Manly Honor VII: How and Why to Revive Manly Honor in the Twenty-First Century
by Brett on December 21, 2012 · 91 comments
Traditional honor consists of having a reputation judged worthy of respect and admiration by a group of equal peers who share the same code of standards. In primitive times, these standards were based on strength and courage. In the medieval period, outward integrity and chivalry were added to these primal qualities of manhood. In the 19th century, the Stoic-Christian honor code drew from the philosophy of ancient Greece and the faith which gave the code its name, by seeking to form a new kind of honor – one that wed together ancient bravery with character traits like industry, coolness, sincerity, chastity, self-sufficiency, self-control, orderliness, and dependability. In the 20th century, traditional honor unraveled as urbanization and anonymity dissolved the intimate, face-to-face relationships that honor requires, people grew uncomfortable with violence and shame, individual feelings and desires were elevated above the common good of society at the same time a shared idea of what constituted that common good was lost, and people began to form their own personal honor codes which could not be judged by anyone else but themselves. This completed honor’s transformation from wholly public and external to completely private and internal. Honor became a concept almost entirely synonymous with personal integrity.
The story of the evolution of honor is sweeping in breadth and amazingly complex and we’ve offered an immense amount of detail in order to offer as rich and in-depth an understanding of this incredibly important and historically influential force as possible.
But today in this final post I want to strip away many of those layers and try to get back down to the heart of manly honor – the basics of why it’s worth preserving and how we can, and must, revive elements of it in this anti-honor-honor world.
This is the final and longest article in the series. Think of it as the last chapter in a book, and block off some time to read it. I think it will be worth your while, and I want you to join what will hopefully be a robust discussion of the topic.
Why Honor Should Be Revived
These days honor gets a bad rap for, among many things, inciting violence, being anti-egalitarian, creating intolerance, inducing shame, and motivating hypocrisy.
But honor does have definite upsides:
Honor is the moral imperative of men; obedience is the moral imperative of boys.
At the crux of the argument for the revival of honor is this: honor based on respect is a superior moral imperative to obedience based on rules and laws.
When you’re a child, you do the right thing out of obedience to authority, out of the fear of punishment.
As you mature, you begin to see that the world does not revolve around you, that you belong to groups larger than yourself, and with this discovery comes a new awareness of the needs of that group and how your behavior affects others. This change in perspective (should) shift your motivation in doing the right thing from obedience to authority/fear of punishment, to respect for other people.
For example, as a boy I did chores because I had to, and I didn’t want to get in trouble with my folks. As I grew into a young man, I began to do them because I respected my parents – I came to understand that I was part of a family and had a duty to keep the household running and pull my own weight.
The latter point is the key to the superiority of honor as a moral imperative – operating out of honor rather than obedience means realizing that you have a role to play in helping a group survive and thrive – that your actions directly correlate to the group’s strength or weakness. When men function out of rules and laws, they do the bare minimum they can without being punished. When they function out of honor, they seek to at least pull their own weight, and then add further to the strength of the group to the best of their abilities. This is why, as Jack Donovan argues in The Way of Men:
“Part of the reason that honor is a virtue rather than merely a state of affairs is that showing concern for the respect of your peers is a show of loyalty and indication of belonging…Caring about what the men around you think of you is a show of respect, and conversely, not caring what other men think of you is a sign of disrespect. In a survival band, it is tactically advantageous to maintain a reputation for being strong, courageous and masterful as a group. A man who does not care for his own reputation makes his team look weak by association. Dishonor and disregard for honor are dangerous for a survival band or a fighting team because the appearance of weakness invites attack.”
Honor moves a man’s motivation to act from base, childlike fear of authority to a higher, mature respect, even love – love of family, love of church, love of country, even the love of honor itself. A man will not let those he loves (or himself) down by slacking off.
Honor is more powerful than rules and laws in shaping human behavior.
Not only is honor a more mature moral imperative than obedience, it’s often much more effective too. Studies have shown that social pressure — the very thing that drives honor — is more powerful than rules and laws in getting people to do the right thing. The book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness documents several studies that demonstrate individuals will modify their behavior when they know or simply believe their peers are watching them. Despite the way modern civilization has greatly transformed our lives, we are still social animals at heart – we still fear shame and desertion above all.
Social psychologists are now confirming with experiments what philosophers understood centuries ago. John Locke wryly observed “that he who imagines condemnation and disgrace, not to be strong motives to men … seems little skilled in the nature or history of mankind.” In other words: don’t underestimate the power of shame. Mandville and Montesquieu were equally as adamant as Locke on the power of honor to shape human behavior. According to Mandville, “the Invention of Honour has been far more beneficial to the Civil Society than that of Virtue, because honor demands recognition from your peers.” That addition of the social element is the linchpin that makes honor “a better bet than virtue for constraining and directing social lives.”
