Dueling: defending one's honor
While I was researching something or other a while back (I think it may have been this post about the causes of war), I came across a brief reference to dueling.
It struck me that dueling seems related to the whole shame/honor question, about which a great deal has been written lately, especially in connection with the Arab world (for example, see this by my good friend Dr. Sanity).
But in this country we have our own--quite different--version of shame/honor. A fascinating book by Fox Butterfield entitled All God's Children, which I read back when it first came out in 1996, deals with some of the more negative consequences of the shame/honor culture that the author feels permeates some areas of the American South.
Here's a good summary of Butterfield's thesis, taken from the first reader review at the Amazon link:
Butterfield argues that the white Southern mentality of easily aggrieved honor has made its way through time and the descendants of slaves, transmuted into the similar hair-trigger ethos of inner-city streets. The family he traces is from Edgefield, South Carolina. This was the home of Rep. Preston Brooks, who nearly beat abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner to death on the floor of the Senate. Butterfield shows that Southern society (of which Edgefield was an extreme example...measured "manhood" by the willingness to use violence in defense of one's "honor." "Honor" is defined as reputation, especially the reputation of being someone who cannot be insulted with impunity.
An emphasis on honor is one of those double-edged swords (an appropriate metaphor, given the topic of this post). Honor, of course, can lead to behavior that is--well, honorable--something any society would certainly want to encourage. But it can also lead to extreme sensitivity to slights to one's honor, or even to perceived slights, and a resultant readiness to use violence to undo or avenge them.
The idea of a duel is something I remembered vaguely from the movies and romantic novels of my youth, as well as from Pushkin, whom I read in college; I tended to look on it as a sort of quaint literary device. But seen in terms of the whole honor/shame culture scenario, it seems to be a dramatic historical example of how such a dynamic used to work in our own culture.
My concept of dueling was as follows: after the insult and the challenge, the two men went with their "seconds" to the forest, stood back to back, stepped a few paces away from each other, turned, and fired their revolvers. A process that seemed very stupid and very strange. But it turns out the whole thing was far more complex than that (isn't everything?), with styles and rules that make the NFL look simple.
Here's an example of one such code that governed dueling in America for a while. The entire undertaking seems to have been rigidly controlled, with various points along the way at which a person could bail through apology (although my guess is that such an apology was rarely, if ever, tendered).
Here are a few highlights:
Rule 16. The challenged has the right to choose his own weapon, unless the challenger gives his honor he is no swordsman; after which, however, he can decline any second species of weapon proposed by the challenged.
Rule 17. The challenged chooses his ground; the challenger chooses his distance; the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.
Rule 18. The seconds load in presence of each other, unless they give their mutual honors they have charged smooth and single, which should be held sufficient.
Rule 19. Firing may be regulated -- first by signal; secondly, by word of command; or thirdly, at pleasure -- as may be agreeable to the parties. In the latter case, the parties may fire at their reasonable leisure, but second presents and rests are strictly prohibited...
Rule 22. Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake, must end the business for that day.
Rule 23. If the cause of the meeting be of such a nature that no apology or explanation can or will be received, the challenged takes his ground, and calls on the challenger to proceed as he chooses; in such cases, firing at pleasure is the usual practice, but may be varied by agreement.
Wikipedia seems to be a font of knowledge on the general course of events that led to duels, and the way they were customarily conducted:
After the offense, whether real or imagined, the offended party would demand "satisfaction" from the offender, signalling this demand with an inescapably insulting gesture, such as hitting the offender in the face with a glove, or throwing the glove before him, hence the phrase "throwing down the gauntlet"...Both parties would name a trusted representative (a second) who would, between them, determine a suitable "field of honour", the chief criterion being isolation from interruptions. Duels traditionally took place at dawn, for this very reason. It was also the duty of each party's second to check that the weapons were equal and that the duel was fair.
At the choice of the offended party, the duel could be:
* at first blood, in which case the first man to bleed would lose;
* till one man was heavily wounded and unable to physically continue the duel;
* to the death, in which case there would be no satisfaction until the other party was mortally wounded;
* or, in the case of pistol duels, each party would agree to fire one shot each, after which the duel would be declared over.
...For a pistol duel, the parties would be placed back to back with loaded weapons in hand and walk a set number of paces, turn to face the opponent, and shoot. Typically, the graver the insult, the fewer the paces agreed upon. Alternately, a pre-agreed length of ground would be measured out by the seconds and marked, often with swords stuck in the ground. At a given signal, often the dropping of a handkerchief, the principals could advance to the marker and fire at will. This latter system reduced the possibility of cheating, as neither principal had to trust the other not to turn too soon. Another system involved alternate shots being taken - the challenged firing first.
This short article mentions the role of the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel as being an important factor in the decline of dueling in America, and also that the practice lasted longest in the South (as one might expect, given its emphasis on honor).
And here we have a discussion of why dueling was so important to upperclass men of the time:
Duels were fought over anything and everything, from revenge for violent crime against a friend, family member or lover, to philosophical, religious or scientific disagreement. It wasn't just stupid young thugs who engaged in dueling, either. In the 1700's, the famous mathematician Galois left the world puzzled when, at the age of 21, he wrote in his notes an incredibly useful formula, with a note attached saying "The Proof is obvious. I shall write it out later", went off to fight a duel, and was killed. Nobody has been able to work out his 'obvious' proof, but the formula works, and forms a key part of a branch of modern mathematics.
So, why would a brilliant scholar go off to a fight he may very well die in, when the worst he would suffer for it by refusing is social ostracism? That is, in fact, the answer. If a nobleman will not defend his honour, then what is his word worth? He obviously doesn't value his own principles, for he will not defend them! Why, then, would anyone take his verbal guarantee on anything? Why would tradesmen do work for him without being paid up front, if he is not a man of his word? Why would anyone lend him money? Why would polite society tolerate him at all? How can judges rule in his favour when his word cannot be trusted? In a society where a person's word is taken as a commitment as binding as any court-order is today, demonstrating that your word is valueless is effectively social death.
A practice that appears irrational and wasteful and destructive--and no doubt is irrational and wasteful and destructive--is not without its purposes, if embedded in the proper context. A man's honor (and that of his womenfolk) was not a little thing, it was nearly everything; and losing it perhaps did seem something worse than death. So, why not risk death to defend it?
Just to make it clear: I'm not a fan of duels, nor am I advocating them (in blogging, I've learned to try to make everything crystal clear in an attempt to defend my own "honor" and head off various slings and arrows in the comments section, often to no avail).
In a sense, what is going on in the Arab world--the sense of desperate and outraged honor and the need to ward off and/or expunge feelings of shame--is not utterly foreign to our culture. Nor is the act of resorting to violence to do so. What's different--and it's very different, so different as to constitute a universe of difference--is the form such violence takes. Old-fashioned duelers would no more kill women and children than they would take an insult lying down; their honor did not allow such acts. The proper course of action was clear and prescribed, and it was specific to the person who had dealt the insult and he who received it.
In the Arab world where terrorists and jihadists are spawned, those inhibitions have been removed. The killing of anyone (women, children, and noncombatants included) who is part of a group identified as the source of insult and shame is not only allowed, but is encouraged by those "spiritual leaders" we've heard so much about. Honor is a double-edged sword, indeed.