Whatever Happened to Honor?

Thank you, Chris. Your introduction honors me so much that I almost feel ashamed. But it does give me the opportunity to say up front that such language, and the fact that you understand what I mean by honor and shame, illustrates the extent to which, in spite of my title, honor itself never really went away. What has more or less vanished out of the culture is much of the language of honor and shame that was familiar to our parents and grandparents, and this is a matter, I think, of profound cultural significance.

For example, at his sentencing to life imprisonment for spying last month, the former F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen said: “I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it. I’ve betrayed the trust of so many. I opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and children. I’ve hurt them deeply. I’ve hurt so many deeply.”

Unless the reporter didn’t hear him correctly, his saying that he was “shamed” is an interesting social datum. Twenty or thirty years ago he might have said that he was ashamed — which was the word used in those days to express one’s response to shame. Shame itself always came from outside, as a result of public exposure. Shame was something that lay in the power of others to disapprove something which, if it were not made public could be no matter of shame. In other words, you didn’t get to decide if you were shamed or not. At best, your saying that you were shamed would have been seen as a mere statement of fact.

It’s true that some people who were shamed by the things they did, and therefore ought to have been ashamed, didn’t recognize the fact and so weren’t. Ashamed, I mean. Such people were called shameless — or, in Latin form, impudent — since the sense of shame that would have made them sensitive to their own shame in the eyes of others and (therefore, presumably) ashamed of themselves, seemed to be absent.

But Hanssen was either not quite at home with this old-fashioned language, which was so familiar to earlier generations, or else (which I think more likely) his choice of the word “shamed” in preference to “ashamed” was itself a shameless attempt to control a process that is inherently not subject to control. By announcing his shame himself, he may have thought that he could forestall or mitigate the shame that would otherwise accrue to him from his truly shameful acts. Hence his mention of his wife and children — as if they were the only ones among those whom, he acknowledges, have been “hurt deeply” who were worth mentioning by name — should be seen as a plea for sympathy and an attempt to stem the tide of shame that must inevitably overwhelm a man’s family along with himself. In the same way, he uses the word “calumny” — false accusation — to describe what the family faces in the hope that some hint of that falseness may cling to the accusation that in his case, he admits, is true.

I mention this little exercise in surreptitious self-justification as an example of the way in which it often seems very difficult for our contemporaries to understand or use correctly the language of shame — and honor, shame’s complement and opposite. These words have a musty, old-fashioned air about them which makes us reluctant to use them ourselves and nervous when other people use them — even when, as in Hanssen’s case, we cannot do without the concepts to which they correspond. Recently, for example, a brigadier general who was being questioned by Bob Franken of CNN was repeatedly asked why “we” — that is, presumably, the American people — should believe that what he was saying was the truth. Exasperated, the brigadier finally answered: “Well, as a commissioned officer in the armed forces, I can assure you that what I’ve said is the truth.”

What is the missing word in that statement? My guess is that the officer thought that he would look silly and pompous and out-of-date if he had said “on my honor as an officer and a gentleman” — and yet he was clearly if rather comically hoping that the mention of his commission would somehow convey some such idea to the reporter.

By the way, one consequence of the unavailability of the language of honor was that neither the brigadier nor Franken appeared to have been aware that the former had grounds for complaint against the impudence of Franken’s question. Franken was already calling into question his honor, had he but known it, and under the old dispensation, his victim would have been perfectly within his rights to box the man’s ears, horsewhip him or otherwise administer some humiliating physical chastisement. For these things too are part of the language of honor that we no longer speak. You can’t help but think wistfully of what a lot of excellent entertainment we are missing out on!

For the same reason, the press has lately been having a field day at the expense of President Bush’s honor by questioning, usually by hints and indirections, whether, even if afar off and by negligence, he might not have been somehow complicit in the terror attacks of last September 11th. Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia has even accused him of having knowingly and deliberately allowed the attacks to happen for his own financial and political gain. But because we are equally shy of the language of honor and persuaded that “free speech” means, or ought to mean, “speech without consequences” no one has the words with which to explain the illegitimacy of such words from the Honorable (as she styles herself) Ms. McKinney.

True, the word honor does still appear in our public discourse, but nearly always in some context designed to stress its archaic and lapidary character — in the phrase “Duty, Honor, Country” for instance — and implies no necessary understanding of what the word might mean. General Colin Powell’s authorized biography, written by David Roth, is titled Sacred Honor after the thing that the Founding Fathers (who were profoundly interested in all questions of honor) said that they had committed to the struggle for American nationhood. But the word itself hardly appears in Roth’s book and never with any kind of an explanation.

