We live in an age where the notion of chivalry has become something of a dirty word. I think that this is because the concept is misunderstood.

When people hear the word chivalry, they think of helpless, powerless, defenseless, and, perhaps, pathetic women, protected by strong in-control men. Which is to say, the idea of chivalry has become nothing more than a synonym for chauvinism. That’s unfortunate, because it’s completely incorrect, and reduces a sense of respect and honor to nothing more than chest beating, and reduces women to nothing more than objects on which we can demonstrate our superiority.

Chivalry is, instead, “bravery, courtesy, honor, and gallantry”. Those first three words are one that I think we’re familiar with, although “bravery” has been redefined by Hollywood and CNN to mean shooting people who don’t shoot back. Gallantry means “nobility of spirit or action.”

If these words are too overloaded to be helpful in 2009, perhaps it would be good to summarize like this: You are not the most important person in the universe. Keep that idea firmly in mind, and you’ll find your reactions towards other people altering in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

What the folks in the Middle Ages got wrong was that these attitudes should be demonstrated only towards persons of moderately high rank, while it was ok to treat the unwashed masses as scum and not quite human. In our enlightened age, ideas of caste and rank have merely rearranged, not gone away.

We have a culture of systemized sexism and racism. That it stems largely from gross misinterpretations of the notions of chivalry is unfortunate. I’m hardly suggesting that we go back to a time of knights, and denying women the right to speak, vote, or work. I’m suggesting that we men who have retained some scrap of respect for our fellow persons, take it as our duty to be the ones to stand up and say that what’s going on isn’t ok. That when remarks are made that marginalize a subset of the population – whether that’s based on gender, race, religion, or preference for funny hats – that we are the ones that speak up and ask that they apologize and stop being troglodytes. That when we ourselves say or do things of this same nature, that we have the courage to apologize.

And, sure, hold the door for someone. It’s not going to kill you.