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The Duel, Reconsidered

Minor spats often escalate with no easy out, and the American legal system does a disservice to the disenfranchised. It’s time to bring back the duel.

June 24, 2015

Illustration: Kevin Conway
Illustration: Kevin Conway

Last summer, I was hollered at on the street at 2 am on my regular walk home. This is not unusual. “Let me see that ass, girl.” As if I will suddenly pull down my shorts for this man who was pedaling his low-riding bicycle slowly by as Scott and I walked our own. We were drunk, and I had already been sexually harassed that night, and I could not continue home without satisfaction. Scott knew this.

“Excuse me, sir, let me see your butthole please.”

“What did you say? You some sort of homo?”

“Let me see your butthole please.”

The man kept circling back around to ride by, pedaling up and making wide U-turns on the deserted street, yelling from across the way then turning again to pass us once more. We continued in this way for about a quarter of a mile — he constantly retreating to stay with us as we moved forward toward home, Scott ever polite as he requested access to this man’s anus as an even trade for mine. He claimed it was his neighborhood; we said we had to live there, too. We yelled. We threatened. Scott almost threw his bike at this man. But nothing came of it, and no one felt anything but lingering frustration by the end of the night.

Imagine if they’d dueled.

We’ve gone through cycles with dueling in Western civilization. The original duels in were judicial. Trial by combat upheld law and order in the absence of witness or confession by channeling God’s judgment: Victory was a sign of innocence by divine decree. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, we dueled to uphold personal honor. Injuries to pride could be healed only through a challenge which demanded either retraction or duel. But duels were not simply two men on a field with a pistol or sword; they had codified rules and steps which needed to be followed closely. At each stage, there was a chance for apology, and if it got so far as violence, the fighting stopped as soon as the insulter had enough or the insulted felt his honor was regained.

For the aristocracy, at least, organized dueling was so pervasive that it was a common topic for storytelling. Melville House Publishing has a series of 56 classic novellas, five of which are called The Duel. Conrad, Casanova, Kleist, Chekhov, and Kuprin each chose duels as the pegs for their short novels. These stories belie a certain snarky irony. Look at these silly rich people, the authors seem to be saying, and how they solve their rich people problems. And that’s fair. Kleist’s story tells of German noblewomen who find their chastity in question and the noblemen who risk their lives defending them from shame. Casanova highlights the overly pompous and hypocritically polite nature of the formal dueling sequence, from silly jibe-turned-insult to challenge to solicitation of apology to spar. The authors chronicle petty injuries handled by petty men as if on a kindergarten playground.

But there is also something undeniably appealing about these duels the authors parody. There is a faith, absolute in its strength, that each character possesses. Faith in God to deliver just judgment, faith in honor, faith in one’s own skills. Men who dueled believed in something the way I wish I could believe in anything at all. I admire having something you’d be willing to risk your life for — even if it’s simply the unshakable belief that you are an honorable person — or maybe that’s naïve.

Because when there is only a single ideal that infuses your life with meaning (nationality, pride, god, maybe even poetry), you must protect it by any means. It is what promises you are a person of value in the world; it promises communion with something greater than yourself; it promises relief from the existential dread and isolation that threatens to consume us daily. Violence becomes logical when the ideal is challenged. Things can get ugly.

Princes and viscounts and sheriffs all recognized this, and they outlawed duels in response to newly strengthened values of Enlightenment-era public politeness. Outward displays of useless violence (according to the likes of Ben Franklin) would not be tolerated. Duels happened anyway, though, as violence always does. Men traveled to other countries where duels were legal just to be satisfied, both Pushkin and Alexander Hamilton were famously fatally wounded in later-age spars, and unregulated duels happen even today as men and women accost and kill one another on the street or in their homes.