The only semi-substantive use of the word “honor” in the book comes in response to Roth’s question to former President George Bush if he thought Powell were the source for the revelations of the private deliberations within the administration over the Gulf War in Bob Woodward’s book The Commanders. Here is what the former president said:

I couldn’t tell. But I put my faith in people. And I say, ‘This guy would never do anything to hurt me or anything to blow himself up, to be a peacock. It’s out of character.’ I put my bet on a human being, and with Colin I never have any doubts of any kind. I know the book caused concern in certain quarters, but it never did with me because I had total confidence in the man’s character. For me it was a question of integrity and honor. There’s no one that has those more finely honed than Colin Powell.

Significantly, this statement of what honor is is prefaced by the contemporary-apologetic “For me. . .”, which is our way of saying, honor is a personal choice, like everything else. If your idea of honor is to blab to the media everything that you have discussed in confidence, then so be it. It’s just not “for me.”

Powell says, according to Roth, that “the bedrock of warfare. . .is ‘trusting people, working as a team, being a family.’” And he quotes Eisenhower to similar effect: “We have got to be of one family, and it is more important today than it ever has been.” This is the touchy-feely version of what one of the characters in that fine film, Blackhawk Down says when he remarks to a comrade that the people back at home “don’t understand why we do it” — that is, behave with the kind of reckless bravery we have just been watching. “They don’t understand,” he says, that “ it’s about the men next to you. That’s all it is.” Like General Powell, this man clearly understands what honor is — as how could he not? — he just doesn’t like to use the word. When Powell goes through a litany of the qualities possessed by the fine young soldiers of Operation Desert Storm, he says: “They’re clean, smart, dedicated, trained, motivated, responsible, reliable, self-confident, selfless, patriotic, loyal, drug-free, respectful, tolerant, and [in the climactic position] caring.” “Honorable” doesn’t even make the list.

My contention is that there is today a widespread understanding of the need for honor, particularly in a military context, at the same time that there is a widespread doubt or suspicion about it, of which our reluctance to use the word is only a symptom. I believe that this is because there are a number of ways in which honor is incompatible with the spirit of our age, or Zeitgeist as the Germans foppishly call it — that is, that set of opinions and prejudices and assumptions about the world that we, in common with the people of less enlightened historical periods, simply take for granted. What follows are eight ways in which our ways of thinking are uncongenial to traditional ideas of honor, and therefore eight reasons why we are nowadays so uncomfortable with words like honor and shame and impudence — I mean apart from the fact that we just haven’t used them for a long time. I’ll return to that subject a bit later on.

At the suggestion of Michael Novak, who couldn’t be here today but who saw an advance copy of this lecture, I have provided a sheet of paper listing these eight reasons as an aide-mémoire for you as we go through them.

The first reason, already mentioned, is that honor and shame are socially founded and not in the control of the individual who is either honored or shamed. That was the awkward fact that Robert Hanssen was trying to get around by bringing up the subject of his shame himself. The spirit of our times puts such a high value on the moral autonomy of the individual that it can hardly comprehend something so recalcitrant to individual will and conscience as honor. The late David Riesman helped to nail down the lid of honor’s coffin by citing what he called the “other-directed” personality — that is, someone who needs (as who does not?) the approval of others — as a lower human type, the much scorned and derided “conformist” of the 1950s. The higher type as the “inner-directed” person, who was supposed to be a true individualist and one who had liberated himself from the constraints of social convention and in particular of what remained by then of Victorian respectability, that high water mark of honor in the West.

Moreover, honor and shame are not even in the control of the social engineers with whom contemporary intellectuals find it so natural to identify themselves. This is not to say that honor never changes, but the changes in it are glacial, the product of several generations and slow time and not of manipulation to some desirable social end. A very clever book just published, called Liberalism With Honor by Sharon R. Krause, is written from beginning to end under the mistaken impression that honor can be tamed and harnessed and put obediently to work in the service of a progressive social agenda. It cannot. People either honor a thing or they do not, and the things they honor and despise are probably more or less the same things that their parents and grandparents honored and despised. They can’t change it themselves, let alone have it changed for them by someone else. Honor is a given of our social context, dependent on what people at a particular time and place venerate or execrate, and not a matter of individual choice.

