Chivalry or Thuggery?

July 12, 2006

Not much of a sports watcher, I was swept up in the World Cup frenzy nonetheless. It started out as a general appreciation for any competition that was international in scope, as if somehow it would serve as a counterbalance to the US’s arrogant, isolationist bent under the Bush regime. But it didn’t take long before I got into the drama of the matches themselves.

Sunday’s final game between France and Italy was a tense showdown. Ten minutes before the end, an Italian player muttered some insult to the French soccer star, Zinedine Zidane. Zidane spun around and headbutted Materazzi in the chest with violent force. It was a sick spectacle, and led to his expulsion from the game. This was the final game of Zidane’s career. I wondered (and was not alone) what could the Italian have possibly said that would enrage Zidane so? That he would exit the Cup under a black cloud, rather than the height of glory?

Well it turns out that the Italian player insulted his mother, who is hospitalized. This softened my feelings for the guy; although his reaction was revolting, it stemmed from an outdated code of ethics that includes defending the honor of one’s mother.

A lip-reader commissioned by The Times said that Materazzi had called Zidane “the son of a terrorist whore”. Zidane refused to go into detail yesterday, but said: “They were very hard words. It was very serious. It was about my mother and my sister. That wounds. He repeated it three times. I am a man before anything else. I would have preferred getting a right hook in the face than to hear that.

“I apologise, especially to educators and those who tell kids what to do and what not to do.” He insisted, however, that he did not regret responding to the Italian’s insults. “I cannot say that I regret my act,” Zidane said. “I apologise to all concerned but to regret it would mean that he was right to say those things.”

My reaction is similar to that of other, more mundane acts of chivalry, which is to say, complicated. The door opening, the walking on the outside of the sidewalk… These actions are meant to convey respect and deference, but they also convey the shadow sentiment that a woman cannot defend or protect herself.

Yet if I learned that my husband or son overheard someone tearing me down and they defended my honor in my absence, I would reflexively feel proud and grateful. But then I think of all the useless fights that break out among young men over issues of “respect,” and it all seems so foolish. Honor and respect are just abstractions, yet they spur people to shocking acts of violence.

If you were Zidane’s mom, how would you feel?