Honorable Dispatches from South Carolina; or, What Some Graduate Students Think of Southern Honor
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July/August 2008 · Historically Speaking 17 New Englander, set in New England, containing the description of an event that never happened. Wyatt-Brown was decoding and translating die language of honor for us. Historians had long been reading die words and noting die behaviors associated with this language but they had no idea of its meaning. "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" was a Rosetta stone, providing one of die keys to unlocking a world of meanings hitherto not understood . Southern Honor is a grammar book. The ethics and behaviors once seen as curiosities and oddities could now be viewed as particular expressions of this larger language of honor, with meanings and significance hitherto hidden in plain sight All of us who have written about southern honor since the publication of Wyatt-Brown's book have built on its pioneering insights . But did honor ever cause anything to happen? Wyatt-Brown has argued throughout the course of his long and productive career that honor has been a significant cause of many events in American history, including the American Revolution, with British taxation seen by Americans as a form of insult that required a violent response, and the Civil War, with the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as an outcome not to be tolerated by southern men of honor. He has also attributed post-Civil War violence to a southern response to insult. And more recendy he has argued that the code of honor determines ethics and behavior in the Middle East and that we cannot afford to ignore its powerful role in shaping the region's response to us. Once having decoded the language of honor, Wyatt-Brown has detected its causal impact virtually everywhere on the planet over the course of many centuries. Here I want to interject a note of caution. I think it is important to recognize the fundamental indeterminacy of the language of honor and therefore to acknowledge its inability in and of itself to cause anything to happen. Consider for a moment the insult between gendemen that, according to the rules of the language of honor, must result in a duel. But if we look closely at insults and duels, we can see that the rules are quite complex and indeterminate at every moment of the transaction. The parties, aided by their seconds, could reinterHere I want to interject a note of caution. I think it is important to recognize the fundamental indeterminacy of the language of honor and therefore to acknowledge its inability in and of itself to cause anything to happen. prêt an apparent insult into an innocuous remark and thus avoid a confrontation; or one party could refuse to duel by denying the gendemanly status of the opposing party; or the seconds might not reach agreement as to the place, weapons, timing, or other circumstances of the duel. Even when parties faced each other on a dueling ground die confrontation had elements of indeterminacy: the distance might be set so large that death was unlikely ; the weapons were notoriously inaccurate; the parties might agree to end the shooting after one, two, or (with different consequences) several shots. In other words, at every step the exchange of shots could be avoided or the likelihood of its deadly consequences diminished. In this sense, die language of honor might best be seen as analogous to the language of English . People speak it under many circumstances, but rarely, if ever, does it cause anything. Both have an indeterminacy that permits many possible outcomes . Consider the modern situation in Iraq. People who speak the language of honor understand that to show weakness in a confrontation is to encourage violent attack and open the door to be shamed. But the language of honor also encompasses the powerful gift relationship in which you can assert authority by lavishing gifts on people. It also includes the host/guest relation in which a visitor in someone's house is treated with great respect and caring. The point of all this is not to suggest a particular policy in Iraq but only to note that the language of honor does not determine any particular behavior; nor does it require us to place a...


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