Hollow Honor

Us against them.

An old joke—Ever hear of Boston Alzheimer’s? You forget everything except your grudges.

There’s been decades of research on what are known as “honor cultures,” in which every perceived slight must be met instantly and harshly. Any insult, whether against individual or clan, is cause for retribution. As Dov Cohen of the University of Illinois and his colleagues put it:

Approximately 20,000-25,000 Americans will die in homicides this year, and tens of thousands more will be injured in stabbings or gunfights that could have ended in death. In about half of the homicides for which police can find a cause, the triggering incident seems argument- or conflict-related; and, in many of these cases, this triggering incident might be classified as “trivial” in origin, arising from a dispute over a small amount of money, an offensive comment, or a petty argument. Such incidents, however, are not trivial to the participants in them. Rather, the participants behave as if something important is at stake. They act as if they were members of what anthropologists call a culture of honorin which even small disputes become contests for reputation and social status.

These honor cultures tend to have several historical commonalities:

  • They come from places whose origins were in herding rather than crop farming, so poaching and violent defense were common activities. We see the same things now in gangs and organized crime and vulture capitalism: when most of one’s wealth can be taken away at once by hand (in cash or drugs or hostile stock raids), poaching and violent defense are again common economic and political strategies.
  • They come from places where political stability was rare, and clans were the dominant form of control. Loyalty to tribe was a matter of life and death.
  • They come from places where law enforcement is scarce or non-existent or corrupt, and every man was responsible for his own and his own family’s welfare.

Where cultures of honor persist, we see these attitudes carry over into even small elements of social life. People from honor cultures “stigmatize men, described in brief scenarios, who did not respond with violence, criticizing them for being ‘not much of a man’ if they failed to fight or shoot the person who challenged or affronted them.” The old cliche from Western films still holds true in a lot of places: Them’s fightin’ words!

So we have a condition in which the social norms of precarious masculinity that we described yesterday are amplified by cultural patterns of perceived threats to honor, and the perceived necessity of immediate response.  

We can productively apply this understanding to any number of social or political phenomena, from party politics to sports rivalries. Will Blythe wrote a book about how the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry was more about loathing them than loving us. He called it To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever.

And I find the whole thing exhausting, and tragic. When the universe is defined as us versus them, we have lost the capacity for generosity, the capacity for empathy, the capacity for good will. We leave innumerable people crushed, helpless, as we bulldoze our way toward our own benefit. It leaves us all as our own bargain-sized Ozymandias, our own less-than-cinematic Citizen Kane, surrounded by the debris and carnage of our hollow honor.

We can stand our ground, and see who’s left standing. Or we can stand for others, and make ourselves greater.

Article referred to: Cohen, Dov, Nisbett, Richard E., Bowdle, Brian F., and Schwarz, Norbert. “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An ‘Experimental Ethnography’.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 1996 Vol. 70, No. 5, 945-960.

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