Without honor, mediocrity, corruption, and incompetence rule. Honor is based on reputation, and when people stop caring about their reputation, and shame disappears, people devolve into doing the least they can without getting into legal trouble or being fired. This leads to mediocrity, corruption, and incompetence. Navigating any business or customer service network these days, you encounter the most egregious examples of the latter. Because few potential employers check references anymore, and your reputation is unknown when you apply for the job, people have no fear of their history following them from job to job, and thus little incentive to perform their work with excellence, as opposed to mind-blowing ineptitude.
Honor both constrains AND frees.
The paradox of honor, and the constraints of any virtuous life, is that while the commitment to live with certain principles limits you in some ways, it also frees you in others. A man may willingly consent to and even impose on himself certain restrictions that he believes will actually lead to greater freedom and/or more opportunities. For example, a man may choose not to smoke, so that he can be free from addiction, and from that addiction dictating his choices.
Similarly, as a youth, the more you showed your parents and other adults you could be trusted to do the right thing, the more they removed their rules, gave you more freedom, and allowed you to make your own decisions.
As society has become more complex and anonymous, and the bonds of honor have dissolved, we’ve had to rely more and more on obedience – rules and regulations — to govern people’s behavior. Because we no longer trust people to do things because they swore an oath to do so, and because concern for their honorable reputation compels them, we’ve created ever more elaborate rules and regulations to enforce ethics. Instead of feeling safe in the knowledge that a man has internalized an honor code to the extent that he may be trusted to do the right thing, even when no one is watching, now he must be constantly checked up on and videotaped. The reason the minutia of rules at your office feel infantilizing…is because they are. We must be policed by an external authority to check our behavior in the absence of honor.
This web of rules and blanket mandates constrains our choices, prevents us from exercising practical wisdom in taking into consideration the specific circumstances of a specific situation in order to make the best possible decision, and thus curtails our freedom and stunts our moral development.
For example, at Brigham Young University all students sign an honor code which states, among other things, that they agree “to be honest,” and to “avoid academic dishonesty and misconduct in all its forms, including but not limited to plagiarism, fabrication or falsification, cheating, and other academic misconduct.” In exchange for this oath of honesty, student exams are administered at the “testing center,” a building on campus dedicated to this purpose; at any given time there may be six hundred students there taking six dozen different tests for as many different classes. The way it works is that a professor gives his or her class a several-day period over which they can come to the testing center to take the exam, which the students pick up and return to the front desk. They can come in to take the test anytime during the testing period — morning, afternoon or evening – that best fits their schedule; they can get it done right away or wait for the very last hour. This flexibility and freedom is given students because those who take the test first can be trusted not to share what is on the exam with those who choose to take it later.
Honor acts as a check on narcissism.
Honor begins as an inner-conviction of self-worth, but then you must present this claim to your peers for validation. Other people serve as a mirror of the self and a check to your pride – they are there to call bullocks on an inflated or false self-assessment. Without this important check, people become like Narcissus – staring at only themselves all day and absolutely loving what they see. At the same time, the ability to give and receive feedback openly and honestly creates affability among you and your peers – the bonds of respect.
Too many men today think they are the sh*t, when they’ve never had to prove themselves to anyone else – they’ve never shown their abilities outside their own bedroom. An honor group is crucial in teaching you that not only are you not wearing any clothes, you ain’t the emperor either.
Honor creates community. A shared honor code and the reliance on mutual respect to enforce that code can bind a community together stronger than laws, rules, and regulations. Honor forces us to think about what’s best for the group, and not necessarily what’s best for our individual needs. It also forces us to deal with one another and sort problems out ourselves, instead of relying on some third-party authority to resolve our problems for us. That social friction, while certainly uncomfortable, strengthens social ties because it requires us to engage our neighbors and actually be social with them.
Honor creates meaning. There’s a reason people tend to like old movies and books better than the modern variety. It’s not because of nostalgia. And it’s not because writers aren’t as talented as they once were. It’s that there’s nothing much to write about anymore. The drama of old literature captures our attention because the characters lived and moved in a culture of honor. There was structure to navigate and push against. There were many layers to life, and people tried to move up and avoid shame, and earn honor. These days authors have to invent their own drama in the form of self-created experiments in order to generate some fodder for a book (eg., living all the commandments of the Bible for a year, going a year without throwing anything away, living a year as a woman disguised as a man…). Because the rest of life is flat and bor–ring.
