The Post Millennial When a Man Saves a Woman: Manliness asserts itself in a French Supermarket

The Post Millennial - Monday April 2nd, 2018

In a video conversation with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, Harvard academic Harvey Mansfield recounts the story of a media appeal for comment regarding a deceased colleague. 

The female reporter asked Mansfield to sum up his colleague in a single word that best described him. Mansfield replied, “Manliness.” There was a pause. Then she asked, “Can you think of another word?”

Mansfield has taught at Harvard for over 50 years, but his general celebrity, such as it is, springs from authorship of his 2006, Manliness (no subtitles). 

At the time, it got a lot of press, but reviews, mostly by feminists or other progressives, were often negative. As the anecdote above indicates, Mansfield was perceived as “against the mainstream of modernity,” even mockable for his failure to understand that “manliness” simply cannot be cited as a virtue in contemporary society.

The book seems far more contrarian twelve years on when theories of gender fluidity and social construction of gender have achieved near-absolute sway over institutional and political life, and the image of “toxic masculinity” threatens to marginalize all but the most uncontestable symbols of a more positive form of manliness.

Exactly such a symbol was recently fleshed out in the noble death of French police officer Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame at a supermarket in Trèbes, a town in the south of France. 

There, murderous criminal Redouane Lakdim shot two people dead and took hostages, eventually releasing all but one woman. Beltrame volunteered to take her place. He did this knowing the man could not escape and would eventually be captured or killed in a shootout, but also aware that in such a scenario it was likely the hostage would die too.

Why did he do it?

Partly because he was a man, and extraordinary, life-threatening courage is expected only from men – by society and by themselves. Women are not judged by society, nor do they judge themselves for reasonable cowardice in dramatic or chaotic situations. But as Mansfield notes, the principal quality of manliness is the willingness to take risks. Obviously not all men do take risks. But most men admire and wish to identify with those who do.

In a very interesting commentary in the Daily Mail online on the Trèbes affair, Peter Hitchens attributes Beltrame’s heroism to Christianity (which Beltrame had recently embraced), citing the words attributed to Jesus shortly before being subjected to his show trial and subsequent martyrdom, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

I am skeptical about this theory. Laying down one’s life for another is a truly noble act, but self-sacrifice for a loved one is not an impulse exclusive to Christians. In any case, the woman Beltrame saved wasn’t a friend, but a complete stranger to him. He only knew she was terrified – and a woman. Beltrame’s impulse seems to me very much a gendered act of heroism. If Lakdim’s remaining hostage had been a man, it seems to me quite possible that Beltrame might have chosen discretion as the greater part of valour. Nobody – certainly no Christian – would have blamed him for it.

Beltrame’s action seems more to me an illustration of the ideal of chivalry that produced the Christian “gentleman.” A gentleman has power he consciously refuses to use against anyone except a peer, but who willingly offers to take risks and show courage in the service of his perceived duty. 

He does not take advantage of those lower in social status, or poorer or weaker than himself. Indeed, he sees his duty in protecting them or rescuing them from harm. Women and children are the greatest beneficiaries of this peculiarly western chivalric code, never on greater display than in the sinking of the Titanic, when 75% of women and almost all the children were saved as against 20% of the men.

Manliness operates at different levels. It can be raw and vulgar, the kind that manifests itself in soccer-field hooliganism or in the political style of Donald Trump. 

It can be gallant and self-sacrificing, as manifested in the heroism of an Arnaud Beltrame or in the countless stories of war buddies taking outrageous risks to bring downed comrades in arms to safety.

But mainly manliness operates at a level that is invisible to the eyes of the female reporter and her ilk who demur at the usage of the word: the men who operate dangerous machinery so they can provide for their families (95% of work-related fatalities are men); the firemen who rush into fires against all sense of self-preservation to rescue those trapped within; the countless fathers who teach their sons to channel their natural aggression and instinct for risk-taking in responsible, mature and productive ways.

In their conversation, Mansfield told Bill Kristol that his book, though scholarly and deeply researched, had never been added to a course syllabus, nor reviewed in any academic journal. 

Here is proof if it were needed that the academy, while consumed with the subject of gender, has no interest in learning or teaching about men as they actually are, in all their complex fullness, but only as straw figures to prove the systematic oppression of women. Try taking that line with the woman who is alive because Arnaud Beltrame could not bear to witness her suffering in passivity.