Cultures of Honor, Relativism & Respect

What Does Honor Mean?

Malcolm Gladwell, in Chapter 6 of his 2008 book Outliers, discusses the idea of “Cultures of Honor”. Here’s a brief quote in Goodreads summarizing Gladwell’s idea. I want to expand on that theme, from my experience and study. Codes of honor are typically found in areas that are relatively infertile such as steep mountainsides or barren dry land where water is scarce and crops are few and ill developed. Livelihood typically depends on cattle herds, or sheep or goats, which must be moved, to find water or grazing, and (more importantly) are easily killed by predators or stolen. The Massai in Kenya come to mind, or the dwellers on the border lands in northern Ireland and southern Scotland.

Living in such environments generally leads to solidarity and trust among people who know each other and have similar lives, while distrust is the default attitude, with retaliation (if needed) against those who are strangers, or threaten the community. The idea of “Honor” in this case is not a moral value, but an ingrained commitment to Us v. Them. Whatever is ‘in our interest’ has no objective value. In that sense, it’s fundamentally relativistic . In fact, it often boils down to Me v. You, in any dispute. You insulted Me, but to gain personal honor, I’ll enlist the help of my fellows in the group. I think this view of honor is a masculine characteristic.

The same Us v. Them mentality isn’t always a result of difficult land forms and how they affect dwellers’ livelihood. Borders between different cultural or political groups often encourage the same suspicion and distrust. Examples are all through history, and world wide. They might be small or large, involving neighboring tribes or competing empires. In Medieval Europe, e.g., kings might delegate subordinate royal members to govern border areas far from the heartland. These were called the “Marks” or “Marches”, from which French titles Marquis & Marquesa derive. In modern Europe, Andorra is the last surviving example of a March – set by Charlemagne between Christian France and Moorish (Muslim) Spain.

These borders were more than buffer zones. They were places where a ruler could send settlers to improve his own security. Of course the settlers normally had troubles, depending on what kind of land and livelihood was available. In a few borderlands, inhabitants could move freely back and forth, across boundaries to trade and socialize. But most were places of lawlessness, rebellion and distrust. Conditions can also be influenced by whether boundaries are fixed, as with a river or mountains, or artificially set by one side or the other – frequently disputed.

Are borders necessary? Some idealists might say no. Robert Frost, in his poem Mending Wall, imagines a conversation with his neighbor in their annual ritual of putting back whatever irregular stones have fallen or been pushed out of place by weather and people, or  perhaps ‘elves’. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, he says. “…we do not need a wall”. “My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines, I tell him”.  But Frost knows his neighbor will give the usual answer: “Good fences make good neighbors”. I was surprised to learn that Mending Wall was published in 1914 – the year that the First World War started, In volving  borders. The Ottoman Turks and others of the Central Powers fought Western Europeans and their Allied forces.  I’m sure no previous war ever caused so much death and suffering. World War War II did have more, as it involved China, while Japan, Russia and Italy switched alliances. Below is a WWI German tank with others behind it, in an unidentified city.

Patterns of settlement vary of course, depending largely on reasons of economics and freedom. The foreign migrations to America – past and present – may result from pull from this side, or push from the other side – usually both. But that pull may be more a sales pitch than reality. Think of the Statue of Liberty here.

Liberty’s invitation “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was written in 1883 (more than a century after this country was founded). More importantly, it does not represent an open invitation to emigrants from wherever they live to come for shelter and hope. This country has never given free access to its hoped-for benefits.

We’re all familiar with the Hatfield-McCoy feud – a popular topic of films. There are many similar stories from the Kentucky-West Virginia border. A much more recent example was the 2012 murder of a man and woman from Tennessee’s Appalachian region by an older man whose daughter they had allegedly “Unfriended” on Facebook. It brought shocked reactions from news sources all over the country. A recent update shows the unfriending part was fabricated, and the whole complex story was a result of phishing, deception and cold-blooded murder. Even so, the popular reaction was to view people in that area as Honor Culture types who are hot tempered and given to feuding, but this is a simplistic and misleading generalization.

According to Wikipeda, the term “Appalachia” describes a cultural region that applies to the lower central and southern parts of the Appalachian Mountains, more than to a geographic area, although, as we keep emphasizing, topography greatly affects the lives of its inhabitants. It also warns us against the usual characterization which is prejudicial, and mistaken stereotyping, as recent sociological studies have shown.

The Appalachian Mountains run from Newfoundland in Canada southwest to central Alabama. They are old and heavily eroded. In some places the ridge lines are many miles apart, with flat fertile valleys between, such as around Penn State University where I went to school. In others, the ridges are in rows, close together, with sharp ravines  between them, as though shaped by the sharp tongs of a gigantic iron rake. Small rivers run in some ravines. Perhaps the best example of Appalachia culture is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, that pass through southern West Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee.

Asheville, N.C. is in that region. My experiences in the early 60s support the stereotype and in some ways I believe it continues, though  modernity and major interstate routes, like the Blue Ridge Highway, have modified and opened up the perspective of those who live there. Unfortunately development opportunities weren’t followed up, and poverty is still common. An army friend who still has family property in the hills near Asheville confirmed one of my thoughts about the area. Folks in slow-moving heavy cars, rigged to carry other liquids besides fuel in the gas tanks, have been transporting ‘white lightning’ or ‘moonshine’ along the French Broad river, ever since Prohibition days. Despite the fact that hooch is now legal (and taxable), it continues today –  even advertised as the ‘Real Stuff’ by breweries. How much traffic is still illegal, I can’t say.

