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You Win Fights By Being More Willing to Permanently F-Up The Other Guy*
April 1, 2013 9:44 AM   Subscribe

"I would advise you when You do fight Not to act like Tygers and Bears as these Virginians do - Biting one anothers Lips and Noses off, and gowging one another - that is, thrusting out one anothers Eyes, and kicking one another on the Cods, to the Great damage of many a Poor Woman." Thus, Charles Woodmason, an itinerant Anglican minister born of English gentry stock, described the brutal form of combat he found in the Virginia backcountry shortly before the American Revolution. Although historians are more likely to study people thinking, governing, worshiping, or working, how men fight -- who participates, who observes, which rules are followed, what is at stake, what tactics are allowed - reveals much about past cultures and societies.
"Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch" The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry

Cultured Easterners like Phillip Vickers Fithian and Europeans like Charles William Janson and Thomas Ashe often made note of what they considered shocking levels of brutal violence and disfigurement they encountered in brawls and public fights during their respective travels in the American South of the 18th and 19th C. In particular, the densely forested and mountainous backcountry, whose population drew heavily from the Northern border region between England and Scotland, and who maintained the requirements of Honor Culture: violence as response to perceived challenge to personal honor (no matter how petty or ridiculous the cause seemed to outsiders), risk-taking for its own sake, and emphasis on etiquette and propriety in social interactions.

Where a gentleman’s duel was cool, civilized, structured, private, and reserved for the upper class, backwoods rough-&-tumble fights were boisterous (often drunken) affairs with howling boasts and an avowed lack of structure or rules, in the presence of a boisterous, howling (often drunken) audience. They existed in an alternate system of honor for those without wealth or property, but who were still white men in cultures that held black slaves.

By the 1840s, the Bowie Knife became the popular option for ending rough-&-tumble fights, to be supplanted a little later by the revolver.

In “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor” sociologist Peter Berger contrasts the demise of pre-modern honor with the rise of modern concepts of inherent dignity. Honor has no standing in most modern legal systems, and the ones that do are generally viewed as quaint medieval holdovers. As Gorn notes:
Honor is an intensely social concept, resting on reputation, community standing, and the esteem of kin and compatriots. To possess honor requires acknowledgment from others; it cannot exist in solitary conscience. Modern man, Berger has argued, is more responsive to dignity - the belief that personal worth inheres equally in each individual, regardless of his status in society... Naked and alone man has dignity; extolled by peers and covered with ribbons, he has honor.
___
*Warren Ellis (GRAPHIC comic book violence as demonstration of title quote)
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey (55 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just want to say that the kittens completely make this post.
posted by schmod at 9:48 AM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Harvey Logan: Guns or knives?

Butch Cassidy: Neither?

Harvey Logan: Pick!

Butch Cassidy: I don't want to shoot with you, Harvey.

Harvey Logan: [draws a big knife] Anything you say, Butch.

Butch Cassidy: [low voice, to Sundance] Listen, I don't mean to be a sore loser, but when it's done, if I'm dead, kill him.

Sundance Kid:
[low voice to Butch] Love to.

[waves to Harvey and smiles]


Butch Cassidy: No, no, not yet. Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out.

Harvey Logan: Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!

[Butch immediately kicks Harvey in the groin]
posted by Rangeboy at 9:52 AM on April 1, 2013 [26 favorites]


An "Experimental Ethnography".
In 3 experiments, they were insulted by a confederate who bumped into the participant and called him an "asshole." Compared with northerners-who were relatively unaffected by the insult-southerners were (a) more likely to think their masculine reputation was threatened, (b) more upset (as shown by a rise in cortisol levels), (c) more physiologically primed for aggression (as shown by a rise in testosterone levels), (d) more cognitively primed for aggression, and (e) more likely to engage in aggressive and dominant behavior.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 10:12 AM on April 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


I don't care how you fight. I just wish this was the soundtrack.
posted by Fizz at 10:18 AM on April 1, 2013


