Love songs and ethical codes

I used to wonder why there were so many love songs. More specifically, I wondered why ninety percent of the pop songs ever written were love songs, while ninety percent of rock criticism was written about the other ten percent...

We need so many love songs because the imperative rituals of flirtation, courtship, and mate selection that are required to guarantee the perpetuation of the species and the maintenance of social order - that are hardwired in mammals and socially proscribed in traditional cultures - are up for grabs in mercantile democracies. These things need to be done, but we don't know how to do them, and, being free citizens, we won't be told how to do them. Out of necessity, we create the institution of love songs...Because it's hard to find someone you love, who loves you - but you can begin, at least by finding someone who loves your love song.

--Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy
(thanks, D!)

It's a tricky thing, modern courtship. That word, like chivalry, comes from an era when rules were written in stone, understood, and respected. But let's remember what those rules were: courtly love was actually the admiration from afar, likely never to be consummated, by a suitor in a lady's court. He wore her colors out of loyalty, made gallant gestures, gave voice to a desire for her in troubadour poetry, but only to regret the futility of that desire.

Somewhere in these historical roots lies the thing against which some feminists bristle.* The lack of agency is implicit throughout. A male knight chooses the lady to whom he will be faithful, controls the expression of that love, and offers protection of her physically and spiritually. But hey, what about her desires? What about her preference in choosing the one she loves? And, not to get crude on this noble subject, but what about some lovin'?

No one is claiming that anything close to this set-up exists today. We live in a different world, and in it courtship and chivalry have both been reinterpreted. The question is what shape that reinterpretation will take. For me, the easiest way to correct a lack of agency is to grant it. Make women equal participants in the courtship dance, and then the code of ethics applies to them, too. Inside a relationship equal participation does not have to mean identical behavior, but there's nothing that says you can't apply the courteousness of chivalry to non-prospects in an egalitarian manner.

I hold doors for anyone behind me, male or female. I believe check picking-up should alternate, asker pays first, taking a chance on no second date. I've stopped on the side of the road to offer the use of my phone and my help in changing a flat. I give up my seat to anyone wearing uncomfortable shoes. Because it's nice.

By the same token, I will never refuse a door held for me, a check picked up after he turns down my offer to help, an umbrella extended, or a truly kind person with any genuine intention to help. Because refusing wouldn't be nice, either.

But in the post-modern world, not everyone learns the same rules. A new member at the Cleveland Park Men's Club, a website dedicated to instructing in and extending the practice of chivalry, has posted a response to the confused reception of their version of these ideals. His admirable defense of his friends and their ethical code prompted what you are reading here. The question raised is a good one: what are we to do when confronted with someone at odds with our code?

As Professor Hugo Schwyzer points out, good manners are meant to put others at ease, even if it's not what you ordinarily would do. Not always easy to pick up on these signals, but I think we should all be sensitive to them and gracious when we fail. I don't deny that the concepts of masculinity and femininity, the lack of an overarching set of values, and shifting social, economic, and political circumstances are problematic for all of us. But I do believe that thoughtfulness, dignity, and respect for others based on our common humanity, not our gender, will never be in the wrong. I also think that when you find someone who not only loves your love song but writes it with you, the bond you share will help you negotiate these issues. So if anyone knows someone who digs "She's a Jar"...

*I'm not even going to touch the classism of a chivalric code once used to distinguish aristocratic knights from their working class inferiors.


At 18/7/05 18:00, Blogger The Senator said...

Interesting post. Good work.


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