Two weeks ago, I wrote a column, “A Modest Proposal,” lamenting the Supreme Court’s Westboro Baptist Church decision, and making what seemed to me the obvious observation that it is a philosophical and historical confusion to imagine that the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech ever needed to be interpreted in so barbarically libertarian a fashion. Not that everyone would see it as obvious.
The Constitution was drafted in an age that, whatever its many grievous faults, still understood the difference between a liberty protected by society and an individual license transcendent of society; in the 1780s, any rabble behaving as the Westboro people do would have been arrested, incarcerated, and fined, and no one would have thought this an abridgement of their chartered rights, nor would anyone have pretended that simple prudence is impotent to recognize intrinsically abominable abuses of those rights.
Our age is very different. Today, to suggest that a right to speak one’s mind does not entail a right to express it publically in any fashion one chooses—no matter how cruel, deranged, vindictive, or foul—is for many tantamount to opposing free speech as such.
But let’s not argue. My real reason for bringing the matter up is that, in that same column, I floated the facetious suggestion that, in the absence of any civilized legal restraints on outrages against decency committed while “commenting” on “matters of public concern,” we might perhaps revive dueling, just as a kind of social counterbalance to jurisprudential dereliction.
A former student of mine who keeps an eye on the web (for reasons obscure to me) dropped me a line the other day informing me that most readers got the joke, but that there were also a number who earnestly and even indignantly took exception to the proposal. He even sent me some links to pages where various persons had taken the trouble to try to refute my argument, and invited me to take a look. I declined.
I may be wrong about this, but it does sometimes seem to me that the internet is a remarkably inhospitable environment for irony of any kind. I think the whole medium encourages a habit of reading quickly and carelessly, indifferent to distinctions of genre and tone, and then replying in public only seconds afterward.
The web provides what the older, more ponderously gradual, and more scrupulously filtered media could not: instantaneity without immediacy. There are no benign obstacles between one’s reaction to something and one’s worldwide publication of that reaction—no editors, no printing schedules, no time for second, third, or fourth thoughts—and yet there is also no need to deal with anyone personally, either face to face or through the post.
Of course, I could be deceiving myself. Perhaps the ironic voice has always appealed to only a particular set; it is fairly precious and annoying at times, after all. Or perhaps my deadpan is simply too dead. Over the years, I have had a number of what I thought my most engagingly insincere suggestions or claims, offered in order to make another point altogether, taken in absolute earnest by serious readers: that Americans who like to talk about “culture wars” could always try to out-reproduce the secularists, for instance, or that Bhutan is literally the greatest nation on earth, or that I hope to run into a dryad or two while I am out walking my dog, and so on (though the one about dryads is not altogether untrue). And now dueling.
I would like to blame the readers for all of those misunderstandings, of course, but I might be the principal culprit. It is not as if someone who has never met me can read something I have written and effortlessly hear a particular tone of voice. So let me clarify my remarks. Dueling is a bad idea. It gets people hurt, even killed. Violence is wicked, moreover; even if dueling were legal, it would be immoral, at least from a Christian perspective. Therefore, I do not regard it as a practical or moral alternative to the antinomian individualist ethos of late modern culture.
Anyway, I have a better and more elegant solution. Instead of reviving dueling, I believe we should make a concerted effort to revive the art of the social “cut.” If you do not know what this means, you are a sad victim of this decadent hour. Right up into the early decades of the last century, the term was understood by just about everyone. Cutting is the practice of meeting an acquaintance in public and then obviously—even, in some variants, theatrically—failing to greet or even notice that person.
In that indispensable volume, The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811, “to cut” was defined thus:
To renounce acquaintance with any one is to cut him. There are several species of the cut. Such as the cut direct, the cut indirect, the cut sublime, the cut infernal, &c. The cut direct, is to start across the street, at the approach of the obnoxious person in order to avoid him. The cut indirect, is to look another way, and pass without appearing to observe him. The cut sublime, is to admire the top of King’s College Chapel, or the beauty of the passing clouds, till he is out of sight. The cut infernal, is to analyze the arrangement of your shoe-strings, for the same purpose.