The longer I live, the more I appreciate the benefits of structure, of rules, of friction. Today we are amoebas floating in an Age of Anomie. Life seems empty and insubstantial. Evil goes unpunished. Good goes unrewarded. Merit goes unhonored. There’s no clear way to earn honor or avoid shame. Instead of a few earning the just fruits of their valiant labors, everyone is given a tiny portion of the egalitarian pie of praise, a crumb that offers no nourishment, does nothing to satiate our hunger for glory. Nobody cares what you do. There’s no in or out. We each construct our own realities, but without the comparison with, the competition with, the esteem of others — it all feels sometimes like a great charade where we’ve all convinced ourselves that the world’s never been better, while shoving down the empty pit in our stomachs.
How to Revive Honor
When I started this series all the way back in September, I thought it would be easy to lay out a plan on how to revive traditional honor in the 21st century. But as I delved deeper and deeper into the infuriatingly complex history and philosophy of traditional honor, I realized creating a roadmap for honor in the 21st century would be much, much harder than I initially thought.
As we’ve mentioned many times, for honor to exist there must be an honor group that enjoys intimate, face-to-face relationships (only those who truly know you can judge your reputation for honor), and a shared honor code – one that everyone in the group understands and has agreed to uphold.
These honor prerequisites are pretty hard to find in a globalized world in the age of the Internet. Your country probably has a lot of diversity and very little agreement on what constitutes the common good. And good luck trying to revive honor among Facebook users. In the immortal words of Wayne Campbell, “Shyeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt!”
Will a society-wide honor culture ever re-emerge? It seems highly doubtful now, but because of my belief in the generational cycle, and the dismal job people always do predicting the future, I wouldn’t rule it with 100% certainty. However, either way, its comeback is not in the hands of individual men; rather, if it has any chance of reemerging, it will do so as a result of a nation-wide or global crisis that would dramatically alter the landscape of life, force people to come together, and greatly shift ideas about things like the common good, gender roles, and so on.
So what’s a man to do…twiddle his thumbs and hope that the Mayan calculations for the apocalypse were a day off?
While we can’t single-handedly revive honor across the country, we can live traditional honor the way it was created to be experienced at its most essential core – among a group of fellow men.
Below, I humbly offer my suggestions for reviving traditional honor in the 21st century. It’s not perfect, but the motto of the Art of Manliness from its inception has been that it’s better to do something, anything, than to sit around waiting for “the real thing” to arrive.
What I outline below is simply a starting point for a conversation that I hope you all will contribute to.
Every Man Needs a Platoon: Creating/Joining an Honor Group
We all belong to large groups that provide us a sense of identity and belonging. A nation, a state, a town, a company, a church, or a political party are just a few examples of the large groups a man might associate with. These groups are often too large and impersonal for honor to exist in – on these levels nobody cares if we’re living with honor or not. If we want to revive honor today, we need to give up on the idea of trying to revive it on the macro-level and focus our attention on resurrecting it on the micro-level.
How do we do that?
Each of us needs to find a platoon of men.
“Dunbar’s number” — 150 — has been getting a lot of play this year. 150 is supposedly, on average, the maximum number of people you can have stable social relationships with at any given time – where you know each person individually and where they fit in the group. In a group this size, honor and shame can govern effectively; beyond this limit things begin to break down and restrictive rules and laws must be introduced to enforce stability and cohesion. For this reason, ancient villages would typically break off once they reached around 150 people in order to form their own settlement.
150 is also the average size of military companies both in ancient Rome and today.
Within each company are 3-5 platoons.
Containing 24-50 men, platoons are the smallest “self-contained” unit in the regular army (each includes a medic, radio operator, headquarters element, and forward observer for calling in airstrikes). A platoon of men sleep together, eat together, fight together, and sometimes die together.
Traditional honor can thrive in a group the size of a company, and because of the level of intimacy present, it manifests itself most acutely within the platoon.
When journalist Sebastian Junger asked soldiers about their allegiance to one another, “they said they would unhesitatingly risk their lives for anyone in the platoon or company, but that the sentiment dropped off pretty quickly after that. By the time you got to brigade level— three or four thousand men—any sense of common goals or identity was pretty much theoretical.”
The apex of traditional honor is experienced by those platoons that engage in combat firsthand. As Junger puts it, “For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly.”
Only a small percentage of those in the military are directly involved in regular firefights. The rest serve in support roles and experience an honor culture lower than combat soldiers, but higher than civilians, as do police officers and firefighters who may not have their lives directly threatened every day, but constantly work under the risk that they could, and know that their comrades are willing to risk their own lives to protect them.
