Sunday 04 Dec 2016

Honour as Ships Sink
David Simmonds

I’m a big fan of the old Upstairs/Downstairs and the new Downton Abbey dramas of honour, manners and social station.

The first series ends, and the second begins, with the 1912 Titanic disaster. So it was with some interest I read about a study examining the role of male chivalry in the Titanic and other sinkings.

The study, conducted at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, asks whether the old “women and children first” saw was actually applied on the ground or, rather, in the water. As far as the Titanic was concerned, it was: of the women and children, 70 per cent survived; of the men, only 20 per cent.

Here comes the bad news. The Titanic was an anomaly. The researchers studied 18 ship accidents between 1852 and 2011, the Titanic and the Lusitania being the biggest. On the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German submarine in 1915 with 2,000 on board, men and women survived at about the same rate? On the whole, though, women did half as well as men. Brace yourself, crew survived at a rate that was almost 20% higher than passengers generally; children survived at a lower rate than both crew and passengers, male or female. There was only one other instance, in 1852, when women survived at a higher rate than men. Seems we generally behave a lot a lot more like the passengers and crew on the Costa Concordia than on the Titanic.

As a historian at Cambridge University puts it rather acidly, although the phrase has “become a mythic presence in shipwrecks [it] illustrates the unwritten rule of the sea, it really isn’t illustrating a rule at all.”

Did the era of male chivalry end in 1915? Is the continuing survival, or the potential revival, of male chivalry a good thing or a bad thing? I asked the internet these questions, and was mildly surprised to find out that I’m far from the first to have made similar inquiry.

One website that particularly intrigued me was entitled “Chivalry Now.” It makes the case for a modern male chivalry. It posits that our 18th Century forebears “knew that freedom without ethics is like a ship without a rudder, unable to reach its destination, which is the personal fulfillment of us all.” I’m going to set out its code in full, and let you be the judges of its relevance.

Here goes,

Truth provides the foundation of chivalry. A man who lies cannot be trusted. His strength and ambitions cannot be esteemed. Truth should always remain our greatest concern. 

Loyalty denotes a relationship that is based on truth and commitment. If we are fortunate, we have companions who are loyal to us—but we must be loyal to others as well. Remember, loyalty is a virtue to cultivate, even when it is not reciprocated.

Courtesy provides the means for cordial and meaningful relationships. A society cannot be healthy without courteous interaction. We sometimes admire people who trample on courtesy to get what they want—unfortunately, the contentious world they create is very disappointing, and we all have to live in it.

Chivalry calls men to honor women, and to serve as their helpmates. This precept merely states the natural order of things. Men should honor women first as individuals, but also as the conduits and nurturers of life. That certain men commit violence against women, or treat them with disrespect, is an outrage against nature, and a slight against manhood.
 Justice involves little more than treating people fairly. It also calls for mercy. We all make mistakes.

We admire men who are strong, but if their strength is not directed to uphold what is good, what value does it have? We are called to use our strength to defend those who cannot defend themselves, and commit ourselves to just causes.

Nothing is more unmanly and corruptive to society than delighting in scandal and gossip. Not only do you harm those who are victims of gossip, you harm yourself as well. How? By becoming a creature who is unloving. It is wrong to delight in the guilt or suffering of others, or to feed the flames of scandal, a major occupation of nightly television. No one is perfect. That fact in itself unites us all.

Chivalry also speaks about romantic love. People today often find romantic love disappointing. It promises more than it delivers, especially in regards to permanence. Why? Because we perceive romantic love as something spontaneous, something that does not demand work and a strong moral base. Medieval literature tells us quite the opposite. The very essence of romantic love is commitment. This is where chivalry provides a vital ingredient. Love relationships provide the laboratory where the virtues of chivalry are tested to their fullest, and manliness is proved. An added bonus shows that proper love encourages us to do our best in all things.

Stirring words and I ask: is the 21st century male worthy of the task; even just on dry land?

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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