Manly Honor VI: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West in the 20th Century
by Brett & Kate McKay on December 10, 2012 · 55 comments
Our last three posts – on Victorian, Northern, and Southern honor respectively, detailed the final manifestations of traditional honor cultures in the West, while also hinting at the cultural forces that were emerging even then that would eventually erode them almost entirely.
Today we will cover how those forces were amplified, manifested themselves, and led to the disappearance of traditional honor in the West over the course of the 20th century. At the same time, a discussion of these elements provides an excellent opportunity to review the concepts we’ve discussed so far. We’ve come a long way since the first post, and this is such a complicated topic that I think this re-orientation will be quite beneficial.
On that note, this post does admittedly have more of a scatter-shot quality than the rest. The complex nature of the history of honor cannot be reiterated too many times. Without excusing the limitations of our writing abilities, which are myriad, there is no clear coherent narrative to the evolution and death of honor, and it is impossible to construct one. What we offer below are sketches of cultural forces which could each be their own book; each is interconnected with the others, and multi-layered. In the absence of a tome-length treatise on each cultural force/change, what we have given is a snapshot that is simply designed to give you an overview of the element and provide you fodder for further pondering and connection-making to history and your modern life.
Also, it is very important to mention that the list below is not a list of “bad” things. Each cultural movement discussed has its advantages and disadvantages – as does traditional honor itself. Were it not so, traditional honor would not have disappeared in the first place! What you will find here is not a laundry list of complaints about culture, but a description of what happened to traditional honor. In my opinion, these societal movements brought about both positive and negative changes, and reviving those positive aspects will be the topic of our next and final post in the series.
This post is as beastly as the last – if it helps you, try to think of this not as an article but as a chapter in a book. Read it when you have a quiet block of time.
Urbanization and Anonymity
Traditional honor can only exist among a group of equal peers who enjoy intimate, face-to-face relationships. It is entirely external, and completely predicated on one’s reputation as judged by fellow members of the honor group. Without close ties, there is no one to evaluate your claims to honor, and thus the possibility of a traditional honor culture vanishes.
In 1790, 95% of Americans lived in small, rural communities. By the 1990s, 3 out of 4 citizens made their home in urbanized areas. While in small towns everyone can keep track of the doings of their neighbors, in cities and suburbs relationships tend to be more impersonal and anonymous; any city dweller has experienced the sensation of being in a large group of people and yet feeling entirely alone. In large populations you can live out your whole life without anyone checking up on what you’re doing, much less judging your reputation as honorable or dishonorable.
In cities and smaller towns alike, civic participation and community-mindedness has fallen significantly since WWII. And while honor formerly centered on one’s clan, extended families no longer live close together and familial relations have constricted to the nuclear family alone, which itself is often split up.
As a result of these shifts, immoral, unethical, and cowardly behaviors are rarely known outside one’s immediate circle of family and friends. And even then, for reasons we’ll discuss below, they are more likely to shrug and say, “It’s none of my business,” or, “To each his own,” than to condemn and challenge the errant behavior.
The internet has only accelerated the shift towards impersonal and anonymous relationships. Traditional honor is designed to act as a check on people’s claims to merit and force them to stand behind and defend their insults; exaggerations of one’s deeds or shameful actions are called out and challenged by one’s associates. On the internet, however, people can claim to be a Navy SEAL or issue the basest of insults to another person without having to prove their claim, suffer consequences for their character, or allow the insulted person to defend themselves. They can be anyone and say anything, all while safely ensconced behind a screen.
Diversity, Leading to Conflicts Between Conscience and Honor
As we have explored in previous posts, during the 19th century in England and the American North, the honor code began to shift from being based on outward behaviors (like prowess and strength) to inward moral virtues and character traits. Despite these changes, the Victorian, or Stoic-Christian honor code, remained rooted in traditional honor. For while the standards of the code had shifted to internal virtues, a man’s adherence to those virtues was not judged solely by his own conscience but also by his peers – his public reputation continued to matter.
This evolution in the meaning of traditional honor also sowed the seeds of its eventual destruction as a cultural force. An honor code based on moral virtues and character traits can only survive when the necessary virtues and character traits are agreed upon by the culture as a whole; besides intimate, face-to-face relationships, the second key element that makes a traditional honor culture possible is a shared code. Each member of the honor group understands the standards that must be kept to attain and keep horizontal honor, and everyone knows how honor may be lost; this is key – honor that cannot be lost is not true honor.
