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The psychology of white knights
White knights are men who derive their value from defending damsels in distress against evil forces. They are willing to engage in a fantasy to achieve this—imagining evil women to be damsels, and good men to be dragons. This is a kind of arrested development caused by a failure to emotionally separate from their mother during adolescence.
For the pithiest and funniest illustration of a white knight, you cannot do better than this parodious video from Seamus of FreedomToons:
We have been pondering the psychology and pathologies of white knights for some time. This of necessity; we are viciously opposed by them on a regular basis, and we have to know our enemy. But this knowledge is important for anyone seeking to reform the church, because the white knight mentality is as ubiquitous as it is destructive. It is prevalent not only in the younger generations, but also among boomers—in fact, it seems to be an especially hard mindset to kick for older pastors who are otherwise very sound on gendered piety and biblical patriarchy.
What follows are some general thoughts on the psychology of white knights, and especially on how it arises; understanding the root of the problem is important to dealing with it. These are not scientific observations; we have no sociological data to support them, nor have we conducted any surveys. They are simply reflections on patterns of behavior, and what seems to cause them.
The white knight mentality seems to be fundamentally a kind of arrested development where a man fails to properly "detach" from the maternal world of childhood. This is usually caused by a weak or absent father, and/or an overbearing or needy mother, which leads to one of two opposite problems: a failure to launch, or launching too early. Paradoxically, these can sometimes occur together in the same man.
Problem 1: failure to launch
The first manifestation of not detaching from the maternal world is simply a difficulty or a refusal to definitively enter the world of men. Usually this happens when the white knight's father fails to model masculine, outward-facing dominion, or isn't a strong enough force in his life to bring him along into the masculine world, against the retentive nurture of his mother.
This is exacerbated by the lack of coming-of-age rituals in modern society; the absence of defined points at which boys become men, combined with a lack of fatherly guidance, leaves them foundering in a Peter Pan state where manhood becomes an alien condition—“adulting."
This has dire consequences for white knights:
Low-grade fear of masculinity and manhood as the "other"
White knights have trouble identifying with the masculine. They tend to be risk-averse, and prefer security to freedom. They will also rationalize their distaste for traditionally masculine pursuits like football or hunting as a kind of enlightenment, placing themselves in their minds into a more evolved category than their neanderthal brethren. If this sounds rather like a nerds v. jocks thing, that is not entirely wrong.
Ultimately, however, this is a low-grade fear and loathing of their own natures—which makes white knights emotionally unstable, and tends to manifest in depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behaviors.
Socially feminized behavior
Because they identify with the feminine and did not learn to enter, or at least fully embrace, the masculine world, white knights tend to eschew agonistic discourse in favor of more covert modes of interaction. This is especially true in real life, where confrontation is physically intimidating. This causes them to instinctively deal with threats through subterfuge and ostracization, rather than confrontation and competition; and it makes them very afraid to be ostracized in turn.
It also results in a skewed ability to assess threats in the first place; because they prioritize herd integrity over gaining mastery, challenges or disagreements are not seen as an opportunity to sharpen iron, but rather as a danger to the harmony of the group. White knights would rather have a veneer of unity enforced through social hegemony, than a true bond of unity forged through struggle. They are fundamentally cliquey.
Prioritization of feelings over facts
This in turn leads to filtering truth claims—and especially ones with moral import—by how these make the white knight feel, and especially by how they affect the mood of some in-group, rather than by their correspondence to objective standards. The question of whether something is right or wrong, true or false, becomes reduced to the question of whether it upsets or pleases the people at the top of the white knight's social hierarchy.
These impulses lead to an intense dependence on female approval for the white knight's own sense of self-worth and self-security; an external locus of control where every woman is potentially a surrogate mother, and must be deferred to and defended accordingly.
Perversely, however, this must be synthesized with the white knight's sex drive, which is generally vigorous, like any man's. He instinctively understands the male burden of performance, and so he thirstily performs for the attention of any and every woman he finds at all attractive. Even if he marries, his pathologies compel him to continue performing; as much as he is outraged by the idea of adultery, he cannot help seeking the affirmation of other women. For more socially able white knights, this often manifests in the form of oddly close female friendships; for more "omega" personalities, it often manifests in irrationally promoting feminism and virtue-signaling online.
There is a confounding factor in this dynamic: because of his effeminacy, the white knight is to some degree sexually loathsome to women; indeed, the more he tries to prove his worthiness by placing her at the center of his orbit, the less masculine he seems—and so the less sexually interesting. This does, of course, cover a spectrum. Some white knights are naturally "alpha" men who have been feminized, and tend to be able to rely on their physical magnetism and natural charisma to command some interest from women, even as those women find themselves conflicted about their interest. At the other end of the spectrum is the fat neck-beard feminist, who would have trouble being attractive to women regardless of his psychology. But whatever his natural assets, the white knight's conditioned effeminacy is a handicap to his desire for female affirmation—affirmation which reaches its fullest expression in female sexual interest. This creates a vicious cycle of frustration and desperation.
Problem 2: launching too early
The second manifestation of the white knight's failure to detach from the maternal world can take the opposite form to not entering the world of men. Instead, he is forced prematurely to take on the masculine burden of performance in his family. We discuss this problem in our podcast episode about son-husbands with Ken Curry.