But in our current society, not every man can be a soldier or a firefighter, even if they wanted to.
Regardless of his individual vocation, every man can, and should, take a lesson from military platoons by joining or forming their own small, tight-knit honor groups.
Your platoon (the word platoon simply comes from the French word peloton, for “little ball,” or a small group of people) or your “gang of men” as Donovan calls it, is your best bet at experiencing traditional honor in the 21st century and becoming the man you want to be.
One of the reasons traditional, cultural honor dissolved was that it often conflicted with a man’s personal convictions. Joining an honor group of your choosing solves this dilemma; you still agree to subvert your own needs to those of the group, but you do so willingly because you’ve chosen an honor group and code which aligns with your own personal standards. Your group, in turn, can help you think through what to do in situations where your own conscience conflicts with the cultural code of the society around you. For instance, you could discuss the matter of how to behave at work when the coworkers around you are crass and tell derogatory jokes throughout the day. Or what do about the neighbor whose dog barks all night. An honor group can help you sort through such issues, as well as keep you accountable when you decide on a plan of action.
But where can you find your platoon of men?
It could be a sports team, a men’s group at church, a college fraternity, or a professional group (professions often have oaths of ethics that used to be important but are no longer taken seriously).
If you can’t find a group to your liking, take the initiative and start your own. It doesn’t have to be formal and you don’t need a lot of people — where two or more are present, honor will be present as well.
My personal platoon is my Freemason Lodge, Lodge Veritas #556. We’re a group of a little more than 20 men from different backgrounds, but with the common goal of becoming better men and upholding the values and virtues of Freemasonry. I know that when the chips are down, these men will have my back because they’ve sworn a sacred oath that they would. We all strive to comport ourselves so as not to bring shame and dishonor to the Fraternity of Freemasonry as a whole, as well as to our individual Lodge. Being part of a lodge has definitely helped me become a better man, as well as experience traditional honor.
Why You Should Become Part of a Platoon of Men
Joining groups is highly out of favor in our individualistic society. Men want to be great, but they want to make the journey entirely on their own. A potent symbol of this is the overwhelming popularity of superhero movies these days. Not only are superhero movies more popular than ever, but in contrast to superhero tales of yore, the movies often concentrate on the hero’s backstory – his dark psychological angst, his reluctance to take on the role, his loneliness in being different than others, and his inability to maintain romantic relationships. These are heroes for a time when the light of honor has set: they have their own code, act alone, are isolated, and elevate a man’s psyche and inner reality to great importance.
After the shooting that occurred during the screening of Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, there was an image from a video of people coming out of the movie theater that really struck me deep down — one that I’ve thought about many times since. There was this grown man, head down, walking out in a full-on Batman costume. An image of a childish fantasy utterly deflated. To me this was a searing symbol of the gap between the fantasy of the lone hero and the reality that men need to band together. I’m not saying that one man in the theater couldn’t have taken out the shooter himself, I’m talking bigger picture than that – that what you have now are men completely isolated from each other, with nobody to check up on them, nobody to keep them centered. The shooter should have been stopped long before he ever stepped foot in that theater.
The popular meme of the lone superhero taking on a dozen enemies who have circled him looks awesome, but is nothing more than a boy’s fantasy. Or as Donovan puts it, “Claims of complete independence are generally bulls**t. Few of us have ever survived or would be able to survive on our own for an extended period of time. Few of us would want to.” Rugged frontiersmen weren’t out there all alone. Men formed tribes in mining camps, posses in the Old West. The legend of the lone cowboy…is just that; cattle drovers worked together and formed unions. When people on the frontier were truly isolated from each other, they went nuts – men and women alike. If you don’t believe me, do yourself a favor and check out Wisconsin Death Trip.
For their physical survival and their psychological health, men need to belong to a group. Men want meaning in their lives, meaning that comes from being part of something larger than themselves. But they are often unwilling to trade their unfettered individualism to get it. They want honor, but they don’t want obligation to others, duty to others, responsibilities to anyone other then self that go along with it. They want honor, but they are unwilling to trade their time, and the freedom of gratifying their own desires whenever, and wherever they’d like, in order to sacrifice for the good of the group. In short, they want honor, but are unwilling to embrace the means necessary to attain it.
But brothers, the tradeoff is infinitely worth it.
