The XX Factor

What’s the Manliest Way To Respond to an Insult?

In another age, Kathleen Parker suggested last week, Joe Wilson’s impertinent scurrility would have prompted not a congressional reprimand but a proper duel. So it was with Wilson in mind that I delved into historian Richard Bell’s entertaining new paper on the campaign to end widespread dueling in these United States . The larger story is that of anti-duelists attempting to link dueling and suicide during a bizarre moral panic about self-annihilation in the 1790s. But Bell also writes of an attempt to co-opt ideas of manliness. Whereas Southern men thought dueling necessary to show what manly men they were in the face of threats to their enternal honor, anti-dueling activists would try to claim that it was even manlier to walk away. Dueling was “a refuge for the thin-skinned,” pathetic recourse for the “anguish of wounded pride,” proof of an effete moral constitution. “By engaging in a duel,” declared New Jersey preacher Charles Hoover, “[the duelist] virtually concedes that his character is questionable, and an appeal to arms is necessary to establish it.”

In other words, if you’re so confident in your manhood, what do you need that big pistol for? Hard to say whether this worked, but dueling does seem to have fallen out of favor. And we’re still using Hoover’s preferred rhetorical strategy. Are you so insecure in your sexual orientation, boys? Hoover sounds like no one so much as a modern liberal telling some homophobic frat boys how pathetic they are.