Project Alberta :: View topic – Another Man’s Honor, Or Why MidEast Peace Will be Difficult
In the West we’ve redefined “honorable” as being virtuous, fair, truthful and sincere, but that’s not the traditional meaning. Honor meant simply the respect of the local “honor group” — the family, the extended clan, the tribe, the religious sect. It meant maintaining a reputation for courage and loyalty, not being charitable to enemy civilians. Telling the truth was secondary to saving face.
This “tyranny of the face” continually frustrates Westerners trying to understand the Middle East. When I interviewed villagers in Iraq, I discovered we usually had separate agendas: I wanted the facts, but the villager wanted to avoid embarrassing either of us. So he would tactfully search for the answer that would both please me and not dishonor his family.
When American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Western television viewers were astonished at the sight of the Iraqi information minister steadfastly denying that anything was going wrong. But it made sense from a traditional honor system. The only thing worse than being defeated is the shame of admitting defeat.
He was just following the strategy of Sir Lancelot when the knight was accused of adultery with Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. Everyone, including Lancelot, knew the accusation was true, but Lancelot insisted on fighting his accusers — and after he defeated them, he proclaimed that his victories proved his innocence. He had saved face; therefore he must be honorable.
Lancelot’s strategy, as Bowman explains, ultimately didn’t work because his traditional view of honor was going out of fashion, made obsolete by the influence of Christianity. Instead of might-makes-right, Christianity preached turning the other cheek. Instead of according special honors to an elite class of men, it preached egalitarianism and love toward strangers. It emphasized inner virtue, not outward glory.
The result was a new honor system in the West, chivalry, that was an uneasy combination of Christian virtues and knightly violence. Eventually, with the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeois and democracy, the system evolved into what Bowman calls honor-by-merit, epitomized by the Victorian ideal of the gentleman who earns his reputation by working hard, playing fair, defending the weak and fighting for his country.
he result was a new honor system in the West, chivalry, that was an uneasy combination of Christian virtues and knightly violence. Eventually, with the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeois and democracy, the system evolved into what Bowman calls honor-by-merit, epitomized by the Victorian ideal of the gentleman who earns his reputation by working hard, playing fair, defending the weak and fighting for his country.
The problem today, as Bowman sees it, is that the whole concept of defending one’s honor has been devalued in the West — mocked as an archaic bit of male vanity or childish macho chest-thumping. But if you don’t create a civilized honor culture, you risk ending up with the primitive variety.
“The honor system in Arab culture is the default honor system, the one you see in street gangs in America — you dis me, I shoot you,” says Bowman, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “We need a better system that makes it honorable to be protective of those who are weaker instead of lording it over them.”
When you’re confronted with an honor culture like the one in the Middle East, there are two rules to keep in mind. One is that you are not going to placate the enemy with the kind of concessions that appeal to Western diplomats. “Hezbollah is fighting for honor, to humiliate the enemy, not for any particular objective,” Bowman says. “Israel has no choice in what it’s doing. Nothing short of victory by either side will change anything.”
The other rule is that you’re not going to quickly transform an honor culture. The Iraq war was predicated on the assumption that democracy would turn Iraqis into loyal citizens with new civic virtues. But for now the old loyalties to tribes and sects still matter more than any universal concept of justice. The men would rather have honor than peace.
July 25, 2006
NYT Op-Ed Columnist
Another Man’s Honor
By JOHN TIERNEY