Man Up, Lady Down
Perry L. Glanzer on the Demise of Ladies & Gentlemen in Higher Education
This past year, sixteen female students and alumni from Yale University filed a complaint under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act claiming that Yale University failed to address a “hostile sexual environment.” The major incident sparking the complaint was a pledge ritual by members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity, who marched pledges around campus and told them to shout phrases such as “No means yes, yes means anal” and “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac, I f— dead women.” Clearly, wisdom and high SAT scores do not always go together.
After the unsurprising campus outcry and the filing of the complaint, the leaders of DKE apologized to the Yale Women’s Center. The apology failed to spare DKE a five-year suspension. The moral of the story: Don’t create a hostile environment for Yale women, because they’ll sue your pants off (only figuratively, of course). This is the moral philosophy behind most college behavioral admonitions these days: “Behave—or we’ll sue you.”
“We Don’t Sue, We’re Gentlemen”
While lawsuits will always have their place, such a response to this incident illustrates the extreme poverty of moral language pertaining to gender at our colleges and universities. Understandably, the Yale women were outraged at the lack of moral sensibility displayed by the DKE men in their pledge ritual. Yet, as many of the online comments pertaining to this incident showed, the only sort of language women themselves could muster to express their moral judgment was that of taste (“disgusting and appalling”), feminism (“sexist”), or liberal speech codes (“hate speech”). None of the language appealed to the masculinity of the young men.
The recent movie Social Network demonstrates this same poverty of language and propensity to sue to resolve moral problems between college students. Yet the film also contains a glimpse of an older approach to such problems that actually bears some relation to gender. It occurs in a scene in which twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who believe that Mark Zuckerberg has stolen their idea for a social networking site, argue over what to do about the matter:
Eventually, Cameron abandons the idea that gentlemen don’t sue, but only after unsuccessfully trying other approaches, such as talking to university leadership.
Of course, after the Yale incident, there were no stories about female students struggling with the idea that “ladies don’t sue.” Women at Yale wouldn’t use that language. It’s too dated. Yet, not so long ago, it was common to use words like “gentlemen” and “ladies” to summarize the moral ideals associated with the masculine and feminine aspects of our humanity.
The cultural expectations associated with words identifying social roles and identities carry significant amounts of moral freight. Consider, for example, a famous experiment devised by Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, in which he presents his subjects with various moral dilemmas to see how they reason their way through them.
In his famous Heinz dilemma, a man’s wife is dying and the only hope of a cure lies in a drug that costs $4,000. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, tries every means he can think of to raise the money, but he only acquires $2,000. He then tries to negotiate with the man who developed the drug, telling him that his wife is dying, and pleading with him to sell him the drug at a reduced price. The druggist refuses, saying, “No, I discovered this drug, and I’m going to make money from it.” Kohlberg then asks his subjects to consider whether Heinz should steal the drug for his wife.
The situation presents a moral dilemma because Kohlberg can draw upon the moral expectations associated with the social role of being a husband. We expect a good husband to love his wife self-sacrificially, and this thought experiment challenges us to consider whether such self-sacrifice should include stealing (and its consequences), if necessary to save her life. The situation becomes less of a dilemma if the woman who needs the drug is Heinz’s current mistress, his most recent hook-up, or a random stranger—or if we live in a culture that does not expect husbands to love their wives self-sacrificially.
For many years, the terms “gentleman” and “lady” carried an analogous moral weight in society, including in the sphere of higher education. In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman argued that the concept of a “gentleman” contained both the essence and the extension of particular moral content. “It is almost a definition of a gentleman,” he wrote, “to say he is one who never inflicts pain.” A gentleman, therefore,
Women’s college leaders used to use “lady” in an analogous manner and encouraged young girls to act like ladies.
Today, gentlemen and ladies no longer exist in college. By this I mean that both the terms and their accompanying moral expectations have disappeared. More importantly, nothing has replaced them. In my study of moral education in colleges and universities, I have discovered that only two of the last remaining men’s colleges, Hampden-Sydney and Wabash, use the term “gentleman” in this manner. The Hampden-Sydney code of conduct expects that each student “will behave as a gentleman at all times and in all places,” and the Wabash “Gentleman’s Rule” states, “The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.” Unsurprisingly, both codes have roots that reach back to the 1800s.