While the manly honor of courage and physical strength transcends culture, a moral honor code, because it deals with issues of philosophy and faith, is more open to differences of opinion and can vary from society to society and man to man. Could a man gamble and drink and still be honorable? Was it more honorable to fight over everything or to have the self-control to walk away from a challenge? Should a man’s honor code include Christian beliefs? What about Muslims and Hindus, did they not have their own codes of honor? These questions led to conflicts between a man’s allegiance to his conscience and his loyalty to the code of his honor group. This prompted debates about which allegiance – conscience or honor — to give higher priority, and which decision on that count was more honorable, or at least more deserving of respect. These conflicts in turn eroded the stability of an honor culture, as Frank Henderson Stewart explains:
“Once the shift is made from basing honor on a certain kind of behavior (always winning in battle, always keeping one’s promise) or on the possession of certain external qualities (wealth, health, high rank) to basing it on the possession of mostly moral qualities (the ones we refer to compendiously as the sense of honor) then the way is open for the whole notion of honor to be undermined. Imagine a German army officer of a hundred years ago who is challenged to a duel. He declines the challenge because is a devout Catholic, and the church strongly condemns dueling. Now for the honor code to be really effective, the officer must be treated as having acted dishonorably. Yet people may find it difficult to do so, since they are sure (we will assume) that he acted as he did not out of cowardice but because of his attachment to his faith. They are convinced (we will further assume) that he is profoundly committed to everything in the honor code that is not incompatible with his religious beliefs. In these circumstances people may feel it appropriate to say of him that he has a strong sense of honor; even if they do not, they will have to admit that he is a man of integrity, and having said this they will find it hard to say that because of his refusal to accept the challenge their respect for him is much diminished. And if the loss of his right to respect is not accompanied by any actual loss of respect, then the honor that is assigned by the honor code has been emptied of his primary content.”
The more diverse Western societies became, the greater the chance that a man’s personal values of faith and philosophy would not exactly align with the cultural honor code, increasing the likelihood of men opting out of certain provisions of the latter when they contradicted their conscience. Yet as Stewart points out, it was not possible for this trend alone to cause the unraveling of traditional honor – its effect was contingent on another cultural shift: tolerance. Traditional honor is inherently intolerant; if you fail to follow the code, you are shamed, you are despicable, you are out. In the hypothetical example of the German army officer above, his peers could have judged his decision to excuse himself from the duel on religious grounds as dishonorable and unworthy of their respect, thus maintaining the strictures of the traditional honor code.
However, a trend towards respect and tolerance for different viewpoints, which began in the 19th century, would become, some have argued, the virtue of the latter part of the 20th. The relativistic ideal of “to each his own” would allow each individual to choose his own set of values without cultural repercussions – without shame.
Diversity, Leading to Tolerance and Relativism
Another one of the key elements of a traditional honor culture is the belief in the absolute superiority of one’s honor group, and that this excellence can directly be traced to the superiority of the group’s honor code to all others. Honor cultures are based on an “us vs. them” mindset. When tribes and communities were more isolated, maintaining this belief wasn’t hard; honor groups didn’t encounter too many others groups that were much different from themselves, and when they did, a battle between them would quickly and clearly establish the validity of their respective claims.
But the globalization that began in earnest during the 19th century and accelerated during the 20th, greatly diversified the populations of Western societies, bringing different cultures physically together, while also increasing general knowledge of societies halfway around the world. That each culture had their own variations on what constituted honor created doubt in some minds about the superiority of their own. It began to be posited that absolute belief in the rightness of a certain way had led to terrible societal ills – racism, chauvinism, war, slavery, persecution, and so on. At the same time, using violence or war to prove one’s honor fell out of favor (see “Wariness of Violence” below).
Instead, in an attempt to live peaceably with each other and avoid conflict, traditional honor was replaced with the ideal of tolerance and respect for all groups, even those on the fringe who did not fit into the majority culture. Whereas outsiders had formerly been treated badly, but invited to join the insiders and earn their esteem through adherence to the honor code, they were now encouraged to celebrate their own values as opposed to assimilating to dominate norms.
The only value most of society can now agree upon is openness. People generally fall into one of two camps. Either they do not believe that any specific honor code is the “right” one and that one is not necessarily “better” than another, or they remain an “absolutist” and believe they are following the one true code, they know that they should not shame or condemn others for not living up to their own chosen standards, should never assert the superiority of their code in public, and must at least give lip service to respecting the beliefs of others. You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.