The second thing that people nowadays find it hard to accept about honor is that it is fundamentally élitist. That is where it differs from public opinion. In a public opinion poll, everybody’s view is equal. But in conferring honor, as in earning it, all men are not equal. If I had to sum up the meaning of the word in a phrase, I should say that it is the good opinion of those who matter — which is also another way of saying that it depends on context. Everyone knows instinctively who are those who matter. In society in general they may be a hereditary aristocracy or “the Establishment” or “the ruling classes” or the social register, but in a common enterprise of any kind — a corporation, an administration, a family, a profession, a university faculty, a sports team, a platoon, a ship’s crew or a street gang — those who matter are those with whom you are engaged in a relationship of trust.

This is what anthropologists call the “honor group,” and it is composed of your equals even where there are differences of rank between you, since their opinion of you matters more to you — or ought to matter more to you — than that of any outsider. This is why it is so extraordinarily difficult to get policemen, say, or soldiers, or F.B.I. agents to “rat” on each other. The very word expresses the disgust that people instinctively feel at behavior like Robert Hanssen’s. That’s why he attempts to skate over the “so many” that, apart from his family, he has “deeply hurt.” But their hurt was not, like that to his family, merely accidental, the result of standing too close to a moral time-bomb when it went off. Their hurt, the hurt of his colleagues and friends, was of the essence. The whole point of what he did was to hurt them, since, if he hadn’t been bound in honor and trust to them as colleagues and comrades, his betrayal of that honorable relationship would have had no cash value to his Russian paymasters.

By the way — a small digression here — one example of an attempt to manipulate honor for desirable social ends is what are called the “honor systems” on various college and university campuses. The one thing that these systems all have in common with each other but decidedly do not have in common with more traditional ideas of honor is that they require you to report to the authorities any infractions by anybody else — in short, to rat on your friends. Having been briefly a part of such a system myself, I would say that there was massive silent resistance to this article of the code. Not more than five per cent of my classmates, and possibly many fewer, would have turned in a fellow student they caught cheating, though all of them pledged in honor that they would do so. They might have said, as I would, that you cannot be bound in honor to disobey the rules of honor.

But in acknowledging that we value the good opinion of the people who matter most to us — even where we prefer not to speak of this as “honor” — we in effect confer upon those people the right to judge us, which brings up the third thing about honor that is incompatible with our contemporary prejudices: that it is — pardon my using a barbarous word — judgmental. In terms of right and wrong, that is, we can always reserve judgment. We can, as the Church commands us, condemn the sin but love the sinner. Or, as is more often the case these days, we can love both sinner and sin, or at least refuse to condemn it as a sin, though we may vaguely disapprove of it as “inappropriate.” But judging and condemnation are of the essence of honor. Its public nature requires it. And, of course, you cannot honor someone for something he has done without implying the rights of shame or dishonor to make themselves apparent in the case of his not having done it, or having done something quite different.

Related both to our predisposition in favor of individual autonomy and to the “judgmentalism” of honor is its lack of compassion. This is a fourth and very serious stumbling block to us. That is what Hanssen was hinting at by bringing up his wife and children at the sentencing. The fact that his family must suffer the shame of his deeds seems to us to be monstrously unfair. They didn’t do anything, after all. And yet, so the rules of honor decree, suffer they must. As Hermione says to her husband, Leontes, in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale when he publicly accuses her of adultery, honor is “a derivative from me to mine.” She is indirectly pointing out to him that, in disgracing her he is also disgracing himself and their child. Likewise, when Orlando’s wicked brother Oliver calls him “villain” in As You Like It, Orlando replies that, as they share in the family honor, “Thou hast railed on thyself.”

As the bonds between husband and wife are particularly a matter of trust, so is the honor of each particularly bound up with that of the other. As Tennyson’s Merlin puts it:

My name, once mine, now thine, is closelier mine,
For fame, could fame be mine, that fame were thine,
And shame, could shame be thine, that shame were mine.
So trust me not at all or all in all.

The good side of trust, in other words, is inconceivable without the bad, the uncompassionate side. This is true not only in marriage but wherever there is a bond of trust. There can be no trust where there is not also the possibility of a breach of trust, and vice versa. In the same way, there can be no honor where there is not the possibility of shame and disgrace. Many of our contemporaries, I believe, would prefer to do without both.

