Where is the Truth in Honor: I

Honor and violence play fundamental roles in shaping interactions within society, and their presence or absence can mean drastically different things for any culture that endorses or discourages violence or honor practices. It is most common, however, for a culture to determine when violence is appropriate with honor, which is where Mark Cooney’s research in Warriors and Peacemakers: How Third Parties Shape Violence formulates and formats the definition and concept of honor in a way that is useful for the present analysis. Cooney’s analysis of class and its relationship to law and honor makes a case for honor motivated homicide, creating a bridge between the realities of economics, their influence on lawlessness and their corresponding relationship to honor that can result in violence.

Honor is an element of society that takes many forms with varied points of determination depending on the culture and the society such as the difference between the Igbo and the Christian missionaries in Things Fall Apart. The emphasis some cultures put on honor might not be shared by others, and more commonly, the emphasis of honor put on differing values or practices between cultures is what makes the difference: “Honor is a complex concept that means different things to different people (Stewart, 1994). Today, it often refers to honesty or moral integrity,” (Cooney 109). Mark Cooney expands on this thought and notes: “Somebody who invariably tells the truth or who does the right thing even at personal cost is said to be honorable. In many societies, however, ‘honor’ has a quite different meaning and connotes the status that attaches to physical bravery: to be honorable is to be bold and valiant,” (Cooney 109). So, between the differing definitions and constitutions of honor, the unifying trait between them is one of truth and integrity or the things that society desires to be governed by.

Honor, in any event, is governed by power and violence, which are the things that any society would have to deal with by defining its value system. Therefore, violence is a key point of determination in identifying honor sequences, transactions, achievements, accolades or status within a society: “Where honor in this sense is found so too is violent conflict because ‘the ultimate vindication of honor lies in physical violence,'” (Cooney 109). Honor is often sacrificial and maintained by blood. This relationship between honor and violence is pivotal because it marks where society draws its defining lines on what should and should not be protected or obtained through violence. These differences vary:

Rates of homicide fluctuate even more widely across the structurally simple societies studied by anthropologists. The Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, for example, have   virtually no homicide at all. They lead a peaceful, cooperative existence hunting and gathering in the Ituri forest with little violent conflict of any type. Among the Gebusi of New Guinea, on the other hand, two out of every three men over the age of thirty-five have killed somebody. (Cooney 3).

Just as the influence of honor varies from one society to the next, so too does the resulting application of violence within that culture. The separation between cultures of honor and everything else are misleading distinctions. While all cultures will have honor and violence, their relationship and emphasis can be stronger or weaker in different areas. These resulting differences can be a point of conflict between different cultures and societies as well.

The tension between two cultural views of honor is often decided violently, as a competition between different systems of life to see which honor promotes the most “rightness” or power. For the victor, honor can be justified by being emphasized on the values that make them the most effective and superior to the weaker subject. However, Cooney states: “To those beyond its boundaries, a culture that esteems honor often appears as the antithesis of a moral community, governed by the law of the jungle, rewarding brute force over every other human attribute. Yet for those subject to it, honor is far from being a chaotic system of domination by the strong of the weak,” (Cooney 109). While honor cultures may look chaotic from the outside, the reasons for their structure has an anthropological basis in promoting what is desirable such as survival, stability, strength or truth. Ironically, the things that make an honor culture strong can be interpreted as weakness by a culture that does not identify with the same values for honor, despite not fully being able to escape valuing honor entirely. Honor culture does not mean the strong dominate the weak; it means that honor decides what is dominant.

A closer analysis of what is produced in honor culture shows how an emphasis on personal standing can create a kind of invisible commodity. Since “honor culture” can be reasoned to apply more thoroughly to some societies than others, an important point of difference that can be determined in making this distinction is identifying honor as a system with particular symptoms: “Honor cultures tend to be egalitarian yet competitive. Social standing is precarious; people must constantly alert to being put down. What in one culture might be shrugged off as impoliteness, in an honor culture will be deemed a serious attack on character,” (Cooney 110). The notion that personal standing is of high value is often central to the function of the culture in honor-oriented societies. What constitutes an offense or a violation of honor values in a culture reveals insight into (a) what those values are and (b) how they are handled or avoided. The values of a society can be inferred from the measure of response evoked by different behaviors or transactions. Similarly, between different cultures, offenses can occur by circumstance and differences in values, or in other words, differences in what is desirable.

Honor demands that individuals defend their reputation, by performing reputation maintenance and constructing ways in which to acquire honor. The defense against offense or insult serves as a deterrent or a warning to discriminate and warn against the possibility of other more economic offenses such as robbery or murder of one’s kin. In the face of a reality where one’s life is under constant threat of violence from other peers, the ability to produce a hesitation in the community from committing these acts becomes more valuable the more a person is forced to depend on themself for protection, or the absence of law: “All forms of statelessness tend to promote honor because a reputation for fearlessness helps to keep would-be aggressors away when disputants cannot or will not call on the state for protection,” (Cooney 122). The relationship between lawlessness and lack of law or ineffective law enforcement creates a demand for honor culture to step into and solve the issues of protection. The less law or enforcement of law is in place, the more individuals and society are forced to turn to strengths available to meet the need for safety and protection of persons or property. The relationship between person, property, and reputation is conciliatory in the sense that protecting one’s reputation can be a source of peace that discourages other forms of violence; by intimidating potential offenders, the prospect of hurting or offending a person of great honor looks costly, and ideally too costly to be of consideration. For these reasons, in honor cultures it is possible to have heroes of honor, people who embody the ideals of society’s principles of honor, symbolizing strength and the qualities of that culture thriving within them or their story.

To be continued 5/24/17


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