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New Worlds: Assault and Battery

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As the saying goes, my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

Turns out, that’s also the distinction between assault and battery.

Only in some jurisdictions, mind you. Under those legal systems, assault is the credible threat of or attempt at harm, with battery beginning when I make actual physical contact. (Hence, for example, the phrase “battered wife” when discussing domestic abuse: she has been not merely threatened but struck by her husband.) We often speak of the two together, though, and not all legal frameworks separate them at all, so here we’ll join them together.

Assault and battery used to be so incredibly common, I suspect it’s hard for us to even imagine. As we discussed back in the context of punishments for crimes, low-level violence used to be pervasive; few people thought anything of responding to minor infractions with a beating. That applied not only to actual criminals, but to misbehaving children, disobedient wives, and anyone else under the authority of the person delivering the beating. But it wasn’t just authorized punishment: taking a swing at someone because he offended you was normalized to a degree unthinkable in modern times.

I don’t mean to imply, of course, that everybody was at fisticuffs every moment of the day. Per usual for this sort of thing, not everybody had the freedom to behave that way; a woman with a reputation as a brawler suffered much worse consequences than a man with the same track record. Ditto anyone who was a societal outsider, whether for reasons of ethnicity, national origin, religion, or something else. Even among in-group men, there were those with more self-restraint and pacific temperament.

But so normalized was this behavior that, although I’m bringing it up as part of our survey of crimes, it often wasn’t a crime at all. It was just a Saturday night — and I choose that timing deliberately, because boy howdy did alcohol play a role in this (and still does). Pre-modern societies usually had limited capacity to police the community in the first place; arresting everybody who threw a punch at their neighbor would have overtaxed those resources in one night flat. But they generally didn’t see it as the business of the authorities in the first place, unless one of the combatants died or was seriously maimed, e.g. lost an eye — or one of the people harmed had a big advantage of wealth and status over the person who injured them.

When you stop and think about it, the same thing is true today. Our threshold is lower, but we don’t treat every instance of interpersonal violence as an offense to be formally prosecuted. Even when it goes to court, a charge of assault and battery might just be a civil offense, rather than a criminal one. But many instances don’t go that far, especially if the harm inflicted doesn’t require formal medical treatment. Stitches and bone-setting are expensive enough that it can make sense to try and take the cost out of the perpetrator’s wallet. But if it’s just bruises, a black eye, a bloody nose . . . eh, you’ll heal. The hassle of pressing charges is great enough to be not worth the effort — not unless you’re particularly officious or vindictive.

It also depends, per the above, on who’s hurt whom. Bloody your colleague’s nose when the two of you are at the bar after work and he may loathe you forevermore, but he was hurt by a peer. Do the same thing to your millionaire CEO? Not such a good idea: now you’ve hurt not only his body but his image, his authority. In the past, we would have said his honor, and this would be how you get challenged to a duel.

What I find interesting — not in a good way — is how we sometimes write off such incidents among children and teenagers when the exact same altercation among grown-ups would have been treated as a serious offense. Many people think of “bullying” as simply mean words and a bit of shoving on the playground, but in fact it can become vastly worse than that. If a group of adults persistently followed a man or woman home from work, beat that person up, ruined their clothes and/or the documents they were carrying, and made threats of worse violence if the victim tattled to anyone . . . no one would question whether the victim was justified in taking out a restraining order. (Although it lies outside the focus of this essay, the same goes for the intentional infliction of non-physical harm.) Of course we don’t want to throw children in jail without extremely good reason — there’s a reason our courts tend to treat juveniles differently — but responses like “have you tried talking to them?” or “I bet if you ignore them, they’ll get bored and give up” or “I’m sure they’re just acting out because they’re insecure” wouldn’t fly two feet if adults were the ones involved.

That same double standard used to apply within a marriage, though fortunately the degree to which we accept domestic abuse has dropped precipitously. The story that the phrase “rule of thumb” derived from a law forbidding men from beating their wives with a rod thicker than a thumb is false, and in England, wife-beating was legally defined as a breach of the peace from the sixteenth century onward . . . but even if a woman could get a justice to rule against her husband, the best she could usually hope for was some kind of money-backed pledge that he’d do better in the future. All too often, the attitude was that a man had not only a right but an obligation to “chastise” his disobedient wife, so long as he didn’t do it too violently. Even now, whether or not we make a big deal out of domestic violence depends on your particular community; in some conservative corners, the assumption is still that the wife is at fault, or that even if she isn’t, it’s her God-given duty to submit to the headship of her husband, while he receives gentle admonitions to exercise that headship better.

Will we ever fully eradicate the tendency toward assault and battery in our society? I’m inclined to say no. I’ve had a moment in my life — fortunately only one — where the impulse to go after someone short-circuited my brain; all I really remember is the inciting moment and then my husband steering me down the street, away from the person who’d just enraged me, before I could do something I’d regret. While sometimes violence is premeditated, in other cases it’s just some primal instinct taking over, tossing higher cognition out the window. We can socialize ourselves not to give into that instinct at the drop of a hat, and we can reduce our capacity to harm each other by not carrying weapons all the time; one glance at history gives the lie to the notion that “an armed society is a polite society.” We cannot, I suspect, remove the impulse in its entirety.

But at least if all I’m swinging is a fist, the worst I’m likely to do is break your nose.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Assault and Battery”

  1. I’ve read some fairly modern books (I’m thinking of a mystery taking place in England), where characters think nothing of it to be “pounded”), or worse.

    But older generation books, it was normal.

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