This “to each his own” ethic is incompatible with traditional honor, for, as philosopher Allan Bloom argues,
“Men must love and be loyal to their families and their peoples in order to preserve them. Only if they think their own things are good can they rest content with them. A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others. That is why there are myths to justify these attachments. And a man needs a place and opinions by which to orient himself…[In traditional honor societies] the problem of getting along with outsiders is secondary to, and sometimes in conflict with, having an inside, a people, a culture, a way of life. A very great narrowness is not incompatible with the health of an individual or a people, whereas with great openness it is hard to avoid decomposition.”
Choose Your Own Honor Code
Traditional honor codes are designed to motivate people to adhere to a standard that the group believes promotes its best interest. In seeking to avoid shame, group members are impelled to submerge their own personal interests for the sake of the common good.
In the increasingly diverse society of the 20th century, ideas of what constituted the common good splintered. And with that splintering came uncertainty about who should be shamed or honored for what. Thus with more and more people opting out of certain provisions of the shared cultural honor code without any consequences, a cycle began: because people who opted-out weren’t shamed, this decreased the honor given to those who kept the code (see “Egalitarianism” below), making them more likely to opt-out too, and the cycle would continue, unraveling the honor code further.
As the benefits of keeping the shared honor code dried up, people became increasingly unwilling to deny their own personal needs for the good of the group. They rebelled against authority — “the man” — and the idea that a common good should be dictated. In the absence of a shared honor code and an agreed upon common good, people began to celebrate pursuing whatever one deemed to be their personal good (follow your bliss!).
Because no honor code was judged to be better than another, individuals were free to pick and choose values from each of them in order to assemble their own personal patchwork honor code. While each individual man’s assertion of his own values could have caused great conflict in theory, in practice it was used to eliminate discord: “I’ve got my values. You’ve got your values. To each their own.” Bloom elaborates:
“Conflict is the evil we most want to avoid, among nations, among individuals and within ourselves. Nietzsche thought with his value philosophy to restore the harsh conflicts for which men were willing to die, to restore the tragic sense of life, at a moment when nature had been domesticated and men become tame. The value philosophy was used in America for exactly the opposite purpose–to promote conflict-resolution, bargaining, harmony. If it is only a difference of values, then conciliation is possible. We must respect values, but they must not get in the way of peace.”
Because every man has the freedom to assemble his own set of values, respect is now given to a man not based on which values he chooses to live, but that he chooses to live with values, any values, at all. Deprived of the chance to earn honor from one’s peers, but still desirous of finding meaning in life, the goal becomes selecting values that together add up to and convey a unique lifestyle – one that embodies a morally-neutral attribute: purpose. Bloom again:
“A value-creating man is a plausible substitute for a good man, and some such substitute becomes practically inevitable in pop relativism, since very few persons can think of themselves as nothing. The respectable and accessible nobility of man is to be found not in the quest for or discovery of the good life, but in creating one’s own ‘life-style,’ of which there is not just one but many possible, none comparable to another. He who has a ‘life-style’ is in competition with, and hence inferior to, no one, and because he has one he can command his own esteem and that of others.”
The amount of esteem one gets from living their values now depends on their fidelity to their personal code. Or as Bloom puts it: “Commitment is the moral virtue because it indicates the seriousness of the agent. Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values.” We often admire men, even when we don’t agree with their values, as in, “I don’t really understand it myself, but he sure is sincere/serious about it/passionate/totally into it.”
The ability to choose one’s own code evolved honor’s meaning from outward displays of behavior centering on valor, to personal suffering – holding to your private code despite criticism from others or obstacles in the way.
The Shaming of Shame
In traditional honor cultures shame is seen as an essential part of life – it’s what motivates members of the honor group to behave in ways that benefit the common good of the tribe. Moreover, without shame, honor itself is not possible (see “Egalitarianism” below).
But beginning in the 20th century, with the rise of psychology and the shift to individualism over group identity, shame began to be seen as a neurosis that sickened the psyche, and as an impediment to resisting authority and following one’s personal passion and inner compass. Shame, it was argued, had outlasted its usefulness in a modern society that had solved the problems of basic survival, and was now a hindrance to the fulfillment of personal potential and destiny. Shame, it is now said, gets in the way of being comfortable in your own skin and being whoever you want to be.
For example, refusing to procreate or go to battle could get a man shamed in a primitive tribe that depended on reproduction to keep the tribe going and needed to defend itself from enemies. But in a peaceful modern society, on what some see as an already crowded planet, there no longer seems to be a pressing need to get men to adhere to such traditional (some would say outdated) standards. We have lost the sense of an immediate connection between an individual’s behavior and its effect on society as a whole. A prevailing modern view is that one person’s lifestyle choices will have absolutely no effect on the lifestyle choices of another, or on society as a whole.
