Thursday, September 13, 2012

Defending One's Honor

Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
Source: Othello Act 3, scene 3.
Remember duels? For centuries, a duel was considered an acceptable way to resolve disputes involving personal honor. Insult me, or insult my family, and by God, sir, I will have satisfaction (even if someone ends up dead).

After the jump, whatever became of that reckless, overwrought practice?

Classic duels were supposed to be fought by fair rules. Former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was killed by Vice President Aaron Burr in the most famous American duel.

Sometimes, a passionate defense of honor didn't hold to strict codes of chivalry. Famously, Preston Brooks, US Representative from South Carolina, beat Charles Sumner, US Senator from Massachusetts, with a cane on the floor of the US Senate over a speech Sumner gave in which he criticized Brooks' uncle for defending slavery. Insult my uncle, by God, and I will thrash you to within an inch of your life. Brooks was re-elected by South Carolina voters.

Duels eventually fell out of favor, both the chivalrous kind and the not-so-chivalrous. Today, violent reactions to verbal insults are considered to be unjustified. Another attitude prevails, ingrained in Americans from childhood: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Freedom of speech reigns supreme in America. We are all Voltaireans: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I wholly subscribe to that attitude. I condemn any violent reaction to verbal insults. Still, I recognize that my attitude is more cultural than universal in time or place. Not everyone always and everywhere thinks like me. Some consider "honor" as important to defend as life, liberty and property, even with violence if necessary.

Whereas it was once the aristocracy who most exemplified this attitude, today it is the alienated who are more likely to exhibit it. Richard Nisbett (Research Professor, Institute of Social Research, University of Michigan) identified the conditions in which cultures of honor still persist today.

Cultures of honour will often arise when three conditions exist:
  • a lack of resources
  • the benefit of theft and crime outweighs the risks
  • a lack of sufficient law enforcement (such as in geographically remote regions)
Source: Wikipedia.
Libya and Egypt fit the bill. So, too, do Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, etc. Nesbitt's three conditions are adequate to explain the culture of honor in these countries. Offend their honor (by, for example, insulting their religion), and expect to be challenged to a duel (or face a caning, or, the popular modern response, a riot).

Nesbitt's explanation does suggest that, as the standard of living rises in these countries, as the rule of law becomes established, the culture of honor that demands violent reaction to perceived insults will give way. From a purely practical point of view, working on those root causes is more likely to be fruitful than indignantly arguing that their culture of honor is wrong.

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