I've noticed that this is true of wives or girlfriends, too, who, in my experience, choose to skip escalation and go straight for the nuclear option at the onset of hostilities.
posted by notyou at 10:39 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Some great stuff here, thanks. This was touched upon with the same link in a less in-depth fpp a while back.
posted by KingoftheWhales at 10:41 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


CRAP, I don't know how I missed that earlier post. Foo.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:51 AM on April 1, 2013


If it's consolation, I've been trying to find that first article again for years now. Thanks. (And one on communal drunkenness in early America, if you happen to have it too.)
posted by postcommunism at 11:01 AM on April 1, 2013


(Might have been the same article, now that I go through it.)
posted by postcommunism at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that "honor" has become stigmatized in polite society for much the same reasons that "BDSM" is often stigmatized - because the people who practice it in a healthy and rational way often keep a low profile about it in order to blend into society better, so what people end up seeing (and what ends up as the "public face" of the concept) tend to be the exhibitionists. For example, when most people think of the concept of "honor" I think they often erroneously visualize some testosterone-driven ape punching another guy in the jaw over a verbal insult (or some other similarly stupid outburst of temper that is bound to get one in trouble with the law). Similarly, my vanilla friends tend to think - incorrectly - that the fetish scene is comprised of the polyamorous exhibitionist types that you see making out in fetish clubs. But just as there are plenty of kinky people who maintain a conservative exterior to blend in with society, I've also met people who followed what I can only think of as an "honor system" but in a more law-abiding way - for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career. I think that it's important to distinguish between these two honor-based methodologies, since one is an outmoded relic while the other is still alive and well even at the highest levels of society.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:22 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


When I was young my dad taught me there was never a reason to start a fight at school.

Then he told me if I ever started getting beaten up by someone that I should hold my fist tight so that it's like a rock at the end of my arm.

"Because, Son... if you do have to fight for something... Win."

One of the many reasons I love my dad.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:47 AM on April 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've also met people who followed what I can only think of as an "honor system" but in a more law-abiding way - for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career.

And what could be wrong with that?
posted by shakespeherian at 11:51 AM on April 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've also met people who followed what I can only think of as an "honor system" but in a more law-abiding way - for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career.

I'd like to stigmatize that as heavily as possible. It combines the barbarism of traditional duels with weaselly cowardice.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:54 AM on April 1, 2013 [16 favorites]


There are a number of areas in which Malcolm X and I would disagree, but I fully endorse the following:

"Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery."

This is not INTERNETTOUGHGUY advice. If you follow the first half of the quote and someone is looking to put a hurt on you anyway, you can safely assume that he (or she, but almost certainly he) is looking to do you serious harm.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 12:06 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've also met people who followed what I can only think of as an "honor system" but in a more law-abiding way - for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career.

As others will no doubt point out (I reluctantly add my voice to the chorus) -- this is actually a really bad thing.

The chances of a "honor based" individual being accidentally slighted are quite high -- its actually pretty normal to go through life and be unknowingly or accidentally hurt by other people -- and it makes little sense to viciously sabotage someone's career or marriage because they accidentally hurt you in some way.

Actually this is why early-modern commentators were so horrified by "honor culture" and it's trappings: because it was very easy for one of life's little happenings (a pig squeezing out of it's enclosure and eating a neighbors crops, for example) turn into lethal duels to the death. There is a reason we leave things like that behind in the past, where they belong.
posted by Avenger at 12:07 PM on April 1, 2013 [12 favorites]


I've also met people who followed what I can only think of as an "honor system" but in a more law-abiding way - for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career.

I'm boggled that somebody can think this is better or at all OK. I'd rather be punched.
posted by kmz at 12:12 PM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't get into fights. Now, because I'm a middle aged guy who has no reason to. But even when I was younger, it wasn't ever really a problem because I'll do just about anything to avoid them.

Not because I was afraid of getting hurt; I get hurt all the time. My fear was always that I wouldn't be able to discern if the fight was a playful we're-just-hitting-each-other-because-we're-drunk versus the first-chance-I-get-I'll-gouge-out-an-eye kinds of fighting and I'd just skip those middle gears and go right to, we're-fighting-so-someone-is-going-to-the-hospital-or-morgue, and things would escalate wildly beyond reasonable proportions.