In joining a group, in return for a promise of loyalty, for a pledge to pull your own weight, to strengthen the group, and to have each of your brothers’ backs, no matter what, you can do more, and become more than you ever could on your own. Studies done decades ago showed that men who belonged to a group that was close-knit showed less fear when jumping from an airplane than groups of men who shared only weak ties. Men could also withstand greater pain from electric shocks when they were part of a highly-bound group, as opposed to one with loose and impersonal associations. The military has found that tightly-knit units suffer less cases of breakdown and PTSD than units where morale and bonding is low. The reason for these findings is that men in a tightly-bonded group both know that the man on the right and left of him have his back, and they also fear letting their fellow men down; the fear of dishonor drives them to overcome their own fears and move forward. As one of the men Junger interviewed said, “As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever.”
As it is in combat, so it is in life. Men around us are breaking down because of the stresses of their own battles. They lack strength to deal with life’s difficulties because they don’t have honor pushing them on, and they don’t have honor because they don’t belong to a platoon of men.
What Should Be the Code of Honor for Your Platoon?
Honor can’t exist without a code – every honor group must have one that is agreed upon by all members and enforced through shame.
While we now equate honor with integrity, honor is essentially amoral. A chivalrous knight and a mafia gangster both live a code of honor. And in any small group of men, if you strip everything else away, the essential core of the honor code comes down to 1) not engaging in behavior that will weaken the group, and 2) having each other’s backs. For example, while patriotism and the desire to protect freedom may be part of a man’s motivation for joining the military, during battle he is not thinking about his love for America, but rather only about protecting his brothers. As Junger puts it, “the moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of about zero.”
Nevertheless, a broader, overarching code of honor is what brings the men together in the first place and greatly informs the character of the group. Every honor group needs a framework of honor that explains why the group exists, how it operates, and what is expected of the men who are members. So what should be the honor code of your platoon?
The standards that make up any honor code are based on motivating men to do what’s best for the group. And for this reason the code of your particular platoon will vary based on the needs of your particular gang. An actual military platoon facing combat is going to have a different code than a men’s group at church.
However, I’m not a fan of all-out relativism. Are there principles we can say are universal to the code of men? Principles that may act as a lodestar to each and every platoon?
I think there are.
Perhaps the best definition of “true honor” I have read comes from Bertram Wyatt-Brown:
“The unity of inner virtue with the natural order of reason, the innate desire of man for the good, and the happy congruence of inner virtue with outward, public action.”
What does this mean? In The Code of Man, Waller Newell writes: “The best recipe for happiness, according to the ancient thinkers, is the right balance of contemplative and active virtues gradually achieved over a lifetime of experience in the trials of public and private life. It’s a teaching that weaves a golden thread throughout every period of reflection on the meaning of manliness down to the present.”
In primitive times, strength and courage were all the tribe needed for survival. But ever since the dawn of civilization, the honor of men has demanded what Newell calls the contemplative and active virtues, and what Aristotle called arête: strength coupled with virtue, bravery combined with character. In times of crisis, a man must be able to fight and prevail; in times of peace he must be able to care for his family, cultivate his mind, and serve his community and state civically. At all times he must stand ready to serve in whatever capacity he is needed.
This, to me, is the ideal — circumscribing the hard virtues and soft virtues into one whole. This is the “complete man.” He is a loving husband and father, loyal friend and brother, and yet would also not just be able to survive, but to competently lead in a disaster, and could be called up by the military tomorrow to serve without breaking a sweat in boot camp.
Unfortunately, we have too much division in these camps in our modern world; nerdy types deride the physically fit as meatheads, and think “real” men are enlightened and sensitive, that true manhood can be found exclusively in intellect and virtue. And “bros” think knowledge and morality is for sissies, and that men should be able to do whatever they wish in pursuit of a good time.
Plenty of men have known better, and have sought arête, true excellence in all aspects of life. None embody the ideal better than one Theodore Roosevelt.
TR was a rancher (he owned and worked a cattle ranch in the Dakotas) and statesman (police commissioner, governor, president); he was a soldier (leading the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War) and writer (he penned over 35 books); he was an explorer (he navigated an uncharted Amazonian river) and voracious reader (he consumed tens of thousands of books over his six decades of life); he loved boxing, hunting, and wrestling, as well as spending time with his kids and his wife. In short, he was both kinds of man – strong and gentle, courageous and moral. In an address to a graduating class of boys, he told them:
“When I speak of the American boy, what I say really applies to the grown-ups nearly as much as to the boys…I want to see you game, boys; I want to see you brave and manly; and I also want to see you gentle and tender. In other words, you should make it your object to be the right kind of boys at home, so that your family will feel a genuine regret, instead of a sense of relief, when you stay away; and at the same time you must be able to hold your own in the outside world. You can not do that if you have not manliness, courage in you. It does no good to have either of those two sets of qualities if you lack the other. I do not care how nice a little boy you are, how pleasant at home, if when you are out you are afraid of other little boys lest they be rude to you; for if so you will not be a very happy boy nor grow up a very useful man. When a boy grows up I want him to be of such a type that when somebody wrongs him he will feel a good, healthy desire to show the wrong-doers that he can not be wronged with impunity. I like to have the man who is a citizen feel, when a wrong is done to the community by any one, when there is an exhibition of corruption or betrayal of trust, or demagogy or violence, or brutality, not that he is shocked and horrified and would like to go home; but I want to have him feel the determination to put the wrong-doer down, to make the man who does wrong aware that the decent man is not only his superior in decency, but his superior in strength.”
