Monday, October 29, 2012

Newsflash: People Like To Fight With Other People

My whole life I've been confused about the whole thing that goes down when guys fight with one another.  You know, like when they fight in a bar, or when they fight because one guy feels insulted by another, or whatever.   

I mean, I get that someone could make you so angry you'd feel you have to hurt them.  And I get that you could be so angry that you would temporarily lose the moral sense, and thus lapse into barbarism and murderous rage. 

But the typical guy's bar fight does not seem to include a lapse into barbarism and murderous rage.  In fact, the participants often do not seem intent on annihilating one another, and they do not seem to have lost the moral sense.  On the contrary, there's a notion of fair play, of honor, of not going too far.

And that's what I could never understand.  Because if you're still operating within the idea of fairness and honor, if you haven't lost the moral sense, then aren't you able to think to yourself, "surely there's a better way to resolve this than hitting another person?" 

And if you aren't operating within the idea of fairness and honor, if you have lost the moral sense, why aren't you going all out?  Why not, for example, kick a guy in the balls, which is what guys tell women to do if they're being attacked?  But your typical guy's fight never includes that. 

It doesn't make any sense.  I don't know if you've read The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy.  Though brilliant, this is a book filled with grim events and sad surroundings.  You'll have some insight into the character of the main guy Henchard when I tell you that he makes the story happen when, in the first few pages of the book, he auctions off his wife and child while drunk.  

Over the course of the book, Henchard comes to regard as his archenemy a Scottish guy named Farfrae who is a kindly cheerful type, and at a climactic moment, Henchard arranges for them to fight -- to the death, it seems, at least from Henchard's own point of view. 

But guess what he does, this Henchard.  He ties one arm behind his back.  To make it a fairer fight.

When I got to that part I was seriously like "seriously, WTF?"  I mean, if you're thinking fairness, if you're thinking within the moral point of view, why aren't you just calling off the fight in the first place?  Somehow killing Farfrae with both hands is one thing, while killing Farfrae with one hand tied behind your back is another thing entirely?  It's bizarre. 

As time has gone on I've formed a few hypotheses about what is going on with this whole thing.  I'd say the most plausible one is that some people -- of both sexes -- like to fight, and want to hurt one another, but recognize subconsciously that certain things will make fights so unseemly that they won't be allowed to get away with it.  If a fight involves a guy being kicked in the balls, if a fight involves any dramatic mismatch of talents, that's unseemly.  If you're in a friendly environment, you can't fight to kill the other person:  no one will let you get away with that. 

The nod to fairness and honor is there to make sure fights get to happen.  That's what makes it all possible. 

Maybe I'm the only one shocked or surprised by the idea that people actually want to fight and to hurt one another, not only when they're in a murderous rage, and not only as part of some screwy sport, but just as a part of like fun stuff to do. 

Or maybe I'm not.  The great eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume thought that people were naturally inclined to want the best for one another.  "Would any man willingly step on another man's gouty toe?" he asked, to which the obvious answer is "yes, they do it all the time."

But Hume saw in us a wonderful warmth of human nature, in which we desire to see one another prosper.  For all my other faults, I'm basically part of this Humean Kingdom of Friends:  I smile at the smiles of others, and do not like to see other humans sad and suffering. 

The more times goes on, though, the more I realize a lot of people aren't with me here. 


Tim said...

I think your hypothesis is correct. Even a fight to the death, in some social contexts, has to be fought in a manner that makes winning worth wanting. One's willingness to seek utterly dominant wins (except in self-defense, versus an obnoxious aggressor) is apt to provoke others to perceive one as a threat to civil society more generally. The prospect of their disapproval (in various strengths and manifestations) might make it worth risking defeat by creating a more even fight.

I assume this is mostly genealogy or functional analysis, though. Psychologically, the immediate motivation is probably just that fighting all-out isn't the Done Thing.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Tim, your comment highlights, I think, the commonalities between fighting and competing in a contest or game -- which is probably part of what in my psychology made the thing puzzling to me in the first place!

And yes, I agree -- it's a description of some underlying thing, not of the conscious motivation.