I'd prefer to use my biting wit and scathing rhetoric to actual biting and scathing, which is what my mind conjures up as viable alternatives.
posted by quin at 12:12 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have a sure-fire system of revenge. I figure out what my enemy most wants in the world, and then I move heaven and earth to make sure they have it. Within six months, they are ruined.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:15 PM on April 1, 2013 [30 favorites]


Do you also make sure they live in interesting times and attract the interest of powerful people?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:26 PM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Do you also make sure they live in interesting times and attract the interest of powerful people?

Do you think me a MONSTER?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:28 PM on April 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


Actually this is why early-modern commentators were so horrified by "honor culture" and it's trappings: because it was very easy for one of life's little happenings (a pig squeezing out of it's enclosure and eating a neighbors crops, for example) turn into lethal duels to the death. There is a reason we leave things like that behind in the past, where they belong.
posted by Avenger at 14:07 on April 1 [1 favorite +] [!]


Um, well
posted by shakespeherian at 12:32 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


According to David Cross, it still goes on.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:33 PM on April 1, 2013


It's okay shakespeherian, since he's only an Avenger in the metaphorical sense!
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 12:45 PM on April 1, 2013


I haven't been in a real fight since middle school, but I like to think that part of that is because of what I learned in middle school as a cowardly, weak kid: I will not fight fair. I will try every cheap, dirty, nasty trick I can because the sooner I can inflict real pain on you, the quicker the fight stops.
posted by klangklangston at 12:50 PM on April 1, 2013


I've also met people who followed what I can only think of as an "honor system" but in a more law-abiding way - for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career.

You've clearly never worked with anyone like this if you think this is any kind of improvement. I've been relentlessly sabotaged at a couple of jobs because someone felt disrespected by innocuous things. I'd rather just hit them a lot and get it over with.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2013


I've also met people who followed what I can only think of as an "honor system" but in a more law-abiding way - for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career. I think that it's important to distinguish between these two honor-based methodologies, since one is an outmoded relic while the other is still alive and well even at the highest levels of society.

Plenty of pile-on on this egregious comment already, but I'd just like to point out that "alive and well" and "outmoded relic" are in no way incompatible.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:02 PM on April 1, 2013


I'd like to stigmatize that as heavily as possible. It combines the barbarism of traditional duels with weaselly cowardice.

I don't think of it as cowardice since the other person is entitled to hurt you in exactly the same way. To me, "cowardice" is hurting somebody who can't fight back effectively (but of course, everyone has different standards and YMMV). As for "barbarism," that's a bit of a loaded word, don't you think? The fact is that while 95% of disputes can usually be resolved with a smile, there's always that 5% of the population that never seems to learn a lesson unless there's some pain involved, so sometimes sterner measures are called for. You call it barbarism, I call it realism. PoTAYto, PoTAToe.

In any case, my overall point wasn't to judge or condemn different people's moral systems, but simply to point out that the "honor system" may not be as extinct as a lot of people seem to think - rather, I feel that it has simply evolved into a different form.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:05 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"cowardice" is hurting somebody who can't fight back effectively

So you notify them before or after the sabotage?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:18 PM on April 1, 2013


"cowardice" is hurting somebody who can't fight back effectively

Character assassination and career sabotage are usually done in secret, like a "duel" where you shoot someone in the back.

As for barbarism, that's a bit of a loaded word, don't you think?

I'm entitled to my views on people who don't speak Attic Greek.

there's always that 5% of the population that never seems to learn a lesson unless there's some pain involved, so sometimes sterner measures are called for. You call it barbarism...

