O Tempora! O mores! | Sunday Observer

O Tempora! O mores!

2 July, 2023

Collision is as necessary to produce virtue in men, as it is to elicit fire in inanimate matter; and so chivalry is of the essence of virtue. - Bertrand Russell

When the luxury liner Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg in 1912, a large number of passengers died leaving many women and children unscathed. The survivors were lucky because several male passengers did not get into life boats until all the women and children were safely abroad. The tragedy took place more than 100 years ago. Later a film was made on it.

A journalist asked a surviving ship’s officer how it all happened. He wanted to know whether there was a ‘women and children first’ rule or ‘rule of the sea.’ The officer said there was no such rule, but the male passengers were simply following a rule of human nature.

If the surviving women were living today, they will be shocked to learn that some of their modern counterparts are routinely abused verbally and physically by men. Almost every day we read about women being raped and killed. If you travel on a bus or train even a pregnant woman does not get a seat. Male passengers are either glued to their smart phones or fast asleep in their seats.

If challenged they would say women are fighting for equal rights and they are compelled to face such difficulties. Even in the workplace, most women are paid less than men. They do not qualify for promotions as if there is a glass ceiling above them. What is more, women are not free to walk the streets in safety.

The erosion of civility towards women is perhaps a byproduct of the feminist movement clamouring for equal rights. Feminists believe that chivalry is tyranny dressed in kid gloves. About six decades ago, we totally rejected Victorian morals calling them too rigid for modern times.

American Victorians, however, did not agree with Charles Darwin’s theory that humans were not one step below the angels, but a few steps above primordial sludge. Then they evolved an etiquette code only to prove that they could rise above their roots. The code covered many areas of women’s behaviour from debating delicate subjects such as sex to the proper folding of a calling card. Women received guidance in self-restraint in homes, schools and churches.

Digital Age

In the modern era, sometimes called the Digital Age, the code of etiquette that bound women is no longer in force. It seems to have been replaced with cultural anarchy. People are working for instant gratification and maximum self-expression. It is good if we can be a little old-fashioned as far as moral are concerned.

Before the advent of mobile phones, young people used to exchange love letters. Apart from expressing their pent-up feelings, love letters helped them to become good writers. Lovers never met in guest houses and they kept their distance until marriage. Today, nobody is interested in writing love letters because they can express their feelings digitally using their mobile phones. Many young people postpone their marriages or never marry at all.

Morals in the distant past were safe and sound. A 19th century book on etiquette says morals were a sort of supplement to the law. They protected individuals and society from falling into decay. People who lived in the good old days thought twice before committing a moral offence which may be out of reach to law enforcement authorities.

Although we cannot simply revive the past, women have a right to demand civility from men. Violence against women can be reduced if men learn the rules of self-restraint. The day men and women learn how to respect one another everyday life will be a shade more pleasant. Women should not think they belong to a category called ‘weaker sex.’ If women can survive pregnancy, childbirth and menopause, they will be able to withstand and condemn acts of incivility by men.

In certain developed countries such as the United States, a new masculinity has emerged. Dominance is giving way to tenderness marking vital changes in the fabric of life. Prof. Lester A. Kirkendall of Oregon State University sees the first gleanings of a new type of maleness. This is in contrast with the male who was in control of the household. He dominated his wife and children. For all intents and purposes he was a tough guy. This has changed over the years and the modern male is no longer controlling the household. Men have allowed themselves to express their tender feelings towards their loved ones. It is a healthy sign.

Sense of closeness

The new generation has discovered that the old masculine ideal does not serve any purpose. They are now looking for new ideals and are trying to put them into practice. Today, we do not hesitate to express our feelings openly. People are beginning to realise that they need a sense of closeness. Men and women need affection. This is the basic truth we had failed to learn in the past.

New masculinity has brought about many changes in our lifestyle. In the past, a husband had the right to make final decisions. If a man acceded to his wife’s wishes, he was considered a henpecked husband.

Today, people have realised that masculinity is not threatened by sharing power of decision making. What is more, new masculinity sees the sex act quite differently. In the past, intercourse was meant to reproduce. However, today sex is a matter of recreation. If any male tries to be old fashioned, he is bound to fail in his attempt.

Although the situation in developed countries is healthy for women, most developing countries treat women as second class citizens. By dint of hard work, a few women have succeeded in their career. Sri Lanka can be proud for producing the first woman Prime Minister. Today, women occupy high places in many countries. However, ordinary women are still being abused in their workplaces and homes.

Human values and cultural trends are in the melting pot. We should select what is healthy for us and reject the rest. Otherwise, we may have to repeat ‘O tempora! O mores’ (Oh what times! Oh what manners!), always lamenting the standards of the contemporary world.

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