This was the same message TR gave to his son Ted, telling him “that he could be just as virtuous as he wished if only he was prepared to fight.” Roosevelt took his father as his example of “an ideal man,” a man who “really did combine the strength and courage and will and energy of the strongest man with the tenderness, cleanness and purity of woman,” and “certainly gave me the feeling that I was always to be both decent and manly, and that if I were manly nobody would long laugh at my being decent.”
In other words, Theodore Roosevelt believed that honor was found not only in living a life of virtue, but being brave and strong enough to defend that virtue if needed. That was the kind of man he respected.
Truth is a fuzzy thing to a lot of people these days, and not everyone will agree with my universal code of manly honor. I believe it because whenever I read things that describe the code, and meet men who embody it, it enlivens my mind, and causes my heart to swell within my chest. It tastes good to me. It feels like truth in both my heart and my mind, and when I find this congruence, I take whatever it is, cherish it, and incorporate it into my life.
General Guidelines for Reviving Honor in Your Platoon
Keep it all-male.
It sure isn’t politically correct to say these days, but there’s a need for all-male groups in this world. Once women join the group, the dynamics change. It loses its potential as a channel of traditional, manly honor. Donovan argues that, “As a general rule, if you introduce women into the mix, men either shift their focus from impressing each other to impressing the women, or they lose interest altogether and do just enough to get by.” Or as Kate likes to say, “Women want to join all-male groups because they’re so cool. But what they don’t realize is that once they join, they ruin the exact thing that made them cool in the first place.”
Swear an oath.
From ancient antiquity to Victorian times, men solidified their fidelity to each other through the giving and taking of oaths. Oaths created a sacred obligation of loyalty to men who were not kin, but wished to purposefully swear allegiance to each other and become brothers.
Oaths are an essential part of forming honor groups. They symbolize the fact that all men know and have agreed to the same code, and are willing to place their most valuable possession – their word, their very reputation, on the line.
I’d like to do an article, or whole series on the history and nature of oaths sometime…
An online community can never be an honor group. No. No. No. There’s no way to be sure that who you talk to online is really who they say they are. There’s no true accountability.
Embrace healthy shame.
In order for honor to exist, shame must exist. But as we saw in our last post about honor, shame in the 21st century has often been labeled a neurosis that sickened the psyche. We go out of our way to not shame people because we don’t want them to feel bad. But shame is what motivates people to follow the honor code and carry their weight in the group. When people begin to see that there’s little or no risk in failing to live by the honor code, the temptation is to slack off and cut corners.
Shame can be uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes very painful, but if you want to revive honor, you must accept it. Public shame is crucial to maintaining excellence among those who have agreed to live a certain code. Don’t be afraid to call your brothers out when they fail to uphold the group’s code. The group and each person will be better for it.
At the Virginia Military Institute, the school honor code – “A cadet will neither lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do,” is memorized by each cadet (or “Rat,” as freshmen are called) their very first day at the school and is strictly enforced through a harsh but highly effective ritual of public shame:
“The ‘drumming out’ ceremony — the official discharge of a cadet found guilty of an honor violation by the Honor Court there — is an experience that stays with one forever. That is just the very intent of it at VMI. Witnessing your first one is a very frightening experience. You are pulled from your deep sleep in the middle of the night, say 2 or 3 in the morning. And, after a day you put in at the ‘I’, you are guaranteed to be in a deep sleep by that time of night. An eerie roll of drums awakens you, that gets progressively louder. Then, you have about two minutes to get your butt out of your ‘hay’ and on your stoop outside in front of your room. Everyone in the Cadet Corp must get up and go out on the stoops to witness the drumming out. The drums are played under a covered arch so you can’t see the drummer. But the dull roll of the drums in the pitch blackness of night right out of a deep sleep is the worst thing in the world to experience. There are all 1200 cadets standing outside lining the barracks stoops, in their underwear or robes, in the total darkness.