So while shame was formerly seen as the thing that made honor, and therefore manliness, possible, it is now the favorite target of men’s groups and male psychology gurus who argue that it’s actually what holds men back from discovering their manhood. For example, the Mankind Project, which holds weekend retreats with the goal of initiating men into manhood, argues that the “New Macho” code requires a man to “let go of childish shame.” They posit that “Shame is one of the primary emotional states that locks many men into a perpetual cycle of self-hatred and self-destructive behavior. This behavior has wide reaching damaging effects on those around him. It harms his ability to create healthy relationships and nurture healthy families.” For this reason, a big part of MKP retreats center on getting men to rid themselves of shame.
Similarly, Robert Glover, the author of the very popular No More Mr. Nice Guy, a guide to moving from unhappy pushover to confident, assertive dude, argues that “Nice Guy Syndrome” emerges during boys’ “formative years,” when they received “messages from their families and the world around them that it was not safe, acceptable, or desirable for them to be who they were, just as they are.” [emphasis mine] Glover argues that a rejection of “who they are” results in childhood feelings of abandonment, which, as the boy grows into a man, results in “a psychological state called toxic shame,” which is “not just a belief that one does bad things, it is a deeply held core belief that one is bad.” By ridding themselves of this “toxic shame,” Glover argues, men can stop trying to be “good” for others, hiding their flaws, and trying to become “what they believe other people want them to be.” In other words, they can free themselves from the basic strictures that once constituted traditional honor.
Egalitarianism and Inclusion
Honor groups are inherently competitive, exclusionary, and hierarchical. There can be no true honor without the possibility of losing it and being shamed and disgraced – without the possibility of either failing or excelling a clear standard and one’s peers. Esteem and respect doled out equally to all is empty and meaningless. Or as M.I. Finley put it, “When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone.”
In an honor group, certain rights are exclusively available to those who keep the standards of the code and achieve horizontal honor, while special privileges are open only to those who excel their peers and achieve vertical honor. At the same time, competition and set standards mean that not everyone will make the cut, and that those who fall short will suffer shame, or at least hurt feelings. Having to compare oneself to others can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and the pain of being excluded and deemed unworthy.
While traditional honor codes award esteem based on merit (although sometimes bloodlines as well), modern societies have moved towards granting more rights and privileges on the basis of the idea of human dignity, that all people — regardless of skill, popularity, or contribution to the group — deserve a basic level of compassionate treatment.
In the 1960s, as shame increasingly came to be seen as a negative, a movement emerged which posited that removing the feelings of pain that come with not performing as well as one’s peers could increase young people’s sense of well-being.
In 1969, psychologist Nathaniel Brandon published a very influential paper called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” in which he argued that “feelings of self-esteem are the key to success in life.” Brandon’s ideas were first institutionalized when a task force, charged by the California state legislature, formulated a set of recommendations entitled, “Toward a State of Esteem.” The report argued that low self-esteem caused a variety of ills ranging from academic failure to teen pregnancy, and that teaching self-esteem in schools would be a “social vaccine” to inoculate kids from these problems. It recommended that every school district in California strive for “the promotion of self-esteem…as a clearly stated goal, integrated into its total curriculum and informing all of its polices and operations” and that “course work in self-esteem should be required for credentials…for all educators.”
Other states and schools were swept up into this movement and incorporated self-esteem-boosting exercises into their curriculum and programs. These exercises and guidelines – which often revolved around eliminating competition from the classroom — were designed to make students feel good about themselves, under the belief that these good feelings would then beget all sorts of success for them.
However, as later researchers found out, true self-esteem actually has two components — feeling good and doing well. The self-esteem movement had gotten their order mixed up. While the California report posited that low self-esteem causes problems like teen pregnancy and welfare dependence, studies have shown that the opposite is true; low self-esteem is the consequence, not the cause, of such behavior. Thus you can’t start with “feeling good” and have it lead to doing well. It happens the other way around. Feeling good, and true self-esteem, naturally follow from doing well. You can’t pump kids full of self-esteem — it’s something they have to earn for themselves, through true merit.
Despite these findings, policies designed to protect young people from feelings of shame remain in place in nearly every school. At an awards ceremony, every child, regardless of their achievement, must receive an award. All players on a sports team receive a “participation trophy.” High school yearbooks are required to show a picture of each student an equal number of times, regardless of that students’ popularity or involvement in school activities. Schools have children use invisible jump ropes instead of real ones so as to not cause a child embarrassment for tripping up on his rope.