So far, the things that make people uncomfortable about honor are more likely to make liberals uncomfortable than conservatives. But the fifth and sixth problems for our contemporaries are more likely to gall conservatives than liberals. The fifth problem is that honor is a relativist standard. I’m going to qualify this statement in a minute, so don’t get too nervous yet. But just as the people who matter most are not always the same, so the things that are honored in one society, or social subset, may not be honored, may even be despised in another. Honor, like irony, depends on context, and this makes us uncomfortable. Hobbes has a story that illustrates the contextual nature of honor:

The King of Persia, Honoured Mordecay, when he appointed he should be conducted through the streets in the Kings Garment, upon one of the Kings Horses, with a Crown on his head, and a Prince before him, proclayming, Thus shall it be done to him that the King will honour. And yet another King of Persia, or the same another time, to one that demanded for some great service, to weare one of the Kings robes, gave him leave so to do; but with this addition, that he should weare it as the Kings foole; and then it was Dishonour

Or, to take another example from Hobbes, “To imitate, is to Honour; for it is vehemently to approve. To imitate ones Enemy, is to Dishonour.”

Conservatives, of course, are more likely to believe in absolutes and are rightly suspicious of any normative standard that shifts around as much as honor does. But it is also the otherwise triumphant individualism of our times which instinctively bridles at any suggestion not only that honor is out of individual control, subordinates the individual to his society, requires us to judge and has no regard for the feelings of those it crushes but also that it is contextual, not absolute, and varies from society to society. It is not, in other words, entirely internalizable, as we expect the rules we live by to be.

This is not the first time that honor has found itself opposed to the other rules that bind society, and problem number six is that, throughout most of its history in the West, honor has been at odds with Christianity. The values of the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular the injunction to “turn the other cheek” to an enemy who strikes you go completely contrary to the demands of honor, which are that you not only may but must strike him back. Throughout the centuries in which duelling was a common practice among the European aristocracy — and the rather shorter period during which the generation of the American Founders still considered themselves bound by aristocratic standards — it was the church which most loudly and insistently condemned the practice. The law had learned to live with it.

We are much more influenced by our Christian than by our honorable heritage. That is one reason why we are happier with notions of goodness or badness, guilt or innocence, right or wrong — things which can be entirely entrusted to the keeping of the individual will and conscience. My idea of the right may be wrong, but at least it is mine. Nobody can lay claim to a proprietary interest of this sort in honor, though as the example of George Bush’s encomium to Colin Powell illustrates, that doesn’t stop us from trying. It is partly for the reason of our passionate individualism too, that insofar as people still understand anything at all by the word “honor” it is likely to be as some species of virtue — telling the truth, perhaps, or keeping promises or, if you are a college student, not cheating on tests.

This is to make what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a category mistake. Honor is not one among the other virtues. It is entirely apart from right and wrong, good and evil. It is a different system altogether, though, as we shall see, one that sometimes overlaps with the parallel system of virtue and its various opposites. Aristotle called honor the reward of virtue, but even he was describing an ideal. More pessimistic — or realistic — philosophers and poets since have recognized that, while sometimes honor may be the reward of virtue, especially where that virtue is exercised on a public stage, it is at least as often the reward of better spin control. Throughout the centuries during which honor was not so much a preoccupation as it was an obsession of the literate and cultured classes of society it was always taken for granted that one could not be shamed by what was not made public. Honor, that is, could be and quite often was consistent with quite despicable behavior which never got out.

The great English chronicler of the Arthurian legends, Sir Thomas Malory, makes this problem the central conceit of the final book of the Mort D’Arthur. Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere are having an affair and everyone knows it. Even King Arthur knows it. But Lancelot reasons that, so long as no one dare say in public that they are having an affair they are not having an affair in any sense that ought to matter to a knight of the Table Round. For a while this reasoning is accepted, too, since for anyone to mention the affair publicly would be tantamount to a challenge to single combat with Sir Lancelot, who is the best knight in the world. But when Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred conspire to drag the affair out into the light of day, and force the king to notice it when the king does not want to notice it, Lancelot finally finds that being the best knight in the world is not enough to give him the power to alter reality.

And so we come to problem number seven. They seem to get harder as we go along. It is that honor is not only consistent with hypocrisy and insincerity and, not to put too fine a point upon it, lying, it often requires all these things. Honor, that is, is almost necessarily hypocritical. The fact may be regarded as a corollary of its “judgmentalism” mentioned earlier, since few people have the courage — or the shamelessness — to face the consequences of a public shaming for faults that might just as well be regretted and perhaps even repented of in silence. Hobbes was also hinting at this essential feature of honor when he said: “Nor does it alter the case of Honour, whether an action (so it be great and difficult, and consequently a signe of much power,) be just or unjust: for Honour consisteth onely in the opinion of Power.”

