Bringing Back Dueling in the 21st Century: A Primer

It’s time to bring back dueling, in a limited fashion. There, I said it. This is not a popular opinion, I am sure, but in my opinion, it is something sorely needed today, as an answer to the toxic online culture where outright lies and defamation of character is all too common.

First, let’s talk a bit about why we need it, and why it is a practice that had been banned and fell out of favor.

Anyone who has spent time online these last few years knows that false accusations and other forms of character defamation are omnipresent. People have been called racists, sexists, Nazis, harassers, and many other pejorative things. Now, this is nothing new: people have always called each other names, and in general that certainly is not duel-worthy. However, many of these defamatory statements, while technically legal, do have consequences for the target. To name just a few examples, no less than three authors I am familiar with were banned or disinvited from conventions this year due to such false accusations. A few years back, a woman made an off-color joke on twitter before taking a flight to Africa, and by the time her plane landed she was fired from her job because of a twitter mob who wanted her to be punished for the joke. These destructive online accusations have power, have led to serious damage to the targets, and the perpetrators have almost no recourse to protect themselves or seek any sort of financial and emotional redress. Even if such comments crossed a legal line, many victims cannot afford to go after their accusers.

In short, there is a lack of decency in today’s society, and most of the time there is no way for those wronged by lies to get recompense.

However, if we brought back dueling, it would put a stop to this madness.

How would it work?

Those aggrieved by reckless and illegitimate accusations would be able to challenge the accuser to a duel. A dueling board would have to determine if the person making the initial allegations can present enough hard evidence to back up their accusations (that a jury or otherwise independent panel can verify), or they are willing to make formal apology, retraction of their comments or deeds, and potentially monetary payments to cover any damage their accusations caused.

The restitution would need to be more than simply stating that “I’m sorry,” because the damage is usually too severe for such a limp statement. They would also not be able to issue a brief correction, because these after-the-fact corrections are never seen by anywhere near as many people as the original accusations. The accuser and victim may also agree to a plea bargain at any time. I should also point out that the dueling board does not handle anything that is directly illegal under the law- all criminal actions found in the wake of the dueling investigation will be handed over to the proper authorities.

The accuser’s apologies and truthful corrections must be made truly substantial and visible, and it would have to impress to the accuser and to the public that such actions are not tolerated in civil society, and harsh penalties will be meted out if they act irresponsibly. Additionally, to be fair to everyone involved, the option for a true apology would remain open all the way to the actual start of the duel, which should remain the weapon of last resort for the dueling board and victim.

However, there is another layer to the dueling board’s responsibilities. What happens when the accuser refuses to apologize (and doubles down)? If the dueling board has determined that penance (apology, corrections, etc) is required and the accuser doesn’t apologize, the aggrieved party would be able to name the time and place of the duel and would have the ability to choose how it is fought. This is important because it will help prevent, say, a marksman from seeking out duels simply for the sake of fighting, or people who are overly confident of their chances and thus hurl accusations at people they don’t like to get an opportunity to harm them.

Duels may be fought with pistols, swords, fists, or perhaps other weapons. Additionally, there would be three types of duels: First Blood, Submission, and To the Death. First Blood would obviously be the baseline, though the chosen type would be decided by some combination of aggrieved party’s choice and an official ruling on the severity of the original offense. Yes, I mentioned an official ruling- I will explain that in a bit.

Additional provisions would be that, if the same party makes duel-worthy accusations against the same person multiple times (three, for the sake of argument), they would lose the right to simply apologize and pay and would be compelled to duel. A repeat offender to a specific victim, would eventually have the dueling board up the punishment to a more severe and dangerous type.

Finally, all duels would be overseen by official representatives, with medical personnel present, and livestreamed. Why should they be livestreamed? Because that way people will see the consequences of certain actions and perhaps think twice before doing something of a similar nature. Additionally, as we have seen from the success of streamers, money can be made this way, and such donations could theoretically help fund the Duel Oversight Committee.

Now, I mentioned official oversight earlier. Part of the reason dueling fell out of favor is because it became an increasingly private affair and outside the law. It was also reserved for the upper class. Additionally, the challenging of duels for frivolous offenses was a problem that caused many to see the practice as barbaric. It was simply too easy for someone to seek a duel for ticky-tack reasons, which turned dueling culture into something negative and was ill conceived. Official oversight, as outlined below, would mitigate these issues.

