Southern gentility way overrated
I'm with Atrios; cut the crap. Kim Severson is way too kind to "Southern gentility". She admits that a lot of it is about reinforcing gender and racial hierarchies, but there's still a whiff of trying to bamboozle the Yankees by exoticizing our quaint Southern ways in this article. Particularly since "chivalry" was the defense in the nakedly racist incident that inspired her article:
One August night, two men walked into a popular restaurant attached to [Atlanta's] fanciest shopping mall. They sat at the bar, ordered drinks and pondered the menu. Two women stood behind them.
A bartender asked if they would mind offering their seats to the ladies. Yes, they would mind. Very much.
Guess the races of the men and the women in this story. With your guess in mind, consider this:
Angry words came next, then a federal court date and a claim for more than $3 million in damages.
The men, a former professional basketball player and a lawyer, also happen to be black. The women are white. The men’s lawyers argued that the Tavern at Phipps used a policy wrapped in chivalry as a cloak for discriminatory racial practices.
After a week’s worth of testimony in September, a judge decided in favor of the bar.
"Chivalry" was the reason. What Severson neglects to mention is that "chivalry" has always been used as an excuse for racial discrimination and worse, lynching in the South. Segregation was justified in no small part as a way to protect precious white women from supposedly unchivalrous black men. She just goes straight into this:
At least, it used to be. The Tavern at Phipps case, and a growing portfolio of examples of personal and political behavior that belies a traditional code of gentility, have scholars of Southern culture and Southerners themselves wondering if civility in the South is dead, or at least wounded.
This is where the B.S. is at its thickest. Texas has the same kind of chivalrous codes as the rest of the South, even if we don't put up the front of gentility. I have never had a strange man offer me a seat at a bar on the grounds of being female. It's simply not expected. Just like in the North, someone might give up a seat to someone whose shoes look uncomfortable, but it's not gendered, per se. Certainly you would never expect a bartender to demand it. There is a chivalrous ritual of giving up seats in crowded bars, but men generally only offer to women they know. So, if a stranger is standing near you, you wouldn't igve up your seat. But if a strange woman is introduced to a man, he will often immediately offer up his seat. Of course, what's not discussed about chivalry is that it's often about a man showing off how generous he is than a woman being coddled. (Not always; a lot of men are just generically gracious, and you can often tell the difference because they don't object if women offer generosity in return, or they don't get ruffled if women politely decline.) If you actually take him up on the offer, he gains a little power over you because men who show even minor generosity are supposed to be fawned over, and you're supposed to be a little more lax in setting boundaries with him. Which is why it's pointless to offer your seat to a woman you haven't been introduced to her. Men who make these offers to strange women are generally assumed to be angling for an introduction, which of course will be made with you in social debt to him, so you pretty much have to give him some flirtage time, lest you be deemed a bitch. Chivalry is not to women's benefit in the South.
Anyway, it's all bullshit. I've never heard of a man being expected to give up a seat to a woman he doesn't know, and that it was so racialized suggests that this was no coincidence. The same act can have different meanings in different situations. A man offering his seat to a stranger is generally going to be read as "hitting on her", unless there's an extenuating circumstance such as a huge age disparity or she's obviously not well. A man being told to give his seat up is being demeaned, and having his manhood questioned. Elaborate social codes are there to be endlessly manipulated in this way, to give plausible deniability to abusive or power-mongering behavior. I'm a big fan instead of having a "do unto others" philosophy of etiquette.
That said, I am hypocritcally grateful for the linguistic passive agressiveness that I bathed in my whole life living in Texas. The practice of cutting someone down while pretending to say something nice about them teaches one the finer aspects of the creative use of insulting language. I suspect that's a reason that so many fine wits come out of Texas, where there's a bizarro but intoxicating mix of Western bluntness and Southern gentility. You learn how to simultaneously call someone an asshole if the need be, but also to bless someone's heart if that's going to cut closer to the bone.