Two thoughts:
- Self-defense and deterring violence with the threat of violence are not barbaric. Principled restraint in the use of force is a mark of civilization.
- I'm not at all sure that corporal punishment is less monstrous than our modern prison systems. Flogging and hanging are less inhuman than lifelong solitary confinement.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:19 PM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


For example, when most people think of the concept of "honor" I think they often erroneously visualize some testosterone-driven ape punching another guy in the jaw over a verbal insult (or some other similarly stupid outburst of temper that is bound to get one in trouble with the law)

Most people? Because when I think of "honor" these days it's "honor killings" done to girls and women who are perceived as having their family's "honor" sullied.

Stories about "honor" often seem to have remarkably few women in them, except as trophies. Women in general have only been allowed "honor" so long as they did nothing, went nowhere, and waited to be sold off like the property they were. Their only honor was in the money or land that could be bought with their untouched and hopefully fertile bodies. Honor was always really about men and property and status-measuring, with women as the frequent casualties.

Honor can rot in the wastebin of history for all I care.
posted by emjaybee at 1:24 PM on April 1, 2013 [15 favorites]


I'll counter Mr. Berger's quote with a fictional one that has always resonated with me:
“Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.”
― Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign
The concepts behind Ms. Bujold's quote suggest that Mr. Berger confuses honor and reputation. On the other hand, I think Ms. Bujold's concept of honor is a more difficult one. Honor, here, requires an individual have a wide-eyed and unflinching capacity for self-reflection. He needs to ask himself "am I doing the right thing?" "Did I just do the right thing?" And he needs to be able to answer that question without hypocrisy or self-deception.

That's a hard thing to do. It's a hard thing to teach. And, it's an easy and comfortable thing to forget.
posted by dafydd at 1:27 PM on April 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


Honor was always really about men and property and status-measuring, with women as the frequent casualties.

Or beneficiaries. Lot of women whose well-being has been guaranteed by men with senses of honor. Lot of women ill-used by men who have none.

Don't buy that north south divide thing so much, either. Plenty of northern cities where you'd best watch your mouth if you know what's good for you.

For those still into books, Honor: A History has things of interest to say
posted by IndigoJones at 1:42 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lot of women whose well-being has been guaranteed by men with senses of honor.

Lots of people have been saved from malaria by sickle-cell anemia.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:02 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


No, I'm pretty sure sickle-cell anemia is not a specific against malaria. You're thinking of quinine.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:06 PM on April 1, 2013


Oops. I meant to click on "What's the secret to a happy marriage?"
posted by NedKoppel at 2:15 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


No, I'm pretty sure sickle-cell anemia is not a specific against malaria

Carriers with one allele for sickle-cell are partially immune to malaria.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:34 PM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've also met people who followed what I can only think of as an "honor system" but in a more law-abiding way - for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career.

Retribution and deterrence are not the primary purpose of violence or of other types of 'attack' in honour cultures as that term is understood by anthropologists. Getting back at people who have slighted you is irrelevant, what matters is that you be seen to get them back.
posted by atrazine at 2:59 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, Deadwood wasn't being gratuitous, just really, really accurate?
posted by Ghidorah at 3:25 PM on April 1, 2013


for example, avenging an insult by sabotaging the other person's social standing, relationships, or career.

No, that's cowardice—same as it ever was.
posted by Dark Messiah at 3:26 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


there's always that 5% of the population that never seems to learn a lesson unless there's some pain involved, so sometimes sterner measures are called for. You call it barbarism...

Corollary: If you think you are the person entitled to dish out that "lesson," you are in fact part of that 5%, because all you understand is force.
posted by absalom at 5:23 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Butch immediately kicks Harvey in the groin

Aw, dude, you left out the best part!

Butch Cassidy: Well, if there ain't going to be any rules, let's get the fight started. Someone count 1,2,3 go.
Sundance Kid: [quickly] 123go!
[Butch immediately kicks Harvey in the groin]
posted by kirkaracha at 7:16 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think of it as cowardice since the other person is entitled to hurt you in exactly the same way. To me, "cowardice" is hurting somebody who can't fight back effectively (but of course, everyone has different standards and YMMV).