The problems of dueling culture in the 19th century would not exist today because the damaging sorts of accusations in the present are made in public. Thus, a Duel Oversight Committee would be set up (if we’re talking about the United States, it could be a federal one or there could be separate ones for each state) that would:

  1. Determine the veracity of the slanderous claim, as well as the severity of it and the damage that it caused.
  2. Play a role in determining what exactly the apology and monetary compensation would be needed should one choose that option and play a role in deciding the type of duel to be fought
  3. Arrange a time and place, according to the type of duel and chosen weapons, as well as setting up the livestream.
  4. Provide official oversight of the duel itself, as well as medical personnel.
  5. Be responsible for determining the identity of an accuser, should one, say, make such accusations from an anonymous account. This is a controversial step (more so than this whole proposal, I mean), but would be necessary to prevent people from circumventing the consequences of their actions.

As distasteful as some might find this proposal, it would force our culture to become more polite and dissuade people from casually throwing out defamatory statements. Everyone would have skin in the game and be forced to face the potential, real-world consequences of their actions and comments. Internet mobs and the heckler’s veto would no longer be a viable option to silence the opposition.

This is meant only as a brief primer, not as a complete, fully outlined legal code. All of this can be more refined, and other regulations could be added, such as whether certain people, such as public officials, should be immune from dueling challenges made to them and/or from making such challenges themselves. However, that can be hashed out later on.

Just as I was finishing this, another incident occurred. During s panel at WisCon 42, panelist Lisa Freitag sated to suggest that when using common villains like Nazis or Confederates in fiction, it is advisable to understand those characters, to make them more than just genetically evil because of what they represent. I don’t think she even went as far as to say that Nazis and Confederates, however evil, are still people worth understanding (which they absolutely are, especially if one wants to lean anything about what created them), but she was immediately attacked at the panel, later kicked out of the convention she had frequented for many years, and is being labeled a “Nazi and Confederate apologist.” Online, the attacks on her have only escalated, with some even saying that Freitag, whose actual career is apparently as a pediatrician and medical ethicist, is patently unfit for the job on account of “racism.” This has the potential to severally damage her career and reputation as a whole, beyond the damage already done. And with the way things are right now, I don’t know how UCB she could do to properly clear her name and dispel the lies. This system could help here, and severely cut down the occurrence of similar instances. After all, as we know well, the vast majority of these people throwing out defamatory statements online like this do not have the honor or the guts to face their victims in a duel.

Also, seeing some of the horrendous reactions to the untimely passing of Youtuber/game critic John Bain (Totalbiscuit), kind of makes me want to also propose some sort of system to defend the honor of one who can no longer fight their own duels if defamed, such as the dead or physically infirm. But as I said above, this is just a basic primer, and proposal, to restore decency in public discourse.

Big thanks to my friend Jason Bieber, with whom most of the details of this proposal were hashed out, and who made some editorial suggestions for this post.

Let’s make public discourse honest again, and make our society general nicer in the process.

One thought on “Bringing Back Dueling in the 21st Century: A Primer

  1. There is a dueling board similar to the one you suggest. It is called a jury in a libel suit.

    Dueling was indeed an upper-class phenomenon, very linked to the concept of honor and the status necessary to obtain the highest-quality women as potential mates. In other words, someone challenged to a duel would suffer lower status and be looked down on by his cohorts if he didn’t respond.

    You are proposing that a female pediatrician be allowed to challenge a detractor, probably a male, to a duel to the death, in which she would have, at best, a 50% chance of winning. How is that justice? She’d be insane to risk dying in a situation like that to punish a detractor.

    You can’t separate dueling from the upper-class scramble to obtain and retain honor, reputation and status.

    For the rest of us, a workable solution would be to revamp the libel laws, perhaps expand the legal accountability of libelers, make a lawsuit more accessible to people without the funds to hire an expensive lawyer. This makes recourse accessible to a far greater number of people.

    Let me give you a counter-example to your proposal. Someone says there is a racial difference in IQ population means. A Black claims to be personally offended. A libel board in a very liberal region, like California, rules that the statement, even if made in a scientific context as a research result, is indeed defamatory and worthy of dueling challenge. So anyone making a non-politically correct statement has to worry about a dueling challenge, even as part of a valid study or based on valid studies.

    I think libel laws, damages, and improved access to courts is the way to go. I see no benefit whatsoever in the dueling proposal.

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