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How and when do you fight a duel in 2014?
Thank you for your question.
Scholars of language will recognize this query as an express train destined for the early history of the word gentleman. In the 1500s, it was supposed that only a gentleman had the right to a coat of arms—the heraldry that, originally, signified the right to bear arms itself. By the 1600s, studying at least a bit of fencing was de rigueur for fancy lads. For most of the 1700s, “anyone, civilian or military, with pretensions to gentlemanly status would have worn a small sword on a daily basis.” Fighting a duel was an upper-class privilege.
This is a first rule to heed, my gentlemanly reader: If some fellow makes a scurrilous remark at your expense, consider challenging him to a duel only if he belongs to your elevated caste. If the insult instead issues from the chapped mouth of an inferior, then simply give him a quick thrashing with your cane and get on with your day.
I know, I know. We’re trafficking in some horribly anachronistic ideas here: In 2014, an able-bodied man carrying a walking stick looks simply lame. What is this, a steampunk meetup? Many enlightened people believe that dueling is no less antiquated. Indeed, this has been the case since before the Enlightenment. The first French law against dueling was passed in 1559—and promptly disregarded. The last French duel was fought in 1967.
Benjamin Franklin was, in his time, astonished that the “murderous practice” had held on as long as it did, civilization having long outgrown its earliest approved use: “Formerly, when duels were used to determine lawsuits, from an opinion that Providence would, in every instance, favour truth and right with victory, they were excusable.” Franklin is pointing toward the great forerunner of the duel: trial by combat. In medieval times, men settled disputes by crossing swords and trusting that God would guide the correct party to victory. Then we determined that God was too busy following sports to give His attention to such matters and began hiring godless trial lawyers.
Still, the duel had its attractions for a man of status. For one thing, it served to demonstrate that he was a man of status. In its way, it was an institution—one that helped to prop up the fictions that are the foundation of any social structure. It is no wonder that dueling remained socially acceptable in the American South long after 1804, when Alexander Hamilton failed to return to New York from his morning trip to Weehawken, N.J., cementing anti-duelist beliefs in the rest of the country. And it must be said that cultures where dueling is socially approved (even though it may be against the law) are on some level notably polite. I’m sitting here looking at a recent scholarly paper written by historians who “argue that dueling had the ability to deter personal attacks in public conflicts, encouraging rivals to instead focus on the merits of their respective causes.” Need I draw a graph to demonstrate the inversely proportional relationship between the acceptability of dueling and the prevalence of chumps running around talking smack?
Three hundred years ago, you might have reasonably challenged a guy to a duel because he was going around saying that he’d slept with your sister. In 2014, receiving such news, you should probably just give her a high-five and leave it at that. Can you challenge someone to a duel in 2014? I strongly recommend against it, but if you demand the kind of satisfaction that only a fair fight can provide, then take a cue from the Inuit and propose a song duel. Here’s how the Inuit used to conduct affairs of honor in Greenland: You compose a satirical poem extravagantly deriding your adversary. You recite this poem before all the members of your household until they know it by heart. (It would also be good to choreograph a dance.) Then you meet your opponent at the appointed place, where the two of you mock each other all day long, and the wittier of you, as gauged by crowd response, is declared the victor. Call it trial by rap battle.