commercials portray men as adult children, kept in check by their wives or girlfriends, but always a few steps removed from barbarism. Behavior my own parents warned me was a product of mala educación is held up as, if not the norm, a genuine and normal option for living one’s life.
The Catholic Church in the United States has a long history of working to instill gentlemanly behavior in boys, an effort done mostly through our schools with great success. My having attended Catholic schools in three different parts of the country, I can say that the formation of a boy into a gentleman must be a sustained, intensive process. It begins with a culture where boys are pushed to grow up into gentleman, with the incentive that gentlemanly behavior is rewarded and departure from that behavior is punished. In my youth, when we did not behave well, the common admonition made by adults to us was communicated in two blunt words: “GROW UP!” Attempts to excuse bad behavior as “boy behavior” was met with swift opprobrium. Boys were never seen as “just boys” but gentlemen in the making.
Part of being a gentleman is learning to respect women and girls as persons and not objects. To this end, I think it is decisively important for boys to experience women in charge in their lives beyond their mothers and grandmothers. In my experience, growing up in Philadelphia, I attended the School of the Holy Child, a co-educational Catholic, private, grammar school owned and operated by the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus. At the time, I thought nothing about the fact that women were in complete charge of the school, holding every key administrative position and many teaching positions too. Looking back, I think their example did impress upon me respect for women. I think the reason for this was that the Sisters operated an excellent school, and by the fact that they modeled how to use authority not for its own sake, but (following the vision of their foundress Cornelia Connelly) made sure that me and my male classmates were being educated and brought up well. The reminders to be a gentleman were constant. There were regular admonitions to keep our shirts tucked in, our uniforms clean, learn to negotiate through our differences instead of fight…especially when playing games and sports during recess, keep our voices down (of which I was a spectacular failure), and to be civil to one another…especially to the girls. The girls received the same admonitions, pushed to be ladies alongside we aspiring gentlemen. And, we were taught to honor our Sisters and teachers by holding a concert annually to thank our school principal, Sister Helen MacDonald, SHCJ, on Cornelia Connelly’s feast day. Once, my entire class went to see one of the Sisters senior in the administration, to personally thank her for directing the contractual negotiations and work that got our gym floor resurfaced.
My family´s move to New Orleans meant a change of school for me. This time, it was Holy Cross School, an all-boys school owned and operated by the Brothers of the Holy Cross. I first learned about this school by reading its handbook, which frightened me. While Holy Child´s rules were unwritten, Holy Cross´ spelled out what was required of each student and the consequences if we did not toe the mark. (Perhaps this was necessary for an all-boys school?) For example, one rule spelled out that each adult on campus must be addressed by their proper title, listed all of the titles appropriate to be used on campus relative to each adult, and promised detention for failure to communicate the proper courtesy. (Being a Catholic school in the South, this was enforced…including the correct use of “sir” and “ma’am”.) The rules were especially tough on athletes. If they did anything that failed to meet the academic or disciplinary standards of the school, they would be stripped of ALL honors due them. Finally, the handbook warned us that if any student did anything outside the school that brought dishonor upon Holy Cross (and thus ourselves), that was grounds for suspension or expulsion. These expectations received their top-off with a school code called The Holy Cross Man. Its opening line made clear who we were expected to become upon entering the school, “a refined gentleman.” This code gave context to the rules of the school, all of which was designed to develop gentlemen “whose daily actions are sanctified by prayer, the practice of virtue, and manly piety…a useful man…a friend to all because he is a member of the Mystical Body of Christ.” Boys were expected to become refined and meek, our intellectual and physical strength directed to building up the other as well as ourselves. And, our role models on campus began with the ubiquitous presence of the Brothers who wrote this code and lived it with their vowed lives. (Most of the lay faculty and staff lived out this code too, with a few regrettable exceptions.)
Naturally, all of what was taught and modeled to me and my classmates in school was reinforced in most of our homes. In my case, my home life came with one important wrinkle. Both sides of my family are from Cuba, and the exile to the United States in 1959-1960 forced many women out of the house and into the workforce to support the family. My mother was among these women. So, I saw my mother as not just my mother, but also a professional woman and a college student. It helped, too, that she was one of three daughters born to a cattle rancher, who, before she married my father, warned him that she would walk out at the first sign of abuse or infidelity. My mother´s attitude of respect given and expected helped my parents´ successful marriage up to her death, and reinforced this ethic of being gentlemen in my brother and me. And, when we were in social gatherings, male relatives and family acquaintances who did not meet what my mother believed was behavior fitting a gentleman were quietly pointed out to me by her and her two sisters — my aunts — when the latter were in my company. People who cursed in public, practiced infidelity and abuse of spouses, drunkenness, laziness, or behavior fitting my mother´s very elastic definition of stupidity, all were pointed out by these women to me. I may have grown up with more examples of people I was warned not to become than people to imitate!
Of course, this Catholic school and home environment does not absolutely guarantee that any boy will grow into a true gentleman. No system, however pervasive, can do that. Boys must be, in the hearts and minds, converted to be gentlemen toward women and other men and work at refining that virtue throughout adulthood. How well these lessons from school and family sunk into me will only fully be known when the sum total of my life is surveyed. However, if I am correct, the rape culture Meghan describes underscores how absent a pervasive, forceful, culture exists today to form boys into gentlemen. What I have described is part the absolute minimum needed to form boys to men and significant parts of our society lack even that.
What else about boys becoming true gentlemen would our readers of this blog bring to the table?