On Boundaries and Boundary Violations

Posted on April 12, 2019

“Please don’t, for this makes me feel uncomfortable.” It is all right to say this when Joe Biden tries to kiss you in the neck, I suppose. Saying this is asserting a boundary. But Joe Biden is a powerful man and you can ill afford to make him feel uncomfortable. So you keep your mouth shut. And then you open it, but only years later. “Joe Biden did make me feel uncomfortable when he tried to kiss me in the neck.” Never mind that it was decades ago.

There is something awkward in the way we are struggling with asserting our boundaries, or failing to assert them and then complain, much later, about the offending party.

There were times when honorable conduct - between gentlemen - was very strictly regulated. To get an idea of what it was like to behave like a gentlemam in the 19th century we can do no better than study the rules around the practice of dueling that was then in vogue (although it was officially outlawed in most countries). Or, if this seems boring to you, take some time to watch the musical Hamilton (here is a youtube link). I was unfamiliar with this musical, and I thank Penelope Sands for bringing it to my attention. The musical tells the story of the duel between the then vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury. The duel, in 1804, was fought with pistols. Hamilton fired the first round and his shot hit a tree branch above Burr’s head. Burr’s shot hit Hamilton, who was carried away from the place of action to die the next day. You can read all about it in this Wikipedia article.

The state of animosity in US politics around 1800 is not so different from what we are witnessing today. Indeed, the way Hamilton had “insulted” Burr bears close resemblance to quite familiar insults that are routinely addressed today to the current President and Vice-President of the US. Hamilton had said of Burr that “he will court and employ able and daring scoundrels”, that he seeks “Supreme power in his own person” and that he “will in all likelihood attempt a usurpation”. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Hamilton had poured vitriol over Burr in a number of journal articles in the course of Burr’s race for the governorship of New York, in 1804. Burr’s attempt to remain Vice-President had already been thwarted by a newspaper article which made Jefferson drop his Vice-President from the ticket in the 1804 election. “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” Jeez, that sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? But the way to deal with such “insults” was a bit different two centuries ago than it is now.

In 1838 John Lyde Wilson published a booklet called The Code of Honor. Wilson was a former governor of South Carolina. One of the reasons for publishing his booklet was to avoid duels as much as possible, to regulate those that were considered unavoidable, and to minimize the bloodshed. In the booklet, which you can find here thanks to Project Gutenberg, Wilson tries to regulate the practice by issuing a set of rules for the persons acting as seconds in the confrontation between a challenger (the person whose honor was wronged) and the person who has given offense. It was his hope that a copy of the book would henceforward be stored with every set of dueling pistols.

First Wilson makes it clear that there are cases where challenging an offender to a fight is the proper way to act for a gentleman whose honor is wronged. To fight it out is a proper and reasonable way to right an insult.

If an oppressed nation has a right to appeal to arms in defence of its liberty and the happiness of its people, there can be no argument used in support of such appeal, which will not apply with equal force to individuals. How many cases are there, that might be enumerated, where there is no tribunal to do justice to an oppressed and deeply wronged individual? If he be subjected to a tame submission to insult and disgrace, where no power can shield him from its effects, then indeed it would seem, that the first law of nature, self-preservation, points out the only remedy for his wrongs.

So in these cases, it is right and proper to challenge the offender to a duel.

The indiscriminate and frequent appeal to arms, to settle trivial disputes and misunderstandings, cannot be too severely censured and deprecated. I am no advocate of such duelling. But in cases where the laws of the country give no redress for injuries received, where public opinion not only authorizes, but enjoins resistance, it is needless and a waste of time to denounce the practice. It will be persisted in as long as a manly independence, and a lofty personal pride in all that dignifies and ennobles the human character, shall continue to exist. If a man be smote on one cheek in public, and he turns the other, which is also smitten, and he offers no resistance, but blesses him that so despitefully used him, I am aware that he is in the exercise of great Christian forbearance, highly recommended and enjoined by many very good men, but utterly repugnant to those feelings which nature and education have implanted in the human character.

Those were the days when being a man involved exercising “manly independence” and possessing “lofty personal pride”. It followed from this that one should be prepared to defend one’s honor with sword or pistol. So it was only prudent in those days to devote part of one’s time to a bit of swordmanship and pistol practice.

The quotes are from the preface of The Code of Honor. I find this fascinating reading because it makes clear that much of our sense of boundary violation is culturally determined. Today, the best way to deal with an insult is to brush it off. But I must confess that the idea of challenging someone to a fight still has an appeal to me. The few times I have been in a fight myself was when someone insulted the lady in my company and I lost my temper. In both cases I was not proud of my behavior. But also, in both cases, the ladies could not conceal their appreciation for my gallant bravery. There is perhaps some food for thought in this. The discouragement from toxic masculinity does not always come from the women. The discouragement I need has to come from the martial art that I practice. The ideal in aikido is that one never loses one’s temper. I am still working at it.