The Rise of Psychology
With Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Jung’s interpretation of dreams, people began to be more interested in the individual workings of their mind and the variations of their unique psyche. Whereas in a traditional honor culture, one’s personal identity could not be separated from one’s identity as part of the group, and one’s own feelings and needs were subservient to the common good, psychology encouraged people see themselves as distinct individuals and to view their own feelings and needs as just as real, and important, as those of the group. Psychologists argued that ignoring or suppressing those feelings was unhealthy and comprised one’s well-being.
The tension between psychology and traditional honor can be seen in debates over whether what were once seen as shameful character defects – drinking, gambling, obesity, serial infidelity – should better be relabeled and dealt with as diseases and addictions.
But perhaps the best and most memorable way to explain the conflict that arose between honoring traditional honor, and honoring one’s individual psyche, can be conveyed in a story from World War II.
In 1943, coming off his dazzling victories in the Sicily campaign, George S. Patton stopped by a medical tent to visit with the wounded. He enjoyed these visits, and so did the soldiers and staff. He would hand out Purple Hearts, pump the men full of encouragement, and offer rousing speeches to the nurses, interns, and their patients that were so touching in nature they sometimes brought tears to many of the eyes in the room. On this particular occasion, as Patton entered the tent all the men jumped to attention except for one, Private Charles H. Kuhl, who sat slouched on a stool. Kuhl, who showed no outward injuries, was asked by Patton how he was wounded, to which the private replied, “I guess I just can’t take it.” Patton did not believe “battle fatigue” or “shell-shock” was a real condition nor an excuse to be given medical treatment, and had recently been told by one of the commanders of Kuhl’s division that, “The front lines seem to be thinning out. There seems to be a very large number of ‘malingerers’ at the hospitals, feigning illness in order to avoid combat duty.” He became livid. Patton slapped Kuhl across the face with his gloves, grabbed him by his collar, and led him outside the tent. Kicking him in the backside, Patton demanded that this “gutless bastard” not be admitted and instead be sent back to the front to fight.
A week later, Patton slapped another soldier at a hospital, who, in tears, told the general he was there because of “his nerves,” and that he simply couldn’t “stand the shelling anymore.” Enraged, Patton brandished his white-handled, single-action Colt revolver and bellowed:
“Your nerves, Hell, you are just a goddamned coward, you yellow son of a bitch. Shut up that goddamned crying. I won’t have these brave men here who have been shot seeing a yellow bastard sitting here crying…You’re a disgrace to the Army and you’re going back to the front lines and you may get shot and killed, but you’re going to fight. If you don’t I’ll stand you up against a wall and have a firing squad kill you on purpose. In fact I ought to shoot you myself, you God-damned whimpering coward.”
When the first slapping incident leaked to the press, it became an international scandal; many were horrified and called for Patton’s removal from command altogether, and even the Army itself. Faced with an intense public outcry, Eisenhower was incensed with Patton, but ended up retaining him, feeling he was “indispensable to the war effort – one of the guarantors of our victory.” Still, Ike gave him a sharp censure, relieved him of command of the 7th Army, promoted Omar Bradley to lieutenant general over him, kept him from having a central role in the D-Day invasion (although strategic factors were also involved in that decision), and also ordered him to apologize to the two soldiers he slapped, the hospital staffs, and his troops.
And yet despite the brouhaha Patton’s slapping incident created, and the vehement protest of many over what they labeled as brutal and out-of-control behavior, the great majority of the public (about 9 to 1) sided with Patton; even Kuhl’s own father wrote to his Congressman to express forgiveness for the general and his desire not to see him disciplined. And the reaction of Patton’s own men is most telling in gauging the life left in traditional honor, even at this point mid-century.
When Patton went to issue an apology to his troops, who were gathered in a large olive orchard and seated on their helmets, his penitent address never got past his first word – “Men!” It was at that point, Major Ted Conway of the 9th Division remembered:
“…the whole regiment erupted. It sounded like a football game in which a touchdown had been scored, because the helmets started flying through the air, coming down all over, raining steel helmets and the men just shouted ‘Georgie, Georgie’ – a name he detested. He was saying, we think he was saying, “At ease, take seats,” and so on. Then he had the bugler sound “attention” again, but nothing happened. Just all these cheers. So, finally General Patton was standing there and he was shaking his head and you could see big tears streaming down his face and he said, or words to this effect, “To hell with it,” and he walked off the platform. At this point the bugler sounded “attention” and again everybody grabbed the nearest available steel helmet, put it on, being sure to button the chin strap (which was a favorite Patton quirk) and as he stepped into a command car and again went down the side of the regiment, dust swirling, everybody stood at attention and saluted to the right and General Patton stood up in his command car and saluted, crying…He was our hero. We were on his side. We knew what he had done and why he had done it.”