My Fair Lady versus Lady Gaga
Feminists, of course, would argue that it is good to be free from the old gentleman/lady ideals because of their implicit patriarchy and sexism. Certainly, the words “gentleman” and “lady” may carry all sorts of cultural baggage associated with the class distinctions and trivial manners of earlier eras, and separating the treasure from the trash can be difficult. The 1964 movie My Fair Lady, in which a professor wagers that he can change a working-class girl into an elegant, well-mannered lady, demonstrates the cultural contradictions embedded in the notion of what it means to become a lady, but it still basically retains the Victorian ideal.
Today, however, we tolerate no such ambiguity and largely reject the whole concept. The 1997 movie Titanic served as a visual deconstruction of the negative baggage associated with the “lady” idea. Instead of elevating Jack Dawson from the dregs of society to high society, Rose DeWitt Bukater abandons high society and what it supposedly means to be a lady, and joins Jack in the lower classes. Young women attended this funeral for the supposed cultural expectations of a lady en masse.
Yet, modern feminists aren’t the only ones who find the language wanting. One hundred fifty years ago, John Henry Newman held a similar ambivalence toward the moral ideals associated with the term “gentleman,” admitting that they “partly assist and partly distort the development of the Catholic.” The problem is that, “at this day the ‘gentleman’ is the creation, not of Christianity, but of civilization. But the reason is obvious. The world is content with setting right the surface of things; the Church aims at regenerating the very depths of the heart.” Changing the world through good manners is hardly the essence of Christianity.
Thus, the moral ideals of being a lady or a gentleman have been found wanting for understandable reasons and discarded by many. Today, this reality leaves us with Lady Gaga and “Gentlemen’s Clubs.” In other words, the terms “lady” and “gentlemen” have simply become marketing titles meant to flout the former ideals, rather than terms with any moral substance.
But discarding these terms has also left us without gender-based moral ideals. The closest thing we now have to a moral language for the sexes is “feminist” and . . . basically nothing. This creates a problem. First, while being a lady requires a man to be a gentleman, being a feminist offers men nothing (after all, as feminists have proclaimed, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”). At most, feminism asks that men become feminists too, or at least good liberals (i.e., show respect, don’t engage in hate speech, go to awareness training). These ideals—the same ones voiced by women after the Yale incident—do not comprise a call to anything distinctly masculine.
Masculinity Without Moral Ideals
The two basic male stereotypes one sees and hears about today possess no moral content. First, we have the “alpha males”—the men who dominate sports and business and catch women who want to marry them. Second, we have what I call the “Homer Simpson men”—the professional loafers who avoid work, play video games, watch alpha males perform (sports), and drink.
In this respect, one can understand the resurging nostalgia for the old ideals of ladies and gentlemen. While not rooted in thick moral traditions or stemming from the heart of Christianity, these ideals can and do influence the general ethos of a society and the individuals within it. This is why C. S. Lewis wrote, “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.” The ideas with which one is brought up train the emotions, and, as Lewis observed, “Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.”
In other words, while such trained emotions rarely supply the deep-seated critical thinking about ethics we want students to acquire, they do provide an important level of habitual virtue that sustains a community against baser animal instincts. Just ask the Yale women if they would rather be at party with slightly intoxicated members of Delta Kappa Epsilon or slightly intoxicated male students brought up to believe that “a gentleman should treat a woman like a lady in all times and places.” Despite our lack of a language that captures a moral ideal linked to masculinity, women still want men to demonstrate moral sensibilities in their relations with the opposite sex. Today, however, they can only sue to force men to behave like gentlemen.
We do, perhaps, possess one last vestige of recoverable moral language that captures expectations of virtue for men. One finds this language among a new group of women writers who bemoan the wretched state of modern men and plead for women to Save the Males (Kathleen Parker, 2008) and for men to start Manning Up (Kay Hymowitz, 2011). While these writers do appeal for the revival of such masculine virtues as courage, initiative, and drive, they say little about how men should behave in their relations with women. Thus, asking the DKE pledges to “man up” would avail little.
Men need a story that encompasses more than just moral outrage and admonitions. Newman argued that they need the Church, which “is putting souls in the way of salvation, that they may then be in condition, if they shall be called upon, to aspire to the heroic, and to attain the full proportions, as well as the rudiments, of the beautiful.” Unless we offer young men something more than the demands of feminism, the platitudes of liberalism, and admonitions to “man up,” we should not be surprised that young women have to resort to suing them to make them behave like gentlemen. •
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“Man Up, Lady Down” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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