The early settlers in this area of America were mainly a second wave of emigrants from Ireland, Scotland and England, whose forebears were poor people – Irish Catholics and others – pushed off their lands by the Viceroy of English king James from 1606-1609, and replaced by wealthy protestants loyal to the Church of England. The expelled tenants are called ‘Scotch-Irish’ in this country, but called Ulster Protestants in their original countries. Most of them came from Ulster County in Ireland, but they were joined by Presbyterians from the lowlands of Scotland as well, since the border of England and Scotland was also for many years a region of religious conflict and warfare. The original takeover – which resulted in protracted and bloody resistance – is called the Plantation of Ulster. Ulster is one of 6 counties in Northern Ireland – now part of the UK. The king wanted to subdue the Gaelic chiefs there who were Catholic, and bring in settlers favorable to the English Church.

Emigrants from the Ulster Plantation and other areas of Ireland, England, and Scotland came to the 13 American colonies in 2 main waves. The first made their way by various routes following the disruption the  Plantation project had caused (mid 1600s). The second was early 1700s (before the American Revolution) and again after the Revolution. The second group were not so much servants but rather people with trade skills, learned  from the Industrial Revolution in England and Europe, and further developed in this country that needed them, and would not abuse them for religious reasons. They went to many of the 13 colonies – now states – including New York (which was taken from the Dutch) and Pennsylvania, which welcomed all faiths, and to parts of the country that weren’t already settled, or were less costly, such as southern Appalachia.

It’s interesting but not surprising to note that of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 9 were of Irish descent. It’s even more interesting and very surprising to me that the Scotts in Scotland did not generally support the Revolution; although in America they did so strongly. Nearly half of the signatories of the Declaration had Scottish descent, and one of these – James Wilson – was one of six who signed both that document and the Constitution and brought practical wisdom to the cause. My mother’s Scottish ancestors were Glenns, and very patriotic.

Returning to our theme of honor cultures, some Muslim societies have a long tradition of subordinating and abusing women. Even today that continues – even worsening in Iraq and Kurdistan. Often, as soon as these events are put in the media, sophisticated (read non-religious) listeners may dismiss them, saying ‘Oh, that’s religion; of course it makes no sense!’ True, it relates to religious perspectives, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t think about. It’s wrong, and we should consider it critically. First, there are Islamic cultures today which are supporting women’s rights. Second, there are also Christian dominant countries today where religion causes, or contributes to the subordination and abuse of women. In these places, women are still held subject to Christian beliefs and values as interpreted by men. Third, this applies today in communities here  (USA) and abroad.

The Roman Church is dominant in all the countries of Central and South America. But in the poorer of these, its leaders  say directly how women should behave. Politicians have listened to them – that is to the religious fundamentalists among them – to impose prohibition of abortion for any reason, under penalty of law – even if death results from a pregnancy.

I suggested earlier that “honor killing” is typically relativistic; it says ‘the men of our local community will decide what women must do or may not do’. So the term “honor” doesn’t apply easily to situations where church doctrine determines the abuse. It’s a question of widely accepted belief. But the abusive effects on women can be just as harsh. The journal Latino Rebels mentions that Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Dominican Republic are the five countries which ban abortion without exception. The latter wrote the prohibition into its first constitution, in 1844! Women there are protesting now. In the 2020 elections – the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM)  replaced the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), which has ruled for 20 of the past 24 years. NBC reports that both parties have long suffered from corruption, recession and effects of the pandemic. So it’s uncertain whether these laws will change, despite on-going feminist protests and activism. The 17 other countries in Latin America have limited conditions where abortion is possible. Signs read “The (legal) Causes Are Going”. Chile alone has no restriction, yet women are pushing other rights there now.

In our country, Roe v. Wade is under constant pressure by the Christian religious right. There have been murders, bombings and other anti abortion violence in the U. S. since 1993. Despite occasional demonstrations and threats, a major Planned Parenthood site near where I live remains open – perhaps because it’s in an affluent neighborhood.

This essay has touched on a wide variety of topics – perhaps too many:  differing uses of lands on hills and valleys; who works the land and who owns it; arranged marriages (whether nobles or commoners); daughters who are ‘used merchandise’; exchange of land in marriage or divorce. Is there a point to be made? I think so. An undercurrent of much that this article discusses has to do with money. It’s an old idea, famously said in the Bible – “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Tim 6:10) That sounds a bit overstated. Other loves can bring evil too, like power, reputation and pleasure. Since the text has been translated in different ways, perhaps “Many evils come from the love of money” is better. Socrates said much the same thing 500 years earlier, in the Republic.

It seems then that whether we talk about the honor owed to some group, or what God’s will is said to be, or what rights are alloted to women, it comes down to “follow the money” – i.e., which laws, dogmas, and media opinions are being used to benefit further the few and keep the needy in their place. “God bless America, land of the free”!

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