The cut sublime, incidentally, is also known as the cut celestial, which is the name I prefer, because it provides a certain vertical symmetry with the cut infernal. Also, if King’s College Chapel is not handy at the crucial moment, feel free to inspect the crown of the Chrysler Building, or a picturesque arrangement of dazzling cumuli, or the softly opaline moon above. And, for the cut direct, you need not cross the street if the traffic is heavy; a brief, cold, impassive meeting of the eyes, followed by an apathetic glance in another direction as you walk by, is enough.
I know it will take some doing to reinstate this invaluable and somewhat esoteric science among us again. Our sensibilities today are nowhere near as delicate and precise as they were in the days when the cut was the most cutting social slight of all. Coarse, self-absorbed, asocial brutes that we are, it will take a considerable application of will and a considerable refinement of our behavior in general to make the cut quite the devastating weapon in the arsenal of social convention it once was. We will have to make an effort to be much more polite in general before so ceremonious a form of discourtesy will have the power to shame the iniquitous among us.
But we can do it. We’re Americans—we can do anything. We may not actually have a civilization up and running at the moment, but with enough of that old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney spirit (“Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”) we can cobble one together from the spare parts we keep in our garages.
Think of it. What a day it will be when the likes of the vicious Westboro clan (and they are a clan, as the congregation is drawn almost exclusively from a single family) shows up for one of their protests, and no one even deigns to notice them. No one looks their way, no one shouts them down, no camera or microphone records their antics. Louts of that sort always crave an audience; it would be remarkably humiliating to them to go entirely unnoticed by a culture that has remembered its dignity.
One other point in favor of cutting. If we could resuscitate the custom, it would also allow us once again to appreciate one of the silliest of jests in what may well be my favorite book in all the world:
At last the Red Queen began. ‘You’ve missed the soup and fish,’ she said. ‘Put on the joint!’ And the waiters set a leg of mutton before Alice, who looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve a joint before.
‘You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,’ said the Red Queen. ‘Alice—Mutton: Mutton—Alice.’ The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.
‘May I give you a slice?’ she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.
‘Certainly not,’ the Red Queen said, very decidedly: ‘it isn’t etiquette to cut anyone you’ve been introduced to. Remove the joint!’ And the waiters carried it off, and brought a large plum-pudding in its place.
For going on a century now, children and adults alike have been deprived of the special added thrill of delight that that line about etiquette provides.
Come to think of it, a new passion for the cut would also allow us once again fully to enjoy the final scene in Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames”, which may be the funniest short story in the English language. The narrator—Beerbohm himself—relates the tale of how he personally witnessed the poetaster Soames sell his soul to the devil, and then tells of his own last encounter with the Prince of Darkness:
Of him I have caught sight several times, here and there, since that day at the Vingtieme. Only once, however, have I seen him at close quarters. This was a couple of years ago, in Paris. I was walking one afternoon along the rue d’Antin, and I saw him advancing from the opposite direction, overdressed as ever, and swinging an ebony cane and altogether behaving as though the whole pavement belonged to him. At thought of Enoch Soames and the myriads of other sufferers eternally in this brute’s dominion, a great cold wrath filled me, and I drew myself up to my full height. But—well, one is so used to nodding and smiling in the street to anybody whom one knows that the action becomes almost independent of oneself; to prevent it requires a very sharp effort and great presence of mind. I was miserably aware, as I passed the devil, that I nodded and smiled to him. And my shame was the deeper and hotter because he, if you please, stared straight at me with the utmost haughtiness.
To be cut, deliberately cut, by HIM! I was, I still am, furious at having had that happen to me.
To recover a proper appreciation of inspired moments of whimsy such as these, the revision of an entire culture is surely not too much to ask.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His “A Modest Proposal” can be found here and his other “On the Square” articles can be found here.