Let’s Fight Again

“Shut up your stupid wife,” a cow-eyed, beer-guzzler of north Idaho origin said to a family friend at a basketball game; “she ain’t got nothing good to say.” Mr. Smith (a pseudonym), obviously angered and all too noble, made the prudent decision not to respond to this scamp and his thoughts about his wife. Instead, he sat in silent indignation and waited for the tensions to cool. Observing this from behind, my father muttered this under his breath:

“Looks like rules have replaced honor.”

Rules and a deference to order make instances like the one of Mr. Smith all too common. It is moments like this, happening hundreds of times a day all across our social strata, that eat away at the value of honor in our communities. The insane number of rules that govern moments where honor is challenged pose a threat to the value of honor in political and social life. Decent men like Mr. Smith no longer have an outlet to assert themselves and challenge an offense. Doing so has been outsourced to third parties, be it lawyers, judges, or police officers. This has prevented people from intervening on their own behalf, and the social consequences are grave to both the offended parties and the offenders.

To do what was once acceptable—challenging a man who has offended your wife’s honor---is precarious in the eyes of the law. Mr. Smith could face misdemeanor charges, court dates, large fines, and possibly 6 months to a year in jail. Getting punched or whatever else would be the best thing that ever happened to the buffoon whose utterance was so odious. It could all pile into a near bankrupting fine for Mr. Smith, who as a good husband and father, was in no position to risk his time, money, and future on the idea that an uncivil man would recognize his incivility, restore his own honor, and not be petty.

We are all impotent under the weight of bureaucracy, and it diminishes our sense of self-respect as honor is stripped of its status. The “network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform,” as the great writer Alexis de Tocqueville once described, has debilitated the most energetic and willful among us. None can “rise above the crowd” in defense of himself or those whom he loves.

Restraining the reign of rules could restore honor as a social good and recover the much-needed sight of the noble in action. It could provide decent people the opportunity to assert themselves without needless risk. In moments when the honor of good men and women is compromised, there must be a zone in which something like fisticuffs is not only warranted, but encouraged. The rules of honor, which used to manifest itself in the dueling of pistols and swords, should be recovered in this modern age of codified rules and finger-wagging bureaucrats.

Self-respect would not be the only thing we gain from challenging the bureaucratic order of safety regulations and rules, for the old sense of honor served another purpose: it incentivized self-discipline for people inclined to be nasty. A social convention of accountability makes us all better, and one look at a cesspool of hateful tweets proves that self-respect for an offended person is not the only thing that has been lost. Offenders have an unhinged license to say whatever they will, and this removes the incentive to be decent to one’s fellow man.

Of course, the dueling ground of “demanding satisfaction” was extreme and untenable. The subjectivity surrounding a personal offense is hard to measure, and many men have been needlessly lost in the pursuit of glory and self-respect. But this does not mean the line to be crossed is unidentifiable. Life supplies us with clear instances like Mr. Smith’s, and if our laws supported a social convention for something like fisticuffs, we could cautiously restore a much needed good in our political and social lives.

Bringing back avenues for men and women to navigate nasty offenses could improve everyone’s sense of self-respect and discipline. I love the idea of Mr. Smith nobly asserting himself on behalf of his wife with the confidence things would be alright. It would have provided the opportunity for a courageous ferocity to prove itself a force not to be reckoned with. Justice would have arrived, and everyone would have recognized it. In this hyper regulated and litigious society, let’s relax some of the rules and provide ourselves with individual means of recourse. From this, we could all stand to benefit.

When the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass was sent to a slave plantation to be broken in, he was whipped ferociously for weeks by Mr. Covey, an insufferable master known for his ability to torture “uppity” young men into submission. Douglass had none of it, and one day, after an especially fearful encounter, he challenged Covey to a fight. For hours, the two rolled around in the mud and hay, punching and wringing one another. Covey would never again bother Douglass.

Recalling the tussle with the old slave master, Douglass mentions a quote by Lord Byron saying, "He who would be free must himself strike the blow." It is fitting in our own time that we recall this condition for a free and noble life. Let us strike the first blow, and cautiously establish communities that will once again recognize that as a good.