But the cult of personal authenticity to which we of the 21st century are the heirs despises nothing so much as hypocrisy, and when we think of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue” it is as a cynical witticism and not a justification of hypocrisy’s social utility. Yet it seems to me that hypocrisy is not only useful but necessary if virtue is to flourish. After all, isn’t it better for vice to pay homage to virtue than openly to flout and despise it? When vice need no longer offer up such homage, as in our own time, it is a measure of the relative enfeeblement of virtue in being able to demand it.

But in spite of what I have said above about honor as a relativist standard, I could hardly be addressing the subject of what happened to honor if there were not also a more permanent dimension to it. And here we come to the eighth, the last and undoubtedly the most serious problem that the modern sensibility has with honor: that it is fundamentally different for men and women. Traditionally, and across all kinds of other cultural variables, honor for men has meant bravery — or, rather, the reputation of bravery — while honor for women has meant the reputation of chastity.

Here, surely, you may say, is an example of honor itself and not just its language being outmoded and forgotten. I do not absolutely deny it, but just you try calling a man a wimp or a woman a slut. Even today these are what the law calls “fighting words” — and they do not apply in reverse. Call a man a slut or a woman a wimp and the insult falls woundless to the earth. As Bernard Mandeville wrote in The Fable of the Bees in 1714, it had often been noted that

the Word Honour, I mean, the Sence of it, was 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 would be the other’s greatest Shame.

That this should still be the case, signifying the residuum of shame attaching to cowardice for men and promiscuity for women but not vice versa suggests a powerful continuity in what used to be called human nature. Even such a feminist as Natalie Angier, author of Woman: An Intimate Geography, must ruefully acknowledge that “In every culture, there is a tendency among both men and women to adjudge women as either chaste or trampy.” She might have added that there is also a tendency in every culture to adjudge men as either brave or cowardly, strong or weak, likely to resent a slight or, as we now euphemistically put it, “non-confrontational.”

True, gentlemen no longer fight duels over a lady’s honor — and if they did the lady might consider it (or pretend to consider it) rather insulting than flattering, since a duel between men would imply that her honor was the property of her husband, brother or father and not herself. But we still instinctively understand the impulse that once made men fight duels, which is why a comic version of one was included in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Thus, even now, even here, even in respect of traditional male-female roles, even in comic form, some sense of honor still lingers in our collective memory and in spite of the efforts of the past century of Western culture to wriggle free of constraints rightly regarded as being primitive.

It is important to note, however, that honor could be reformed or even discredited in the West because it already had been over centuries during which it was in competition with other and opposed cultural tendencies. The honor that we are half-remembering when we try to avoid mentioning its name is not the honor that we see in primitive societies, or that taunts us with the words and deeds of Osama bin Laden today, but a carefully nurtured and delicate hybrid that was the product of half a millennium of European history. Throughout that period, honor had had to compromise at every stage along the way. One reason for these compromises was because of opposition from the church and centralizing political authority — for, like the aristocracy of which it was thought to be the peculiar property, honor could often be an obstacle in the way of producing an obedient and docile people. But another and more important reason for compromise was because the relative weakness of honor in the West allowed for the emergence of enlightened ideas about the worth of the individual and the rights of the individual during the 18th century.

Honor as it still existed in 1914 was the product of a further series of compromises, a Victorian accommodation between antique honor and modernity. Something resembling traditional aristocratic honor was allowed to survive and even flourish, supported by a medievalist or “Gothic” revival in the arts and literature which celebrated the myths of knighthood and chivalry, but its survival depended on an unprecedented willingness on the part of the aristocrats or members of society’s traditionally élite honor groups to treat the most talented among the upwardly mobile middle and even working classes as members of the honor group equal with themselves.

That is why we are now confronted not with a developed, Victorian sense of honor in our Islamic-fundamentalist enemies but with a sense of honor that has hardly changed since the dawn of man because, unlike Western honor, it has never had to change. Nearly three centuries ago, Montesquieu pointed out that “there are three tribunes that are almost never in accord: that of the laws, that of honor, and that of religion”

Honor in Islam is always in perfect accord with the laws and the teachings of religion; in Christianity, it is almost always opposed to them. This may be because Christianity, as Bernard Lewis points out, introduced the concept of the secular to a world that was otherwise, as Islam is today, without any natural way to distinguish between the things that are owed to God and the things that are owed to Caesar. That is why over 2000 years, we in the West have had to learn to live with this contradiction, and to find a modus vivendi between the demands of honor and those of religion.

