The demise of the imperial gentleman
When I was a child in the 1960s we were taught that we should behave like gentlemen. This meant a few things that might seem a little weird now.
Gentlemen were, of course, men, and in the language and perceptions of the time strong and powerful. So we were expected to:
- Protect the weak
- Not take advantage of the vulnerable
- Be kind and show interest in others
- Make sure things are done with a sense of fair play
All of these things were ultimately about using that strength to make society work for everybody and leaving no one behind. If you choose to see it that way, anyway.
Of course, the reality of Victorian and Edwardian men actually doing this while in fact robbing most of the world with their empire, and often protecting the weak meant forcing people (particularly if they had brown skins) into situations where these men could ride roughshod over their protectees’ actual needs. Think missionaries saving people who were perfectly fine before the missionaries arrived, for example. Then add on the theft of resources and so on. Try Orwell’s Burmese Days to get a flavour of what this was like.
But at least in the imperial imagination the arrogance was masked by lip service to a sense of fairness. Nowadays the robbery and rapine is just called debt and the imperial machine carries on sucking the life out of poor people all over the world without pretence, but it uses banks and bureaucracy to do so so the individual imperial agent is no more. It means it’s very hard for people like us to see what’s going on. Our owners have created a value extraction machine that doesn’t need the old imperial gentlemen overseeing the mayhem any more.
Women and children first
The phrase women and children first is a cliché from stories of disasters, where there is some kind of evacuation needed, and the most vulnerable are removed from danger before anyone else. Gentlemen wait and do what they can to protect the vulnerable from whatever disaster is behind the story. The phrase is part of the imperial gentleman lexicon. Gentlemen put themselves…