Leon Luttrell of the 2nd Armored Division, who was in the same hospital as one of the slapped soldiers, also affirmed his loyalty to Patton:
“I was in the hospital recovering from my wounds, for which I received the Purple Heart, when he slapped the solider and branded him a coward. I can only say that none of us felt sorry for the soldier…I never heard anyone say that he was not the great leader, and best general in the Army.”
What accounts for the supportive reaction of Patton’s men? Combat represents the rawest distillation of the purpose of traditional honor; in war, submerging one’s own needs to the common good is not an abstraction, but a true matter of life and death. As another of Patton’s soldiers put it in commenting on the slapping incident, “his reaction was not entirely unnatural for a man who had seen many brave men die for their country’s safety and who realized the unnecessary casualties that can be caused by one weakling who fails to do his duty.”
Patton represents a fulcrum in the evolution of honor – the civilian media found his actions abhorrent, while the general public and his own troops thought they were perfectly understandable.
The media view would gather strength among civilians and military personnel alike in the ensuring decades. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was officially identified in 1980, and admitting to suffering PTSD and seeking treatment for it has become far more acceptable. There are even those who believe a Purple Heart should be awarded to those who suffer from it, and that PTSD should be applied retroactively to pardon and overturn decades-old dishonorable discharges and even executions. For example, in 2006 British Parliament voted to pardon the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who had been executed during WWI for cowardice, desertion, and falling asleep on guard duty, under the assumption that the men may have failed in their duty because they were suffering psychological distress caused by the war. Similarly, American veterans of the Vietnam War who were given an “other-than-honorable” discharge during that conflict for things like desertion and drug use have recently launched a class-action lawsuit against the armed forces, claiming they were suffering PTSD at the time and demanding that their discharges be retroactively upgraded. Said John Shepherd Jr. a claimant in the suit who was given an “other-than-honorable” discharge for refusing to go on patrol: “I want that honorable. I did do my part, until I really felt it wasn’t worth getting killed for.” What’s so interesting about Shepherd’s statement is that his claim to honor is based on a contradiction to traditional honor, which dictates that a man cannot abandon the group because of personal inclinations and beliefs.
The military has had a difficult time sorting through these issues since WWI, as they have had to weigh difficult questions as to whether you can make an ethical or moral distinction between bullet and shrapnel wounds and invisible psychiatric scars, whether the latter merits disability pay or even a Purple Heart, and whether those awards sap a man’s motivation to make a recovery. The main dilemma has been, as Edgar Jones, author of Shell-Shock to PTSD, put it: “How does the military avoid encouraging individuals to shirk their duties (and hence increase the risk of others getting killed or wounded) without burdening commanders with soldiers who will fail to carry out their duties, while also looking after those who breakdown as a result of combat?” In short, what role should traditional honor play within a traditionally honor-bound organization operating in a modern world?
Authenticity & Sincerity
It’s rather hard to wrap our minds around now, as honor has become synonymous with integrity, but traditional honor was only concerned with a man’s public reputation, not his inner thoughts and private behavior. What mattered was only what your peers saw you do – this alone was the evidence they used to judge your honor. For this reason, one of the sort of paradoxes of traditional honor is that it has always involved the hiding and covering up of one’s flaws.
Think of the many presidents who had an affair during the course of their tenure in the White House. In some cases the press knew about the canoodling going on at the time, but they never printed a word about it. One, because “snitching” about such a thing was considered dishonorable, and two, because they did not think that such private liaisons had anything to do with the effective fulfillment of the POTUS’ duties. As long as they maintained an honorable front, the demands of traditional honor were met, and everything was gravy.
Today, we demand congruence between a man’s private life and his public persona. To offer the appearance of an upright reputation, while doing some not-so-upright things behind closed doors, strikes us as rank hypocrisy. We believe that a hypocrite cannot be a good man, or a good public servant. So when his private indiscretions are discovered, a man is quite often drummed out of office.
