Honor / Dishonorable

The concept of “honor”  – in the sense of ethical in conduct, meeting expectations of behavior, being an honorable person, etc. – is complex. The idea of “fairness” is pretty basic, one a couple of two year old’s being forced Mom to share a cookie understand can grasp; they know getting the smaller portion is unfair, regardless of the details. But “honor” comes in so many flavors – at least one for every culture and subculture – that defining it and explaining why it’s important is difficult. What is expected and honorable in one culture may be anathema, disgusting, and disgraceful in another.

I think the concept can be broken down into three inter-related parts: (a) expectations of oneself, (b) expectations of others, (c) the idea of reciprocity.

The first two items come in all sorts of flavors – Japanese Bushido is rather different from European medieval chivalry, and both are very different from NYC gang honor, Italian mafia honor, African tribal honor, or Islamic honor standards. Details may vary by sex, marital status, age, lineage, and a host of other things. Some of the rules are written and formal, some are very informal but of much longer standing. But they are identifiable. An honor system is what gives a culture standards, expectations, and continuity. It lays out what is permissible behavior and consequences, so that transactions can be made, business run, relationships pursued, families raised. It frequently protects some people and exploits others. They do not have to be nice, or particularly consistent or logical, they just have to be understood and generally followed.

But the last item, the idea of reciprocity, is nearly universal. In fact, it is this item that often defines the idea of “dishonorable.” When a person simply defies the expected behavior, it’s punished either socially or legally. It’s a common transgression. But it is when an expected reciprocal treatment or “fair play” not being returned that is dishonorable. In the antebellum southern states, being offended and challenging someone to a duel for saying something negative about your wife would be honorable, even if it ends in the other’s death. Stabbing the offender in the back would be dishonorable. On the other hand, in a Mafia family, the back alley knife might be fine, even preferred… but everyone involved in either case knows the situation ahead of time, and acts accordingly.

It is when two cultures with a very different senses of what is expected of yourself and others, and what sort of costs and benefits each has, that trouble ensues. And that is the biggest weakness of “multiculturalism” has, is that it assumes that when we throw a bunch of people together, each with radically different expectations of their own behavior and that of others, and how those parts are supposed to work together, we’ll all just magically find out what’s “best” and work it out to our mutual benefit. It won’t. It can’t, really, because each system has parts that interlock in different ways, and express different values.

The reality is that chaos ensues. Nobody know what to expect. You have to walk on eggshells to avoid offense, and the most thin-skinned or manipulative exploit the polite at the drop of a hat. One side feels like chumps as others take advantage of them, and give nothing back, while others see nothing be rubes and easy marks and decadence. Evil men and women divide, control, manipulate, and conquer without a shot fired. The good are made to feel guilty. Confusion reigns, productivity drops, societal unease skyrockets, and progress slows. Miscommunication leads to people talking past one another and getting angry, and the best people lose the most while the least productive dance while they not only watch Rome burn, but they help spread the embers.

When you destroy a common culture, with a common understanding of what is honorable and acceptable, you do not have a nation at peace. You get warring tribes, with the most ruthless rising to the top as they have throughout history – Mongols, Romans, Germanic tribes, Vikings, emperors, trade guilds, popes, and worse. Let us pray our children survive the coming breakdown to build something anew, and teach history better to their children.

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