Once the entire Corps is out on the stoops, then there’s another five to ten minutes of grace drum roll to make the experience as graphic as possible. Then the drum roll stops, and the President of the Honor Court appears in the middle of the courtyard in his formal, parade dress, shako hat, virgin white slacks, and white gloves. He then commences walking in circles within the paved circle in the middle of the courtyard, in the dark. A sole spotlight then appears on the Honor Court President. ‘Cadet… has put personal gain over personal honor.’ ‘He has been found guilty of violating the Honor System.’ He has been dismissed from the Institute and his name will never be mentioned here again.’”–Mike Horan, The National Militia
Horan adds: “The experience in itself surely prevents dozens of future violations.”
I think this tradition is awesome. And there needs to be much more of it. Shame involves doing something we hate to do in a nuanced-to-death, wishy-washy culture – drawing clear lines. Honorable or despicable. Courageous or coward. In or out.
Bringing back shame also means reviving the language of honor. Get rid of therapeutic terms — saying something is “inappropriate,” or that someone “made bad choices.” Wearing a tuxedo t-shirt to a wedding is inappropriate. Cheating is shameful. Killing the innocent is evil. Not keeping your word is wrong. Failing to pull your weight and meet the code of honor is despicable.
When General Petraeus resigned, he said his actions showed “extremely poor judgment” and that his behavior was “unacceptable.” What he should have said was that cheating on his wife and potentially compromising national security was shameful, wrong, and dishonorable.
Put team above self. Chastise, and possibly expel, those who don’t.
If you want to experience traditional honor in your own life, you’ll need to be willing to subjugate your personal wants beneath the needs of your honor group. That’s a hard concept to swallow in our hyper-individualistic society. But in return for your loyalty you get to be part of an excellent group of brothers who have your back no matter what. By helping others survive and/or thrive, you help yourself do likewise. Those who put self first compromise the goals of the rest of the group, and for that reason, are subject to chastisement and shame.
Sebastian Junger’s book War highlights this exchange perceptibly. In 2007 and 2008, Junger was embedded with members of the Army’s Second Platoon (of Battle Company) during their 15-month deployment. Second Platoon was stationed in the rugged mountains in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Their “base” consisted of cement slabs and some boards they had jerry-rigged together into bunks. The men would go a month without showering, their clothes became so permeated with sweat they’d stand up from the salt, and they wore flea collars around their necks, and yet were still inundated with the pests. To test each other’s loyalty and readiness for battle, the men created a unique ritual: “blood in, blood out,” where every member was given a pretty savage beating whenever they came into, or left the platoon. Officers were not excluded.
The enemy was all around them, and the men could come under fire at any time, and did – bullets would come whizzing in while they slept or ate breakfast. During this time, Battle Company saw nearly a fifth of the combat being experienced by 70,000 NATO troops. A constant worry was an attack that would overrun the base and kill them all.
Isolated and surrounded by the enemy, the men had to count on each other for their lives. In such a situation honor is not optional — it’s required.
For this reason, the men policed each other’s behavior. One man’s laxity or weakness, or desire to put his own feelings and desires above the group, could get his brothers killed. Junger argues that the essence of combat comes down to the fact that “the choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies.”
Every detail, whether in the midst of a firefight or back at base, mattered, and each member of the platoon was open to scrutiny and judgment about their behavior; “every solider had de facto authority to reprimand others.” If you weren’t drinking enough water, or didn’t tie your shoes, or weren’t taking care of your equipment, you got disciplined by the group. Your personal lack of vigilance could compromise the safety of everyone else; “There was no such thing as personal safety out there; what happened to you happened to everyone.”
Junger tells the story of how once
“they were clawing their way up Table Rock after a twenty-four hour operation and a man in another squad started falling out. ‘He can’t be smoked here,’ I heard O’Bryne seethe to Sergeant Mac in the dark, “he doesn’t have the right to be.’ The idea that you’re not allowed to experience something as human as exhaustion is outrageous anywhere but in combat. Good leaders know that exhaustion is partly state of mind, though, and that the men who succumb to it have on some level decided to put themselves above everyone else. If you’re not prepared to walk for someone you’re certainly not prepared to die for them, and that goes to the heart of whether you should even be in a platoon.”
This is the core of honor – to act in such a way as to not let down the men to your right and left when they need you most.
If an individual in your honor group refuses to pull his weight even when chastised by the others, putting the group’s needs ahead of the individual’s may require that you shame and expel him.