Wariness of Violence in a Litigious Society
In the most basic, primal form of traditional honor, if you got hit, you hit back, and might made right. If a man was insulted, he would challenge the accuser to a physical throwdown – perhaps to the death; if he emerged triumphant, then his honor was maintained, even if the accusation had been true, and even if he lost, his willingness to fight helped him preserve at least some face. Men also fought and used violence to solve disputes, to initiate newcomers and test their worthiness for being included in the group, to gain status among existing members, and to test and prepare each other for battling a common enemy.
Starting in the 19th century with the emergence of the Stoic-Christian honor code, the use of violence to maintain and manage honor began to be questioned. Self-control and self-mastery were celebrated as Stoic ideals and also essential to rising in the new economy; for this reason, violence began to be associated with the “brutish” lower-classes who weren’t interested in becoming gentlemen and getting ahead. Self-discipline was needed to navigate the new landscape, and violence began to be seen as wild and destructive — an impediment to the ordered, civilized society the upper classes were trying to build. Gentlemen no longer felt that maintaining an increasingly anemic concept of honor was worth dying or even fighting over; they considered themselves above it – that such scuffles were a waste of their time and energy.
In the 1960s, fighting and aggression were also painted as incompatible with the push to make men more sensitive and compassionate. The traits were linked to things like domestic abuse and rape, and the idea that many men will become predators to women if not taught to control their dark, macho impulses. In schools, fighting was condemned as leading to injury of body and feelings, the weak being unfairly dominated by the physically strong, and the potential for volatile distractions from their educational mission. Instead of being encouraged to duke it out in the schoolyard to resolve disputes and confront a bully, boys were taught to use strategies of conflict resolution and to tell an adult what was going on so they might intervene.
Honor and its attendant violence had also been a part of rough societies as a method of enforcing justice — when formal legal systems were non-existent or seen as inadequate for satisfying honor’s demands. But as court systems became more established in Western societies, solving disputes mano-a-mano became less necessary…and legal. With the closing of the American frontier, vigilantism was no longer tolerated. In the 19th century, in both the North and South, men had shot and killed an insulter point blank, without even a duel, and been completely acquitted for the deed – because, the killer would argue, it was the only honorable reaction, and what else could their peers have expected them to do under such circumstances? In the 20th century, simply punching another man could land you in court and jail. In an increasing litigious society, disputes began to be settled with a civil suit in a courtroom, not with a revolver on a field of honor.
Perhaps most importantly, personal violence suffered from its association with its ultimate manifestation: war. Just as men in traditional honor societies fought with each other for a variety of reasons, going to war as a tribe could be justified on several grounds. It was not just for protection of the tribe or the acquisition of territory, but simply for the sake of honor itself — a display of strength, retaliation for insults real or perceived, or the simple assertion of superiority.
In the aftermath of World War I this approach to war was called into serious question. It was argued that a globalized, technological society now made possible war with a level of scale, intensity, duration, and ultimate death toll and destruction that could now only be justified in the most dire of circumstances and under the clearest, most immediate threats. The decision to go to war could no longer be trifled with, or done under the “senseless” rationale of honor, for the mere flexing of national muscles in the modern age could have dire and wide-ranging consequences. War for the sake of honor had to be reigned in lest the world turn into one blood-splattered battlefield.
World War II only strengthened this nascent attitude. European powers waited to enter the war until the threat of German invasion became overwhelmingly real, and America stayed out of it until the Japanese directly attacked Pearl Harbor. Once the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust became known at the end of the war, a staggeringly powerful moral reason was retroactively added to the rationale of getting involved. The war could clearly be seen through the lens of good and evil, and is in fact referred to as the “Good War” for this reason. All future wars have been judged by the yardstick of WWII and found terribly wanting. Vietnam of course became the ultimate symbol of senseless war and the senselessness of honor generally. Some felt that it continued for so long simply because LBJ would not let himself be dishonored — that he was willing to let thousands of men die in order to save personal and national face.
All armed interventions after Vietnam have had to be sold to the public based on threats to safety and moral obligation. For example, in a traditional honor culture George W. Bush would have only needed to rationalize the Iraq War as a way to avenge his father’s honor, or simply as a way to demonstrate American strength after 9/11 – a general flexing of muscle done as a warning to others in the Middle East. But because we live in a post-honor society, the reasons he gave for the war were the liberation of an oppressed people and the threat of WMDs – even if the latter had to be pulled together on shaky evidence.
In the absence of a clear good vs. evil storyline post-WWII, the West has avoided total war in favor of limited war — holding back on marshaling all its resources and men, and restricting goals to attrition and hazy humanitarian concepts of “nation-building.” Despite the number of armed engagements the United States has fought in the past decades, war has not formally been declared since the Big One.