Someone who doesn't know you are going to attack them cannot fight back effectively. Merely inflicting pain on someone who made you feel small has nothing to do with honor; honor resides in the judgement of others. It is demeaned publicly and must be avenged publicly to be restored. Merely vowing to inflict pain on anyone who crosses you is not upholding an honor code. Just being a vicious bastard.
posted by Diablevert at 8:29 PM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Someone who doesn't know you are going to attack them cannot fight back effectively.

They might be at a significant initial disadvantage, but this is simply not true unless you get lucky on the coldcock. As the bridge of my nose will testify.
posted by amorphatist at 10:56 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Accomplished in depravity, their habits and education seem to comprehend every vice.
posted by XMLicious at 11:01 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suspect this sort of thing is hardwired into the male psyche, except now we've separated out the boasting (except in professional wrestling). Rap, pubs at closing time, blues, UFC... it'll never go away. Even I wish I had the physical strength to participate in that side of it (I'm fine at the boasting).

That said this does confirm Southern stereotypes.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:54 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I found that the quoted boasts work perfectly as lyrics - they even have the shouts already in them. Are there any text archives or reenactments online?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:32 AM on April 2, 2013


Bugs Bunny, "Hillbilly Hare" (transcript)
Grab a fence post, hold it tight
Womp your partner with all your might
Hit him in the shin, hit him in the head
Hit him again, the critter ain't dead
Wop him low and wop him high
Stick your finger in his eye
Pretty little rhythm, pretty little sound
Bang your heads against the ground
posted by kirkaracha at 6:47 AM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


I suspect this sort of thing is hardwired into the male psyche

Thus Spoke Patriarchy.
posted by absalom at 7:15 AM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm having a hard time distinguishing in this thread which people are using "honor" to mean "personal standard of ethics" and which are using "honor" to mean "habit of overreacting to perceived slights."
posted by straight at 8:48 AM on April 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm having a hard time distinguishing in this thread which people are using "honor" to mean "personal standard of ethics" and which are using "honor" to mean "habit of overreacting to perceived slights."

Given the idea that honor is an obsolete notion in the modern world, it might not be surprising that ideas of what actually constitutes honor have become fuzzy.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:58 AM on April 2, 2013


I was raised with the value of honor. I think the concept was roughly analogous to integrity. Being honorable meant that it doesn't matter what others are doing, andnit doesnt matter the cost to you, and it doesn't matter who is watching (or not) - you do the right thing, even if no one else will ever know. That's why your honor is what no one can strip away from you.

I realize this is different from how honor is often seen but I guess I hadn't realized the extent to which the concept of honor itself has been besmirched (in my opinion), and I think that's too bad.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:24 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now define "the right thing".
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:30 PM on April 2, 2013


The right thing needs defining whether honor is an active concept or not. Maybe your implication is that people or societies who actively use the concept of honor are more likely to define 'the right thing' in ways that are divergent from you or repugnant to you. If your point of view is common among people I respect, then I had better be discreet about my value of honor and concede it to history. But I don't know. What is referred to here as honor I think would be more accurately called 'face' as in 'saving face'.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:40 PM on April 2, 2013


I think "honor" is best understood as one's sense of reputation among "those that count." The devil is in how you define the circle of "those that count" and what you believe is important to uphold that reputation.

It can be a good concept when those definitions lead you to do the right thing and ignore those who would don't like it. And as Salamandrous and others have pointed out, sometimes the definitions get stretched to mean being true to one's own conscience (one's reputation to oneself) and not caring what anyone else thinks.

And, of course, it can be evil if the people's opinion's you care about value bad things, or if you have messed-up ideas about what you need to do to protect your reputation.
posted by straight at 7:46 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


A fascinating post, thank you. I have deep family roots in the South. My ancestors lived there from the mid 1600s on; nearly all were border reivers (or other inconvenient Scottish rabble) who were relocated to Ulster, Ireland by the English, and then later relocated themselves to America. I always enjoy learning more about how my forebears lived, and especially about their thoughts and values. They lived in a very rough world.
posted by Commander Rachek at 8:47 PM on April 2, 2013


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