In my view, the summit of Western civilization’s achievement in this respect was the Anglo-Saxon ideal of the gentleman. For three hundred years, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the dynamic interaction of the different strands of Western culture went to produce as its highest human type not the brave and mighty warrior of antiquity — the Achilleses, Beowulfs or Rolands to which the Islamic ideal bears more than a passing resemblance — but someone who was blessed with certain civilized virtues. The Renaissance made him a scholar and a linguist, as well as a warrior, the 18th century made him (like the American Founding Fathers) a patriot and a philosopher as well. The 19th century added sportsmanship and a kind of rugged piety whose downside was a certain decided increase in the budget of hypocrisy.

Above all, the 19th century finally severed the connection between the gentleman and hereditary wealth and made his behavior the sole determinant of his status in honor. Of course, you will understand that I don’t mean to say that class prejudice suddenly disappeared, or that “old money” ceased to think of itself as superior to “new money.” But if new money — and new men — had not been rising with great regularity to take the place of the old in the 19th and 20th centuries, there would have been little occasion for such snobbery.

All this progress towards a distinctively Western idea of honor came to an end with the First World War. This represented a tectonic shift in Western cultural foundations not only because of the war itself but because of two related phenomena that arose out of it, feminism and psycho-therapy. Modern warfare, particularly as it was experienced in the trenches of the Western Front in the First World War showed — or was taken to show — that the individual acts of bravery and heroism on which honor depends had been rendered meaningless. The trenches were supposed to have been a mere slaughterhouse, not only for the men unfortunate enough to have been sent there but for any ideas of the glory and honor to be won by great deeds that they might have taken with them. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” wrote the British “soldier-poet” Wilfred Owen, who in another poem referred to “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.”

Few propositions would have commanded more universal assent in Europe before 1914 than the Horatian principle that it is sweet and decorous to die for one’s country. Nowadays, if you do a Google search for “Dulce et decorum est” you get six thousand references to Owen’s poem and a tiny handful to Horace. The “lies” have it.

At the same time that the young men of Europe, raised on Victorian ideas of chivalry, were being disillusioned at the front, the young women were being brought into the workforce for the first time. Their taste of independence lent new impetus to the suffragist movement that was already making headway before the war. Almost immediately after it, women were given the vote throughout the Western world, and the resulting breakdown of social and juridical distinctions between men and women could not but have their effect on those whose daily lives had hitherto depended in all kinds of ways on the bright line of distinction between men and women. Moreover, the feminism of the time was closely allied with a resurgent pacifism which resented the effects of masculine honor for other reasons.

Also arising out of the war and seeking expression in the developing science of psychoanalysis was a new appreciation of the psychic effects of war — “shell shock,” as they called it then, or “post-traumatic stress disorder” now. Wilfred Owen was one of the most celebrated sufferers, and the saga of his (and Siegfried Sassoon’s) sojourn at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland and their treatment by Dr. William Rivers is now the stuff of myth and legend (most recently celebrated by Pat Barker) like the deeds of the heroes of old. Thus begins the 20th century romance, still as potent as ever at the beginning of the 21st, of the hero as victim.

Obviously anything which so refocused attention away from the soldier as a member of a regiment or an army and towards him as an individual, a particular psycho-social complex, was bound to diminish the sense of honor, which had a special interest in his actions according as they were thought to bring either honor or shame on others as well as himself. The claims of the individual, once they were recognized as paramount, had almost necessarily to bring into disrepute and scorn the claims of the group — whether the state, the nation, the regiment, the community, the profession or trade or the family — once thought to have been honored by the sacrifices of its individual members.

In trying to do away with the honor culture completely rather than reform it again, we seem to have pushed honor to the margins of our society, where it comes back in its more primitive form — in the culture of street gangs, for instance, among whom being “dissed” or disrespected is a matter to be taken as seriously as it was by 18th century gentlemen. But a more serious consequence has been, I think, that we are no longer able to understand the nature of the enemy we confront in the “war on terror.”

Consider, for example, the words of Osama bin Laden to John Miller of ABC News in 1998:

We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier, who is ready to wage cold wars and unprepared to fight long wars. . .This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours and this was also repeated in Somalia. . . . [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers. . . . After a few blows, they ran in defeat . . . they forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order. They left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.

Bin Laden in making his point was relying on the all-but universal understanding that cowardice is dishonorable, but his inability to see America’s behavior in any other terms is characteristic of the more primitive honor-culture from which he comes. As David Pryce-Jones puts it, “Arabs and Muslims generally live in what anthropologists call a shame society, in which acquisition of honor and avoidance of shame are the key motivators. These values distort reality and oblige people to cancel out feelings of shame through heroics.”