Back when I played football in high school, there was a guy who would do anything he could to avoid practicing. When we were doing drills, he’d sort of hang out in the back, hiding behind everybody else, drinking all the water while everyone else was sweating their butts off in the 100-degree Oklahoma sun. When it was time for wind sprints at the end of practice, he’d have some sort of injury. But he sure loved wearing that jersey to school on Game Day and enjoying the accolades and perks that came with being on the football team.
Us starters let it slide for a bit. We figured he just needed some positive encouragement, which we tried, but didn’t work. Things finally came to a head one hot afternoon. We were in the middle of an intense drill to prepare us for the upcoming game and we needed fresh bodies to rotate in and out on the scout team so we could get the best training possible. While everyone else was taking their turn and going all out, Mr. I’m-Going-To-Sit-This-One-Out was hiding behind the trainers, chilling with a water bottle in his hand.
One of the starters called him out on his loafing, but it didn’t faze this guy. After a few more repetitions, another player called him out. Still nothing. Finally, one guy finally just said, “If you’re not going to practice, just quit. It’s obvious you don’t want to be here and we don’t want you here either.” Other players joined in. “Yeah, dude. Just quit.”
And he did. The guy walked right off the field in the middle of practice, never to return.
I remember feeling sort of bad about it when it happened, but in the long run it was the best thing for the team, and probably for him.
If you want to experience honor, you have to put the group before the individual.
I believe that true manliness means being a man of both conscience and honor – inner conviction and concern for reputation among men should work together. When outside your honor group, and nobody is watching, your conscience keeps you living the standards you believe in; when back with your platoon of men, they strengthen your motivation to live those standards.
That much I know, but to be honest, after four months of studying and writing about traditional honor, I’m left with as many questions as answers. Questions I’d love to hear your insights on, such as:
- Can any form of honor survive in the absence of the threat of violence? Anciently, honor that was not worth dying for was not considered true honor. But violence of any kind can get you thrown into court these days. Is shame enough to motivate people without the risk of having to defend their behavior and words with a fight? [As a side note, it has been interesting to me to hear several times in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting that it happened because we are a culture “obsessed with violence.” But having read about a culture just a hundred and fifty years ago in which men shot each other on the spot when insulted and would saunter into the home or workplace of someone who had insulted them whom they felt was a social inferior, and start horsewhipping them, and in which brawls were decided by gouging another man’s eye out, the truth is not that we’re more obsessed with violence than before, but that almost all violence has become an abstraction of film and video game. Could it be that mass shootings are huge eruptions of an impulse for violence that is otherwise suppressed and has no real, tangible outlets in society?]
- Is it more manly to fight when insulted or to be Stoic and above it all and walk away? Men of honor only fought with those whom they considered their social equals. If you’re attacked on the internet, it’s impossible to know if someone is your equal or not, so how do you know if you should respond or ignore them? What constitutes a “social equal” on or offline these days anyway? Are quotes like, “A gentleman will not insult me, and no man not a gentleman can insult me,” noble or cop-outs for men who don’t want conflict?
- Honor groups often used sarcasm and verbal putdowns to jockey for, and enforce status in the group. So is being polite and civil to everyone manly, or should you call ‘em like you see ‘em, and call a spade a spade, and an idiot an idiot?
- Speaking of conflicts…when is it appropriate to confront someone outside your honor group for what you believe is a violation of the universal code of men?
- What role do women play in motivating men to keep the code of honor, and what role does the current culture of womanly honor play in the current culture of male honor? Is it really a stalemate where each side blames the other, and say that they would change if only the other changed first?
- What’s the current state of honor in the military? How has the integration of women into units changed or not changed the culture of honor? Would integration of women into combat units affect these units’ culture of honor?
So yeah, honor…it’s a trip, man. You can think about it non-stop for days, even weeks on end (I would know!). It’s like a slippery fish that just as you think you’ve grabbed it, swims away again.
Don’t let it tie you up in knots though. I don’t. Honor helps inform my worldview and goals, but from day-to-day I just try to be the best man I can be in all areas of my life, and to do my best to strengthen my family, my lodge, my church, and my community however I can.
I want to leave you with a quote that sums up the current state of honor:
“We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.” –The Death of Character, James Davison Hunter
In short, people talk a lot about honor and they say they want honor, but they only want the ends, not the means. This is why, for now, honor will only live on in small platoons of men who are willing to accept and carry the burden and responsibility that comes with it. Will you be one of those men?
War by Sebastian Junger
The Way of Men by Jack Donovan
Honor: A History by James Bowman
The Code of Man by Waller Newell