So I propose the duel, now, in 2015, as a standardized form of conflict resolution. Illegal and unconsented violence occurs when people have no other feasible means of proclaiming and attaining their deserts. Casanova writes in 1780, “If the offended party could simply haul the aggressor before a judge, with the hope of obtaining a stiff sentence in his favor, it’s possible that duels would occur much less often. But as experience shows, he can hope for nothing more than a chilly excuse or a pathetic retraction — which, in the view of some thinkers, seems more likely to spread the stain than eradicate it.” Casanova writes mainly of aristocracy, of those who have the means to prosecute slander. His sentiment, however, also applies to much more serious cases of disenfranchisement.

Underrepresentation has always been pervasively problematic. In each society in every age, certain groups of people have little access to basic and lawful protection from the state. This problem persists even today, as is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Rioting and looting may be the most obvious examples of violence as a last-ditch effort of speech. Too easily forgotten, though, are the suicides in response to sexual harassment, particularly over the internet. For the offender, there is very little consequence for cruel gossip, casual threats, or the illegal sharing of private photos and information (see: revenge porn), but for the victim, repercussions may be catastrophic. Remember Amanda Todd, Tyler Clementi, and Jessica Logan, and know that their violence was also inflicted in response to imposed silence.

And then there are the petty arguments outside bars or on street corners that deteriorate so quickly into brawls because there is no reliable or trustworthy system in place for these people to air their differences constructively. I saw a video, last year, of a boy being shot in the head outside a bar on the street where I work. I watched the silent clip obsessively a dozen times before it was taken down. The shot was so quick to follow whatever remark provoked it, the previously-hidden gun pulled from a pocket in fractions of a second, the shooter unable to exist for a moment longer in a world where the first boy’s words were allowed to stand.

If there was an option to duel, what would happen? Rather than kill or be killed right now no warning, there would be a constructive but still entirely satisfying (not to mention badass and cool) system in place that could lay out the steps for self-regulated conflict resolution. If challenges to duel were issued in response to internet bullying or street harassment or gang turf violations, offenders would have three options: Apologize, fight (in some fair and even and non-lethal way), or face the public humiliation of their cowardice.

Consensual violence, agreed upon ahead of time. Two adults deciding that the only possible means to resolve their conflict, after all other options have been exhausted, is by imposing their physical force on each other. Professional wrestling come to life, in a way, as a means to thrust accountability onto those careless with their words. We might solve the drive-bys in my neighborhood. And Scott and I might be able to defend my honor in true style.

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Join the Discussion (1)

Join the Discussion One comment

  • Daniel Anix

    But aren’t those disfranchised more likely to also be those least likely to be able to inflict violence on others? The disenfranchised, when they need to commit it towards some noble end, spread their violence through the many in a way they can’t do as the few. A duel, however, is by its nature singles (or at most doubles) combat, where the franchised have an advantage, ESPECIALLY when it is non-lethal and pistols/swords are removed from the mixture.

    The poor have less time and money to put into training and generally have poorer health. I’m no “men and women are vastly different” proponent, but I don’t think it is unsupported by evidence that the average man is the physical superior, at least in terms of fist-based violence, to the average woman regardless how individual people match up. The physically differently-abled are, of course, hampered pretty much across the board by definition, as are I suspect most children and elderly.

    I would suspect while in theory a duel is a way for the powerless to take down the powerful, in practice it will become another legal way for the strong to beat upon the weak and a noose for the powerless as it became for many in the past. People will feel obligated to challenge people who have done them a wrong to a duel even when they don’t have the ability to win. Not all of us can have our mothers be the former lover of the Count we are about to duel to save us from our own believed obligations. Furthermore, it takes power away from those who are aware they can’t fight or don’t want to. “Instead of complaining about some guy catcalling you, you should have just challenged him to a duel” will no doubt become the refrain of a duel-era MRA, smug in his “fairness” and “impartiality”. After all, if a woman offended him, he wouldn’t hesitate to duel her!

    Now, there is the possible solution of champions, but I have a vast discomfort with the chief power to right social wrongs (as you propose the duel to be) flowing to the privileged classes, to say nothing that of the practical element that there aren’t going to be a lot of privileged people willing to put themselves on the line. If there was such a fighting force among the powerful waiting in the wings to physically defend the powerless, I don’t know why they are waiting until duels to reveal themselves.

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