Essentially, due to a weak or absent father, plus a needy mother, the burden of performance falls on the young son's shoulders before he is ready for it. This seems to be a pathology more common to boomers. It conditions the white knight into a kind of martyr complex for women. All women are filtered through his view of his mother, around whom his world revolves. This, too, has serious implications:
Schizophrenia about women's agency and abilities
The premature burden of performance stamps a child-like view of his mother onto the white knight's psyche. It is very messed up, and very sad; she is in some ways a goddess to him, with goddess-like problems that he is permanently inadequate to solve—because, well, he's a child.
This makes his grasp of women's agency very confused. On the one hand, they are higher beings, deserving of greater reverence than men (but cf. Eph 5:33 KJV); on the other, they need a man—him—to protect them and provide for them. Women, in his mind, are paradoxically able to do anything a man can do, plus in heels, yet at the same time are also delicate flowers continually in need of saving. A perfect illustration of this is in how white knights will insist that women can enter and excel in masculine domains, but simultaneously insist that the rules of these domains be changed the moment they present challenges that the feminine nature is not suited to face. One high-profile example in our circles has been the demand that Aimee Byrd be taken seriously as a public theologian, but simultaneously never face vigorous criticism or answer hard questions.
The white knight acts erratically here because he has a deep-seated anxiety about living up to his childish understanding of the burden of performance; of saving the woman who is simultaneously the one looking after him.
More than a confused view of agency, the fundamental mindset of a white knight extends into a kind of functional gyneolatry, where he does not actually conceive of women as sinners at all. Men are pigs with base appetites; women are angels with a natural bent toward virtue (but cf. Scripture, where angels are universally male). Men are grunts, made for labor and hardship; women are finer creatures. The natural inference here is that men are therefore essentially designed to minister to women's whims, which leads to a kind of willing servitude; a desire to save her from whatever situation she is in, regardless of how ridiculous. His implicit mentality is that, whatever her plight, it must have been caused by other men—and because of the collectivist mindset that goes along with his feminization, this makes her problem vicariously his fault. This is part and parcel of how the servant leadership paradigm, which transforms leadership into servitude, has become the default and unquestionable view of complementarians. It is visible in everything from the now-standard tradition of the man kneeling before his girlfriend to propose, to marriage counseling which implicitly assumes the husband is the sole problem, to the Duluth model that has no category for domestic abuse against men. We even know of one pastor who demanded that a man in his congregation explain what his sin was that had caused his wife to commit adultery!
Suspicion of other men
As much as the white knight views women as goddesses, he commensurately views all other men as probable devils. Any man who does not share his outlook is a threat to women, and therefore evil. For a man to challenge a woman is a sure sign that he is an enemy, regardless of how justified the challenge is. Remember, this is a kind of arrested development; a white knight responds to challenges to women much as a child would respond to someone attacking his mother. Moreover, because of his collectivist mentality, to challenge any one woman is to challenge womanhood itself.
The white knight has a fundamentally child-like outlook on women, and so he conceives of them as both above him, but also beyond him. He buys wholeheartedly into the concept of the feminine mystique. As a child, his mother's problems seemed immense; larger than life; and certainly beyond question as authentic; indeed, they defined his reality. Stuck in this immature way of thinking, all women's problems tend to be artificially magnified in his eyes, taking on unrealistic significance, and requiring that he invest absurd amounts of his own ego into them. He is thus prone to credulously accept manifest fabrications, and also to greatly exaggerate even genuine issues. This simultaneously fuels the fantasy of himself as a special class of man uniquely willing to face these monsters. The #MeToo and #BelieveHer movements could never have gotten off the ground without this mindset, let alone so rapidly gained steam.
Thus the white knight's natural masculine desire to protect women becomes twisted into a vicious parody of itself. Though he imagines himself one of the few men virtuous and courageous enough to stand up for women, he is in fact a tool, easily manipulated into wickedness, and too craven to acknowledge his error.
It is easy to think of this in terms of online keyboard warriors, and to write it off as merely sad. But white knights live in the real world too, and they cause immeasurable damage because they often seek positions of power and authority which they can use to further their agenda of protecting and pedestalizing women while policing those rascally men who want to hurt them and keep them down. Since this is the lens through which they interpret reality, they can often fundamentally invert what is actually happening right in front of their eyes, putting evil for good and light for darkness. Even those who aren't in leadership positions are easily weaponized, as in the case of this man beaten to death on the mere accusation of sexual assault.
The end of the matter
The words of king Lemuel; the oracle which his mother taught him. What, my son? and what, O son of my womb? And what, O son of my vows? Give not thy strength unto women, Nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings. (Proverbs 31:1-3)
The white knight is as pitiable as he is vile. He is unable to get the sexual interest he desires from women, and his world unnaturally revolves around them in a way that grates against the grain of his natural masculinity. But he also finds himself an outsider to the masculine world—even as his larping demonstrates that he longs to enter it.
Because his psychology is so unnatural, so inimical to God's design for masculinity, over time it produces a lot of hidden resentment and loathing. This is directed inward, toward himself, but also outward. His relationship with women, especially, is the worst kind of ambivalence; responsibility without authority, desire without reciprocation, pedestalization without warrant.
A disordered hierarchy is central to the war on gender, and the white knight is an unwitting pawn in Satan's Western Campaign. Thinking he is wise, he becomes a fool; presuming himself a player, he is played.
In giving his strength so thoroughly to women, making them his mental point of origin and his locus of control, which is contrary to nature, he suffers a cognitive dissonance that produces hateful behavior. He directs this toward both women and men who will not affirm him and his views. This cannot be healed without repentance.