Honor has to be asserted and claimed because nature does not make it clear to all concerned what truly deserves to be honored. -Harvey Mansfield
I had a pretty domineering older brother and eventually learned the utility of cunning, misdirection, reverse psychology and playing the “Beta-male.” I even told myself and others that I didn’t care that much about winning, when in fact, that desire had just been beaten out of the realm of plausibility. In reality, I simply hated losing more than I enjoyed winning, which, given my size and the relative frequency of losing to winning, was not entirely unwise. However, each man truly desires victory and becomes sick if he disregards this deep wish, something we have done as a society for over half a century. Ironically, we made such a shift in response to a pervasive opinion that what men desire most is power, superiority, and dominance; that “winning” is either the dangerous genetic imperative of “real” men or the despicable essence of a vile patriarchy that could be eradicated by good social conditioning. Though men do love winning, we have profoundly misunderstood what “winning” has meant in the past or could again mean. Men don’t simply long for competition; they long for a worthy competition, in a culture that cultivates, preserves, and celebrates such worth. At its nastiest, the desire to preserve the worth of such a culture can lead to honor duels and bloodletting, but let’s not hastily conflate this old practice with modern “prize fighting” or schoolyard fisticuffs. We must be a little more discerning.
Pt1 of this series received more attention than anything else I have written, so I will take this as a mandate that my readers are also tiring of various modern myths about masculinity. The myth I was attempting to explode in that piece was that the strong-man has always become king; that the alpha-male achieved this alphabetical priority by means of physical strength. MMA shows promote many such myths about masculinity. Even the idea of a “championship” smacks of the myth from Pt1, as this champion is “crowned” with a golden belt that every young buck is then gunning for. Much is said about a “championship spirit” and how you have no business fighting in MMA unless you are realistically pursuing one of its crowns. The ring-girl is there to “get us started,” as Goldberg puts it; getting everyone excited and full of testosterone, while acting perhaps as the “damsel” in a fucked-up version of the heroes journey where you fight your good buddy instead of a dragon. However, despite all of the theatrics, self-promotion, gloating, and raw individualism on display, men of true honor, such as Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva, will inevitably emerge. Furthermore, despite appearances, MMA is hardly a solitary sport: it is a team sport– more than most actually–only, a single person from the team “represents” at a given time, with the others shouting instructions and encouragement from the corner.
For my part, I truly wish that the UFC and other promotions would return to the reverence and respect that you might find in a Karate dojo when someone spars or tests for a black belt, or, for that matter, the respect that you will see in Japanese fans watching the same sport. Instead, the UFC generally panders to the meat-head action-junky and perpetuates his sickly masculinity with the usual cocktail of beer, tits, and hard hits. However, it gives me courage to see that despite this commodification of fighting skill and spirit, that genuine fighters still emerge and can be seen crying and holding each other on the canvas after a brutal match, covered in each other’s blood and congratulating the other for a spirited contest. Gone are the days, I pray, when a fighter cheers for a win due to a technical fowl or disrespects a defeated opponent with a glib dismissal of his skill. Hopefully we are heading to a period when it is recognized that “winning” is not what is important; a time when winning or losing the right way again merits ultimate respect.
Though we have gradually eroded anything resembling a healthy honor culture, this will not stop human nature from exacting its due and metastasizing this urge into super-hero fantasies and even misogyny, when it is not languishing in cowardice and inaction. Furthermore, something like an honor culture will develop in each little hunting-band of 7-th graders, not to mention any profession that requires physical bravery. It is simply impossible for an organization like the UFC not to develop a “code duello,” thereby providing the rubric for a “fair fight” in its culture. While some of these little sub-cultures might get it right, our society is generally geared toward individual accomplishment, with the result that honor gets tied to winning, while the unifying, community-building essence of honor is entirely eclipsed. This involves a very deep misunderstanding of healthy honor cultures and what they would construe as “winning.” This misunderstanding is often typified by MMA shows, but importantly, instances of true honor in the spirit of healthy competition also emerge, in no small part I think to the positive effects of training in the traditional martial arts.
Most people will think that the picture on the left depicts the “alpha-male,” “the man,” and the born leader. However, the true essence of “winning” involve the granting of respect from those who deserve respect themselves, making the middle and right pictures more appropriate depictions of “winning.” I think Randy Couture deserves more respect for losing to Machida at 47 than winning the belt at 35. Seen as a progression, the above three pictures encapsulate the growth of healthy honor: from individual victory; to the joy of being tested against a peer and making a good showing, win or lose; to finding inclusion in a group of worthy peers based not simply on having “won” at times, but instead, based on how honorably you fought, won, and lost. The true “winners” are dudes who can walk around with a justified confidence while being totally comfortable kissing their buddy on the cheek (I have a ways to go on that front, despite living in the Bay Area). You see, in true honor cultures, even in those that promoted honor duels, the point of competition was not to reveal a “winner” who would lead the people to the promised land, but instead, to maintain a certain kind of culture that was the promised land! The very fact of showing up to a duel revealed you as a winner, just as it served to reinforce the meaning and value of the honor culture in which the competition took place. The point was to ensure that people watched what they said, never slandered the reputation of another, and upheld the value of the honor culture without poisoning it with false-merit or false-aspersions. There was an economy of respect, with fisticuffs and gentlemanly duels serving as the SEC. Now we have a black-market and a mafia, with libel and slander law if you have the time, money, and the nerve to pursue such matters.