We may find the use of the word “heroics” in connection with suicide bombings bizarre, but we have to remember that the unreformed honor-culture owes nothing to Victorian notions of fair play. As Pryce-Jones puts it, suicide bombing does “not fit into any Western scheme of things.” Even Japanese kamikaze pilots, he claims, “at least could calculate that they might take an American fighting ship with them.” But the Palestinian suicide bombers kill for symbolic reasons because they “have to see themselves primarily as rescuing honor.” He goes on to cite the testimony of Nasra Hassan and Hala Jaber, two Muslim journalists, of “how would-be suicide bombers utter such key sentences as ‘Israel attacked my honor,’ and ‘Honor and dignity are very important in our culture. And when we are humiliated we respond with wrath.’”

This helps explain how the suicide bombers, like the September 11th terrorists are mostly people of middle-class, reasonably well-off homes, often with university educations. The common media explanation that they are poor and desperate simply does not meet the case. Nor are they necessarily religious fanatics. As Pryce-Jones notices, many of the most recent suicide bombers have come from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who are secular nationalists.

Islamic fanaticism (he writes) and the need to wipe out perceived shame merge into a socio-religious frame of mind that sends these young men happily to their gruesome but devotional deaths. They have become priests of killing.

Moreover, honor cultures see others as belonging to the same honor-system with themselves. Attempts to reason with or placate them are seen as signs of weakness (and therefore dishonor) and only encourage them to redouble their efforts.

Yet Western commentators, heirs of the 20th century’s discrediting of honor cultures, are fond of describing the conflict in the Middle East in terms of “the cycle of violence.” They do not see that the very use of the word violence would not be understood by the people for whose sake they are prescribing solutions. Generic “violence” makes no sense to those who have been taught by thousands of years of culture to think the only important thing about a violent act is who is committing it. Committed against themselves, violence is very bad; committed by themselves, it is good. Pretty much all the human race once thought it natural to see things in this way, but the 20th century history of the U.S. and Western Europe has produced a very different sensibility, one which regards the violent act not as an irreducible datum in the relationship between two people or nations — and therefore requiring only to be answered with another violent act — but as a symptom of something else, some emotion which can be treated and calmed by something other than committing the answering act of violence.

Thus our politicians and diplomats, almost as much as our pundits and reporters, are inclined to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of anger. The Arabs are angry with the Israelis for occupying what they regard as their land; the Israelis are angry with the Arabs for blowing them up in suicide terror-attacks. Once this assumption is made, then it is natural to think of the solution as consisting of the search for ways to assuage that anger. If the Israelis could only compromise and give the Arabs some of the land they want, then their anger would be less. Maybe even enough less to prevent them from further suicide-bombings. That in turn would lessen Israeli anger, and so lead to further accommodations between the two sides.

But what if the problem is not emotional? To be sure, emotions are useful if you are nerving yourself to blow yourself up, or to throw rocks at people armed with automatic weapons. But to focus on those emotions is to mistake the consequence for the cause. The real reason for the acts of war committed by both sides is not a species of sickness but the old imperatives of honor that we have almost forgotten.

Part of the reason we have forgotten them is also that we are still top dog in the world and so have grown unused to thinking of ourselves as vulnerable to attack, let alone conquest. But there is good evidence that Osama bin Laden thought that he could get away with his suicide attacks on America because America had not thought her honor engaged when her soldiers were killed in Somalia, her sailors on the USS Cole and her diplomats in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. Few in America, even of the most hawkish, would have felt comfortable with the insistence that American honor demanded a violent retaliation for these deeds. Honor is just too old fashioned a concept to be useful in this way.

Or so it seemed until September 11th. At that point, President Bush and the country as a whole seemed instinctively to understand that there was no question of leaving our 3000 dead unavenged. But because of the long desuetude of the idea of honor, it was necessary for him to couch his determined resistance in the language of good and “evil” instead of that of national honor. It helped, of course, that the terror-attacks really were evil. But there are lots of evil things that go on in the world that do not oblige us as a nation to risk our blood and treasure for the sake of stopping them. What made these evil acts uniquely exigent?

