04 June 2016

Do we need to bring back flyting?

This post is something of a brief follow-up on my treatment of Northern European honour cultures, and how their normative expectations on interpersonal and group conduct run agonal to both libertarian free-speech norms and campus political-correctness culture. It was my contention – roughly speaking – that the dright of Late Antiquity would regard the political-correctness boosters as cowards, and libertarian free-speech advocates as fools. Not long after I posted that, unfortunately, left-wing Providence blogger and former Demos contributor Matt Bruenig got fired from his job for getting a bit salty with Neera Tanden. (And, quite honestly, I find it quite hard to blame him for that.) This was at the behest of Tanden’s defenders – among whom are Sady Doyle, Joshua Foust and Jordan Kay – who had been literally harassing him and his wife at their places of work and attempting to get them both fired, meeting with success with Demos, but (thankfully) not with any further success anywhere else.

It is interesting to me that Tanden’s defenders, who were basically acting from a position of power and using their power indirectly to wreck the careers of two people far less powerful than they were, used the language of honour to justify their actions. Actions which, by the way, I still think are cowardly and gutless (a point on which I am in agreement with Sam Kriss). But if you ask them about their motivations, they would probably tell you that they are acting in the best interests of professional women by removing people who offend them. Taking up where Kriss leaves off, and with reference to my original post about honour culture, I would like to make the following Swiftian modest proposal: we should bring back the noble, traditional English art of flyting.

That’s right. I think we should set aside formal venues where two people can stand up and have a go at each other with personal attacks in verse, including attacks on each other’s sexual preferences, parentage and lack of moves. And the winner has to treat the loser to drinks.

For a bit of historical context: verbal sparring, replete with personal attacks, was essentially one of the traditional honour culture’s most effective safety valves. It was one that prevented arguments from turning into duels and duels from turning into feuds. Flyting, at its most effective (and it wasn’t always effective) would prevent powerful cowards like Tanden’s, um, ‘posse’ from doing exactly what they did to Matt Bruenig. And if this sounds familiar at all, that’s because the safety valve proved so effective that it was adopted by the honour culture that many American blacks inherited from Western Africa, and which was culturally reinforced during the era of slavery.

We’re basically living in an age, now, where half the people are running their mouths without thinking of the consequences and the other half are censoriously trying to police what everyone else thinks—without thinking of the consequences. Our culture has basically been warped to the point that we are expected to hold ourselves always to the standards of angels (at least in public), but this has done nothing but provoke a backlash among people who feel that they are not allowed to express themselves. Holding rap battles like this for people who get into flame wars on Twitter would hopefully bring back some measure of sanity and proportion to a world where such things have outsized real-world consequences.

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