Here is Roy Baumeister on the topic:
Many people imagine that fighting a duel was a way to resolve a dispute, as if whoever won the duel was proven right. This is mostly mistaken. True, long ago there was a legal tradition in Europe of using trial by combat to resolve disputes, based on the assumption that the Christian God would intervene to ensure that whoever’s cause was right and just would prevail in the joust. But that belief faded long before dueling ended. Rather, the point of a duel was simply to prove one’s honor and manhood by taking part. In principle, it didn’t really matter whether you got the better or worse of the actual fighting. This is why dueling scars were often marks of respect. Personally, I always wondered why men of bygone eras would be proud of their dueling scars and would show them off. After all, if you had a scar, didn’t that mean that the other person cut you, so in effect you lost? But duels were not about winning or losing. The essence of dueling was that you put yourself at risk of physical harm, as a way of showing that you were serious. By taking part in a duel, you proved that you held your honorable reputation above life and limb. It was important not to back down if you were insulted, and also not to back down if you insulted someone and he challenged you.
There is a huge difference, however, between a competition and a duel. Boys rough-house and cultures hold Olympics far more than they allow the decimation of their youth in trials by combat. Today’s talk of “Alphas & Betas” is just straight bullshit, for the victory of the “Alpha” is only glorious to the extent of his opponent’s strength and courage. To deride your defeated opponent would be to strip yourself of any real accomplishment. Think about it for one second, will you: its not like the defeated “Betas” staid home with the womenfolk and knitted sweaters; they were the men covering your right side with their shield and the left with their spear. Natural male competitiveness is not about “winning” or being “the undisputed champion,” but about achieving some standing in a culture worth defending; it is about finding and building a family; it is about engendering trust and cooperation. Seriously, if humans naturally crown a god-king, the one true leader, why did the Spartans–the most warlike culture of all–have two kings and why didn’t they kill each other? You see, the “god-king” had more to do with the bicameral mind and the “Omega-male” than it did any kind of muscle-bound “Alpha” taking charge by beating everyone in single-combat. Who the hell would be left to lead into battle once this mighty king had dispatched all of his foes? No, throughout history it was perfectly respectable to be what today is crudely referred to as a “Beta-male,” with all but the strongest being perfectly satisfied just to be esteemed a worthy competitor and reliable ally.
To return to the duel, the purpose that loomed larger than protecting one’s petty ego was the protection of a culture where reputation and dignity were more important than life and limb. That was the promised land, foreign as it looks from our veritable Egypt of postmodernism. Furthermore, a man’s reputation benefited the tribe because each man’s courage in the group added to that group’s reputation for strength and courage. I’m quite sure that any Spartan facing the enemy would prefer twenty “Beta-males” at his side to ten “Alpha’s.” They knew how to maintain standards back then.
James Bowman tells us that we are suffering from “cultural phantom limb syndrome.”
Any coherent idea of honor was amputated from Western culture three-quarters of a century or so ago, leaving nothing behind but a few sensitive moral nerve endings that make themselves felt every now and then when our residual sense of propriety and public virtue is outraged and we don’t know why.
Though I agree, I think the phantom wound is far more painful than he lets on. Today, ‘masculinity,’ ‘hero-worship,’ ‘heroism,’ and ‘honor’ are all silly, anachronistic notions that we disparage so that we don’t have to feel bad about our pudgy selves, but in doing so we unknowingly breed a twisted religion of “Alpha-status” that erodes the respect that was meant for both competitors, the winner and loser alike. Trying to create an equal society free of status and superiority is not just foolish, but undesirable; it’s like trying to create a flourishing society where women don’t value having children. Nonetheless, there remain far better means of distributing this status and maintaining its meaning than what we currently employ.
Note added May 5: Remarkably, this “cultural phantom limb syndrome” is actually far more than a metaphor. With actual phantom limb syndrome there is a disconnect between what the somatosensory cortex expects to be pinged by and what the now compromised body has available to ping the brain with. In the “cultural” version, certain ideas and social systems prevent the body from undergoing certain physiological and psychosomatic experiences, including initiation into manhood and so forth, therefore functionally amputating the entire body from a somatosensory cortex, insula, TPJ and all other cortical networks expecting signals of honor and accomplishment from the body. This “phantom pain” explains why an otherwise sane person would step into a cage looking for a “win.”