Honor defined: the reflexive and the cultural

Posted: Nov 12, 2006 9:04 PM

The following is an excerpt from Honor: A History by James Bowman

At its simplest, honor is the good opinion of the people who matter to us, and who matter because we regard them as a society of equals who have the power to judge our behavior. This is what Professor Derek Brewer has called the honor group.4 Obviously, this definition includes an important variable term, since the people who matter are different for every individual. Honor groups form naturally around any corporate enterprise but especially those — like the armed services, police forces, fire brigades and sports teams — that are male-dominated. In such an environment, loyalty to the corporate entity, and a willingness to subordinate one’s individual inclinations to the greater good, will naturally be regarded as honorable; disloyalty and selfishness will be correspondingly dishonorable. Families are natural honor groups as well, the first with which we are all associated and one which may overlap with others that we join later in life. By their nature, these group loyalties will sometimes conflict with loyalties to a wider community and to absolute principles, which is why it is useful to distinguish between honor and ethics. It is sometimes necessary to put loyalty to principle ahead of loyalty to the group, but even the highest principled whistleblower or informer is likely to find himself regarded as a “rat” and a traitor by the conflicting standards of honor.

Two developments of 19th century in Europe and America have contributed to the obscuring of this essentially local quality of honor. One was the rise of the modern nation state. Patriotism in its modern sense depended on an idea of the whole nation as a single honor group. The second development, discussed in Part I below, was the modernization of traditional honor and its removal from the exclusive province of an aristocratic élite. This development began in the 18th century and attempted to fuse honor and ethics. The Victorian idea of the “Christian Gentleman” — a man of honor yet one who owed allegiance to a universal and ethical and not just a local and honorable standard — was a new thing in the world of honor, but too delicate a hybrid, as it now seems, long to outlast its times. Almost the only relics of him now remaining are the “honor systems” or “honor codes” you still find on some university campuses which, for all their other successes, have never been quite successful in persuading young people that it is honorable to inform on their fellow-students who have committed infractions. The nation-as-honor-group was a hardier growth, but it, too, came under a great deal of pressure in the aftermath of the First World War, when honor resumed some of its previous disreputability although in a different way. Previously, the law and the church had looked askance at such honor-related phenomena as dueling. But in the 1920s and 1930s honor itself, even in the form of patriotism, fell into a very considerable disrepute. This is discussed further in Part II.

To some extent it is also true that the deeds and qualities that earn the good opinions of each honor group will vary with its composition. Honor among thieves will differ substantively from honor among policemen. Yet if honor, unlike morality, is by its very nature relative to a particular social context, it does not seem to be the case that it varies randomly from group to group. Some groups at some times may value some qualities more than others, but at its most basic that to which we pay honor — or, to use the synonym in more common use today, respect — is remarkably consistent. Moreover, in spite of the discrediting honor has undergone, the basic honor of the savage — bravery for men, chastity for women — is still recognizable beneath the surfaces of the popular culture which has done so much to efface it. If you doubt it try calling a man a wimp or a woman a slut. These are still fighting words, though less likely to accrue mortal consequences than in the days when they or their equivalents would have required men to shoot at each other. Nor do they work the other way round — any more than they did in the 18th century when Bernard Mandeville observed that the sense of honor is “very whimsical, and the Difference in the Signification so prodigious, according as the Attribute was either applied to a Man, or to a Woman, that neither shall forfeit their Honour, tho’ each should be guilty, and openly boast of what be the other’s greatest Shame,” since “Gallantry with Women, is no Discredit to the Men, any more than Want of Courage is a Reproach to the Ladies”5 People may have learned to pay less honor to the miles gloriosis and more to the gentle non-combatant, less to the virgin and more to the sexual adventuress, but as yet they haven’t quite forgotten the honor and shame of their great-grandparents. Even the women of “Sex and the City” worry themselves over the question: “Are we sluts?” What we are to make of such curious survivals is discussed in Part III.

The honor of the savage, like that of the snowball victim mentioned above, is what I shall call reflexive honor, which is familiar to all of us, even if we have no words in which to express it and even if we are ashamed of it. So far as we can tell it is nearly inseparable from the human condition, and it is certainly engaged wherever there is fighting, which is nearly everywhere. But it must be distinguished from cultural honor — like that of the Victorian gentleman, for example — which comprises the traditions, stories and habits of thought of a particular society about (among other things) the proper and improper uses of violence. In fact, it is because of the decline of cultural honor in the West that the word “violence” itself has come into currency with a new and generic sense. Originally it referred only to criminal violence, as its relation to “violate” reminds us. But its modern sense makes it difficult if not impossible for us any longer to express the distinction, so central to cultural honor, between good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust fighting.

Even conservatives today will disapprove of “violence” on television, as if the context of violence, whether it is justified or not in a particular situation, were unimportant. Obviously, if all violence is deplorable and shameful (even if not always or necessarily wrong), cultural honor must wither away, and that is precisely what we have seen in the West over the past 80 years or so. Nowadays anyone using the word will find it freighted with it a heavy load of Victorian associations — men in top hats fighting duels, for instance, and ladies in crinolines terrified of the imputation of unchastity — because Victorian honor, whose hitherto unprecedented achievement was the invention of the notion of the Christian gentleman, was the last real form of cultural honor to exist in the official culture of the West. Today cultural honor now survives only in a degraded form, in places where the official socializing process is weakest, as among urban gangs and the hip-hop culture with its high-profile “dises” and “beefs” that has grown up out of it and so introduced the popular culture to a kind of parody of old-style honor talk — though as usual without using the word “honor.”