I never like having a conversation about language in which I come up on the wrong side of C.S. Lewis. This is going to be one of those times:
In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis writes
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone ‘a gentleman’ you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not ‘a gentleman’ you were not insulting him, but giving information.
Of course, I’m not at all disputing how Lewis characterizes the word as a container of information rather than a bestower of value. It is true and important to understand, though, that through popular usage over time, the word gentleman has gone from a statement of fact to a compliment… but then back again to a statement of fact. Interestingly, being called a gentleman is only complimentary now to those who would use the word, and for others, the concept as it is understood today is being driven out of existence.
As Lewis described the improper usage of the word, gentleman was a label for someone who exhibited good behavior in some fashion. If you held the door open for others, you were called a gentleman. If you dressed well in social settings, you were called a gentleman. If you refrained from using coarse language in broader social settings, you were called a gentleman. Basically, the term was applied as a way of noting approval—or disapproval—for the way in which a man conducted himself. Referring to someone as a gentleman, then, was indeed complimentary.
This was much the context in which my parents used the word while raising me. My father especially would speak the phrase “gentlemanly behavior” when praising or admonishing my conduct. Often my use of slang terms elicited the response, “that’s not something a gentleman would say,” and I would rephase whatever it was I originally said in more formal English. Gentlemen were polite and courteous, quick to volunteer their assistance, considerate of another’s needs, and respectful in tone and bearing.
But there was something more to it reflected both by my parents’ usage as well as how the definition was morphing in the vernacular through the 1960s and 1970s. It was no longer that calling a man a gentleman was a response to the behaviors he exhibited, but it was that a gentleman conducted himself in certain specific ways (ultimately, particularly in his interactions with women). Calling someone a gentleman was no longer merely a compliment in response to observing these behaviors (courtesy, helpfulness, consideration, and respect). It had become a fact of character: a man was not identified as a gentleman on the occasion of behaving as such. A gentleman was a man consistently of this character, regardless of time or place. My parents wanted the label of gentleman to convey real information about me. It became a part of my identity, however imperfectly I practiced gentlemanly acts.
Much has been written about what gentlemanly acts actually are. Mark Jessen lists these 100 ways to be a gentleman, which includes the gems, “stay open minded but firm in your belief and morals,” “be willing to help others,” and “never kiss and tell.” Providing 51 ways to be a modern gentleman, Khio Nguyen writes, “speak your mind, but know when to keep quiet,” “know when to take action and do it without being asked,” and “offer your seat to women and the elderly.” One observation I find particularly meaningful is this from General Robert E. Lee:
The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly—the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.
A common theme found in writings on being a gentleman often focuses on what it means to have power and how that power is exercised. When examined in the context of relationships and communications between men and women, the appropriate exercise of male power is identified as chivalry; that is, polite, kind, and unselfish behavior that men would exhibit toward women, children, and the elderly especially. (It is important to understand that the exercise of chivalrous behavior does not imply that women are powerless.)
While power dynamics in relationships can be complicated to dissect, a principle for the modern-day gentleman to keep in mind is that when he has something that would benefit another person, and it is not something the other person already has or might easily acquire, he should generously share freely of it, be it time, treasure, or the power to leverage these resources. We find this wisdom in the New Testament, Luke 12:48 – “ From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Denials from the progressive left notwithstanding, men and women are distinctive and different. Men have been given many kinds of abilities with which to affect the lives of others. A gentleman recognizes this and acts accordingly.
Sarah Mackenzie writes the following about the interplay between chivalry and feminism:
I therefore feel somewhat qualified to say there is, without a doubt, nothing more charming or alluring than a truly kind gentlemanly soul amidst a sea of increasingly horrible male specimen.
It’s not as though I appreciate a door being opened for me because I am far too weak or submissive to do it myself. I also don’t appreciate boys being overly presumptuous merely because I am a prude or don’t want the same things.
But, I value and appreciate true gentlemen because it subtly reveals a more caring, sensitive and genuine side that most males are not willing to broadcast or expose.
It’s charming, chivalrous, and rightfully mirrors the longstanding cultural and societal norms that females are still expected to uphold.
And, to be honest, I don’t have the time, patience or a sufficient enough lack of self-integrity to pursue any guy unable to exercise those rare, gentlemanly qualities.
It would seem, then, that the responsible exercise of gentlemanly power is a subtle thing; it is in placing the “gentle” inside the “man” and letting that temper and permeate his maleness. It is the very opposite of the idea of “toxic masculinity,” its antidote as it were.
What is the relationship between toxic masculinity and gentlemanly character? A very simple analysis would be to divide the two categorizations by the manner in which men choose to exercise the power they have in particular social contexts—whether responsibly or not.
In January of 2019, Gillette (owned by Proctor & Gamble) repurposed their “the best a man can be” slogan as a piece of a marketing campaign to challenge toxic masculinity and join the #metoo movement with the message that, when it comes to the treatment of women in society, men must change before there can be any progress or forward movement. The campaign featured a 108-second “short film” that, to many, seemed to be an indictment of all men (and boys) for having created and perpetuated the environment of toxicity toward women endemic throughout society.
Predictably, the short film and campaign polarized those who watched it into two camps: those who saw it as admirably calling out the culture of toxic masculinity running rampant throughout society, and those who saw it as over-the-top virtue signaling as part of a broader war on men. I found myself in the second camp, but with the idea that Gillette wasn’t participating in a war on men—rather, the company seemed to be opportunistically jumping on board the #metoo bandwagon (which to me is confirmed by a lack of any appreciable follow-through or commitment to being an actual societal change agent).
What those who would identify episodes of toxic masculinity in society, Gillette included, neglect to consider is the role that raising boys to be gentlemen plays in both softening the socialization process and strengthening the societal bonds between girls and boys, women and men. Watch the Gillette short film. The message seems to be that masculinity itself is to blame, and that the vast majority of boys will grow into men who will carry on in their toxic ways, because they have never been given an alternative.
There is an alternative. It has been offered to boys for a couple of centuries; and it only has fallen out of favor during the past few decades in reaction to the progressive left’s interpretation of feminism. One might even argue that it is a form of toxic feminism that has decoupled the upbringing of boys from the behavioral ideals of gentlemen, and that in turn has removed any moderating influence on the baser attributes of masculinity. Whatever the cause, we can be sure that we aren’t on the right track for solutions as long as we complain about the lyrics of songs from decades past such as the suggestive yet ambiguous “Baby It’s Cold Outside” while we aren’t bothered by the audaciously explicit misogyny of this generation’s “Everywhere I Go.” I can imagine the shock, disgust, and finally the disappointment of my father, had I listened to music like the latter.
His words are still very clear in my memory. That’s not something a gentleman would say.