Only by understanding of the Arab honor culture can we make sense of the taunt of a Hamas official, reported in the Washington Post, that Jews “love life more than other people. . . and they prefer not to die.” What can he mean? Who doesn’t love life and prefer not to die? We think this because we take a psychological view of the world. If you take the view of an honor culture, in particular an extreme, primitive and unreformed honor culture like that of the Arabs, it becomes a sign of shame or weakness to confess that you love life. What must be understood is that the Hamas official is not making what he considers to be a statement of factual reality about the psychological state of either Arab or Jew. He has no interest in the question of whether, if interviewed by a doctor or a pollster any individual Jew or Arab would report that he loves life and prefers not to die. His concern is solely with the matter of pride and honor in not showing fear — and therefore, in an extreme honor culture, of insisting that one actually loves what others fear, namely death.

This kind of thinking may seem to us to be extremely odd, but it is not all that different from the way our ancestors thought and that many people still do think in small and relatively inconsequential ways. Though the therapeutic culture which has replaced the honor culture for us enjoins us to be compassionate towards those who confide in us their fears, something in us bridles at this, and we have to bite back the tendency to call them wimps and tell them to buck up. “Be a man” was something that parents could still tell their children when I was young. Nowadays you’d have to worry about being not only insensitive but sexist as well.

Leon Wieseltier claims to be able to tell the difference between heroism and the sort of “martyrdom” sought by the Arab suicide bombers: “A hero,” he writes, “is somebody who risks everything for what he believes. A martyr is somebody who risks nothing for what he believes, because he believes that his reward is certain, and that his life really begins with his death. Martyrdom, unlike heroism, is an extreme and repugnantly rigid expression of certainty. Martyrs make dogmas, heroes make wagers.”

This is silly. On this argument, the suicide bomber would be transformed into a hero simply by entertaining doubts (and who, in such circumstances, would not?) of his eternal destination. But the expression of doubt, like the expression of fear, would be to an honor culture a sign of weakness, so they commonly insist in a certainty of belief that simply cannot be true, however “brainwashed” they may be by their years of training in Muslim orthodoxy.

But Wieseltier’s argument is necessary for him, as for so many other liberals, so that he can go on to make the argument that the Palestinian terrorists and supporters of terror are like us after all. “Surely they may be expected to recognize what is wrong with suicide bombings,” he writes — “and more generally with historical action founded on rage and despair. There is no reason for foreign soldiers to spare the Palestinians the pangs of auto-emancipation. Otherwise no peace will ever be real.” But no peace ever is “real” in this sense. All peace co-exists with various sorts of dissatisfaction which, for one reason or another, are not for the moment erupting into war. But the pie in the sky of what he comically calls “auto-emancipation” is a triumph of liberal self-deception and a refusal to acknowledge the reality of cultural differences.

A somewhat similar problem arose with President Bush’s description of the terror attacks of September 11th as “cowardly.” A number of observers pointed out — Bill Maher of “Politically Incorrect” most notoriously — that hijacking an airplane and flying it at hundreds of miles an hour into the side of a building was not most people’s idea of cowardice. Let us by all means admit that the suicide bomber is a hero within his own terms of reference, which are those of an unreformed honor culture. The Japanese kamikaze pilot was exactly the same. He launched himself at military targets because these were the only targets he had, but does anyone doubt that these men would have been equally enthusiastic suicide bombers if they had lived cheek by jowl with their enemies, as the Palestinians do?

But Bush had a point too, and one which shows that the reformed, pre-1914 honor culture of our grandparents and great-grandparents may still be not beyond recovery. For somewhere buried not too deeply in our president’s WASPish conscience there was still a sense that striking your enemy when his guard is down, and killing his women and children, is not playing the game. Not, that is, in terms of what we once thought of as the gentlemanly standards of Western and Anglo-Saxon man. Indeed, it is a confession of dishonorable fear of attacking our fighting men that the enemy had to attack our civilians instead. Osama bin Laden himself admitted as much in the early denials of responsibility, when he said that his men would not have been guilty of such a dishonorable deed.

I wondered at the time if this remark wasn’t the indication of a tiny sense of shame, a feeling for the inferiority of his unreformed honor culture and the implied rebuke to it of the Western one, with its sense of chivalry and fair play. Although the latter culture is apparently long gone, all but the most progressive and guilt-ridden among us must feel ourselves superior to those who do such things because we remember that our own honor culture — before we abandoned it in the mistaken belief that we could do without such things — was reformed, by Christianity and by democratic imperatives. Moreover, even those of us who overtly scorn the idea of gentlemanliness may feel ashamed of not behaving like gentlemen (or ladies, for that matter) ourselves. But it may take a war with a primitive honor culture to bring our own sense of honor back.


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