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The Quest for Honor

The concept of honor varies from one culture to another. It has also changed over time. Social scientists say understanding what honor means in other cultures is an essential part of effective global communication.

A social science experiment conducted by the University of Michigan a few years ago included directing a verbal insult at male students from the south and the north of the United States. "We find huge differences in the way our southern and northern students respond to that," says Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the Institute for Social Research of the University of Michigan.

"First, the attitude towards this on the part of the northern students is: ‘What’s your problem?’ They don’t get upset about it. The southerners immediately look angry if you code their expressions. It’s not: ‘What’s your problem?’ It’s: ‘You and I have got a relationship now.’"

And that relationship often includes retaliation on the part of the student who feels insulted. The social consequences of this type of response are far-reaching. Statistics show that small-town murder rates among friends, lovers and acquaintances are three times higher in the South than in the New England and Midwestern states. In the past, analysts have blamed the South’s hotter climate, rural poverty and the region’s history of slavery for this predisposition to violence. But Professor Nisbett and his assistant Dov Cohen attribute the violence to the South’s unique concept of "honor" – most likely imported byswashbuckling English cavaliers in the 17th century.

Professor Nisbett believes it was reinforced some 100 years later by immigrants from the Irish and Scottish borderlands, traditional livestock-herding communities: "Any culture where the care of animals is the basis of your livelihood has a tradition of macho (physically assertive) men. And the reason for that, we think, is because if I don’t make it clear that I am a tough guy and you better stay away from anything that is mine -- my home, my honor, my animals -- you are a dead man."

Professor Nisbett says similar notions of honor prevail in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. History professor Bertram Wyatt-Brown, author of the book "Southern Honor," agrees. He says the ancient codes of honor that prize martial valor, family loyalty and male dominance remain powerful in rural societies all over the world.

"Almost every society that has very few cities and has a rural background and economy and very few institutions that you can depend upon -- institutions of law in particular, of ordinary justice -- resorts to this family-based code in which the head of household is the giver of truth. All must obey his commands and he must obey the commands of the whole community."

Professor Wyatt-Brown says people in these societies are expected to observe traditional conventions very strictly. Family lineage is very important: "If you were in an honor society, the first question you’d be asked as a stranger is: to whom do you belong? And if you don’t have a family connection, they are going to be very suspicious because (they would think): how can we judge who the stranger is?"

Professor Wyatt-Brown contends that in modern western cultures, especially in large cities, personal achievements are more important than family ties: "So you are a physician, or a clergyman, or a businessman even, and they don’t ask you, ‘To whom do you belong,’ but ’What do you do for a living?’"

Achievers in military, professional and academic fields are highly honored in the west. Still, says Professor Hyatt-Brown, westerners typically value personal integrity, honesty and other moral virtues more than a person’s social status. Insults, encroachments on personal property and other perceived injuries are, for the most part, dealt with in a court of law.

In honor societies, by contrast, people are more likely to resort to personal vengeance, often, says Professor Wyatt-Brown, in the form of bloody retribution.. Seeking legal help and or pursuing negotiations with one’s adversary may be perceived as a sign of weakness and therefore a cause for shame, and a loss of social status. The whole family, sometimes an entire society, is obliged to respond to reclaim the honor of the insulted member.

"There’s always revenge and then revenge on top of the retribution and it goes on and on, as it does in Palestine and Israel," says Professor Wyatt-Brown, adding that many Arabs are angry at the west because they believe it has exposed their political and military weaknesses.

Loss of territories to Israel and perceived attacks on Islamic culture also insult Arabs’ honor. So their hunger for vengeance is strong. And social scientists say this feeling is likely to persist until Arabs can regain their dignity and a sense of control over their lives. The West can help by learning to understand and, more importantly, to show respect for these powerful and enduring notions of honor.