General MacArthur, who was denied his desire to expand the Korean War into China, believed that limited war broke the bonds between the leaders and the led, as it gave them a dishonorable goal — anything short of total victory – and robbed the value and purpose of their sacrifice.
Limited wars are fought by necessity because of the public’s opposition to the draft. Because society and its leaders believe that wars should only be fought under the most overwhelmingly compelling of reasons, they feel that men should only be forced to fight under the same requirement. Compounding this resistance to universal conscription has been the rising belief in each individual’s uniqueness and worth, and the smaller size of families. Parents are unwilling to risk the lives of their children when they only have one or two to begin with. For these reasons, military service has been taken up by an increasingly small proportion of the citizenry, creating a yawning gap between warriors and civilians.
The State of Honor Today
For the reasons outlined above, traditional honor cultures unraveled over the course of the 20th century. The only widespread form of shared honor that thrives today is what James Bowman calls “anti-honor-honor.” The anti-honor-honor group consists of those who see traditional honor as anti-feminist, anti-egalitarian, hypocritical, an incitement to violence, exclusionary, and uncompassionate – thoroughly silly, if not dangerous and wholly outdated. Those who ascribe to the anti-honor-honor philosophy do not believe men should be shamed into conforming to traditional standards of masculinity, and celebrate a new kind of manhood, where men are free to be whoever they wish.
Yet, a shadow of honor in its most basic form – bravery for men, chastity for women – continues to linger on. “If you doubt it,” Bowman writes, ”try calling a man a wimp, or a woman a slut.” And you can’t reverse that either; men will generally shrug if you call them a slut (tellingly, there still really isn’t a popular derogatory word for a man who sleeps around), and women won’t usually be offended if called a wimp.
Bowman puts it best when he says we now suffer from “cultural phantom limb syndrome.” “Any coherent idea of honor was amputated from Western culture three-quarters of a century or so ago, leaving nothing behind but a few sensitive moral nerve endings that make themselves felt every now and then when our residual sense of propriety and public virtue is outraged and we don’t know why.”
When these moral nerve endings make themselves felt, the result is a kind of short-term orgy of outrage, that, because there are no structures in today’s culture to which to channel and deal with the emotions, ultimately dissipate as quickly as they arose.
Take the case of Sandra Fluke. When Rush Limbaugh called her a slut in February, his comments provoked widespread outrage…and then the wave crested and went away as quickly as it had risen. In a traditional honor culture, Fluke’s father would have challenged Rush to a duel (now that is something I would have paid to watch) in order to defend her honor and to resolve the scandal in a clear and definitive way. The interesting thing about the Fluke affair is that at the same time she advanced a liberal, progressive cause, she appealed to the ethics of traditional honor. That she considered being called a slut the basest of insults, and that she appreciated President Obama for standing up for her and essentially defending her honor, directly harkened back to an ancient culture of honor. It was an interesting juxtaposition.
In some ways, the standards of traditional honor have endured more for women than for men. For example, during this past election Newsweek called Mitt Romney a wimp on its cover, which in ancient times would have been the most inflammatory of insults, essentially an invitation to single combat. But Romney was utterly unfazed and did not bother responding at all. At the same time, tabloids in the UK published photos of Prince Harry nude, but declined to do the same for naked pictures of Kate Middleton, in order to protect her modesty.
Women are more likely to be respected for their chastity, or at least suffer no ill consequences for it, while men who fight for no “good” reason are considered thugs, lunkheads, or deviants, and told to correct that behavior or be kicked out of school or put in jail.
Traditional manly honor, both as it relates to primal honor based on bravery and strength and higher moral virtues, continues to live on in pockets of modern society: police and fire departments, fraternal lodges, some churches, and in the military, most especially in those units which see combat firsthand.
Traditional honor unraveled in the 20th century as agreement was lost as to what constituted the common good of society, and people opted out of the code to pursue their own personal good without shame. Lacking a shared honor code and a close-knit honor group to judge one’s behavior, honor moved from being an external concept synonymous with “reputation,” to a wholly internal and private thing, identical to “integrity.” Everyone is free to construct their own honor code, and only your own conscience (or God) can be the final arbiter of your honor. At least for those who still pay attention to their conscience (or God).
The result of this shift in the meaning of honor has been an exponential increase in individual freedom. But it has its downsides as well. What those downsides are, why reviving some aspects of traditional honor is desirable, and how to do it in an anti-honor-honor world will be the subject of the next and final post in this series.
Honor: A History by James Bowman
Honor by Frank Henderson Stewart
The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom