During a recent dinner party, my wife casually emasculated me. She told our guests over a dessert of banana split that if she were ever publically insulted by another man, the prospect of my leaping to her defence was laughable. To be fair, she did a service to the party, which had become a symphony of stifled yawns until our guests perked up at my sudden shaming. They allowed me the dubious concession that I shouldn’t be expected to fight for my wife’s honour, because I would almost certainly be badly injured. They then joined my wife in a vigorous debate about whether it was my lack of height or coordination that would prove my greatest pugilistic shortfall. I tried to laugh along, but as much as this character assassination breathed new life into the party, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt.
It hurt because my wife had hit the mark. If she were under threat of actual physical harm, I like to think I would do whatever necessary to protect her. But if a man – or a large adolescent boy, for that matter – catcalled her, or caller her a bitch, or threw something dirty at her, I would struggle to respond in any other way than to simply pretend he hadn’t. Of all the potential horrors of a physical fight (dirty clothes, humiliation in defeat, pain in the face), what I fear most is the awkwardness, the sheer normative no-man’s land of brawling. I barely have the social repertoire for engaging in small talk with strangers, let alone providing a rationale for punching them. I fear I would say something terribly gauche as an opener, which is to say nothing of the risk of being wedgied. Or soiling myself. Or both at the same time.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this fear of the social risks of fisticuffs. Socrates and Gandhi preached and practised non-violence, even radical non-resistance, in the face of the greatest affronts to their rights. I share in the world’s narrative that this was at least partly because they were both nice guys and vegetarians. I am convinced, however, that an equally decisive factor in their philosophies of non-resistance was an appreciation of the perils of fighting in a toga.
Of course, I wouldn’t need to engage in violence as soon as an adult or big teenaged boy called my wife a bitch. I could be assertive and use my words instead. But any response other than the servile avoidance of eye contact would be liable to eventuate in violence anyway. This would be so even if I were to begin with a perfectly reasonable, respectful reply, something like:
“I don’t like it when you call my wife a bitch. It hurts her feelings. Yes, she can be a bit unpredictable at dinner parties, but bitch is taking it too far.”
One can barely imagine a more assertive yet diplomatic response. Even so, I imagine the offender might reply along the lines of:
“She is a bitch, you bitchfucker.”
See!? See how quickly things can escalate? If he did call me a bitchfucker, I would be instantly mired in confrontation, this despite my being an innocent bystander and the verbal assailant merely arriving at the logical conclusion of his initial appraisal of my wife and the nature of my relationship with her. As I doubt either of us would have the time to argue about her character indefinitely, I would have to pick a moment to undertake some kind of punch or kick or karate chop, or risk the antagonist doing the same to me.
Beginning any physical activity for the first time is awkward. I taught myself to dance at a high school house party. I spent the first few hours silently urging myself onto the garage-cum-dancefloor, but felt an impenetrable threshold between the lonely but secure spot I had eked out for myself on the adjacent backyard lawn, and that foreign realm of trunks and limbs moving about without compunction. I eventually gathered the courage when Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dance Floor came on, as it was one of the most pleasant dance tracks of the day. Sidling up to a poorly-lit spot in the corner of the garage, I held my hands in my pockets, whistled softly, and swayed my body back and forth to what felt like the beat.
The girls on the dance floor stopped dancing to point at me and call me a fag. It was then I noticed that I was in fact the only boy left on the dance floor: the other boys were now gathered on the lawn, pointing at me and calling me a fag. The song’s title took on a sudden and awful significance. To my further horror, I found it was somehow just as difficult to stop dancing as it had been to start, so I continued to rock rigidly back and forth to the rhythm of my peers’ taunts. My only consolation was that, with my hands in my pockets and my mouth occupied with whistling, I was able to refrain from crying until my mum picked me up and took me home. Murder on the Dance Floor remains the only song I have ever danced to.
Starting a fight is likely to be even more fraught. It would require all of my focus and every weapon in my body’s meagre arsenal, which means I wouldn’t be able to hide my hands in my pockets, whistle effectively, or employ any of those measures that helped to prevent a flood of tears on the dancefloor all those years ago.
The next morning as my wife unpacked the dishwasher, I joined her in the kitchen to reflect on our dinner-party discussion. I had come to terms with the fact that confrontation is not my strong point, so I told her I could now see the funny side of imagining me defending her in public. She stopped suddenly, bread knife in hand, and told me gravely that, all jokes at my expense aside, there is a limit to the verbal abuse she should have to endure before I intervene. I was about to protest that I adhere to the philosophies of Socrates and Gandhi, but I realised that I live in a very different world than they did: a world in which togas are mostly obsolete and accidental mid-fight nudity very unlikely. With comfortable and robust undergarments come great responsibility. And in truth, my wife is worth fighting for. For all her dinner party surprises, I plan for her to one day bear my young, and when Murder on the Dancefloor comes on the radio, she holds my hand and tells me she loves me and that everything will be OK.
So, having decided to take on the mantle of protecting her honour, I spent the day brainstorming ways to initiate hand-to-hand combat should my wife ever be defamed in my presence. I immediately ruled out the option of spontaneously and silently punching my opponent, as the recent media furore over coward punches would have me very reluctant to attack without some kind of warning. Instead I considered the following:
Growling. I was initially quite taken by this option, as it evokes a primal, pre-verbal world in which social awkwardness does not apply. But a convincing growl would have to emerge organically. If I planned it in advance, I would be self-conscious about its volume, tone and length. I imagine it would end up coming out like my words: hesitant, preceded by throat-clearing, and with that upward, questioning intonation of most Australians. A growl followed by a question mark is no growl at all; it’s Scooby Doo’s catchcry.
Displaying my fist to my opponent, then looking back and forth between my fist and my opponent, to make it abundantly clear that I plan to hit him with it. This sounds good, even chivalrous, in theory, but it would be difficult to find the right moment to transition from displaying the fist, to actually hitting my opponent with it. Moreover, warning him of the punch would be doing him a favour, and it would be such a horrid descent from that fleeting moment of camaraderie into outright aggression.
Saying, “Would you like to go me, c*#$!?” I have seen other Australian men initiate fights in this way, so people could not fairly accuse me of failing to follow social norms. But the use of c*#$ is controversial, if not inherently misogynistic. I can’t even bring myself to type the actual word, so I doubt I could say it to a stranger, especially in the presence of my wife, who would be understandably offended even if I used it in service of her honour.
I considered a few other initiatory phrases:
“I will now hit you for what you said.”
“Prepare for physical combat.”
“I hate you!”
“You’ll see what happens to bully-boys who tease my wife.”
“I love my wife very much!”
“There’s nothing wrong with Sophie Ellis-Bextor!”
Each have their obvious strengths, but none seemed to strike the right balance between my temperament and the demands of the situation.
As night began to fall and my wife began preparing dinner, I still had not come up with an appropriate way to start a fight. I desperately invoked the spirits of Gandhi and Socrates. If they were to ever have finally had enough, and decided to risk the prospect of public up-toga action by punching some British soldier or overly pious Greek prosecutor, what would they have said in advance? I meditated on the question for some time, channelling these intellectual and moral giants. I waited and I waited for inspiration. It was a gruelling and seemingly fruitless endeavour. In despair, I was about to give up and go and tell my wife that she deserved better than me, that I would never forget her and that we would always have Sophie Ellis-Bextor, when I found myself shouting, “Enough is enough!” and realised instantly I had found my battle cry.
The more I reflected on it, the more I saw that “Enough is enough!” is the perfect way to let a man or large adolescent boy know that you are about to punch him to defend your wife’s honour. It is factually accurate, or at the very least, unfalsifiable. It would be a logical fallacy of staggering proportions for your opponent to argue that enough is not enough. “Enough is enough!” further conveys a sense that the punch you are about to throw is only loosely of your own volition, but really a natural consequence of what a terrible person they’ve been for calling an innocent woman a bitch, and her innocent husband a bitchfucker. Finally, “Enough is enough!” evokes a courageous stand for honourable principles, so even if you are badly beaten, it will be as a heroic dissident, not as a pathetic little man who can’t protect his wife.
If I did say “Enough is enough,” and my antagonist failed to desist, enough really would be enough. I would probably start with a sideways karate chop to the nose and just hope that however it turned out, my wife would be proud of me.
How to Defend Your Wife’s Honour (and other advice)
-Shout “Enough is enough!” before attacking any man or large adolescent boy.
-Karate chops are underutilised in Australian street fights, and may therefore be the last thing your opponent expects.
-Avoid punching people unless you are both physically strong and socially skilled, as fights are fraught with both physical and conversational pitfalls.
-It is probably best to discuss with your wife in advance what you are comfortable talking about at dinner parties.