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June 2002 Historically Speaking1 3 Bertram Wyatt-Brown Honor's History across the Academy The concept of honor provides the ethical foundation for an arrayofdiscriminations about race, class, gender , sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious conviction , and age.1 For centuries those sources ofpride and prejudice have subjected coundess numbers to rank injustice while elevating arbiters ofcustom to righteous ascendancy. It goes without saying that there are many definitions for the word "honor." Yet the work of Julian Pitt-Rivers, Pierre Bourdieu, and other anthropologists initiated in the 1960s the new understanding ofhonor as a means oforganizingsociety and its values. In accordance with diat oudook, die remarks that follow stress the darkerand more troublingaspects ofdie code. Also, theyclearlycontrast a social science orientation against popular meanings ofhonor, no less valid but not pertinent to this discussion . To a degree, other academic disciplines have pursued the ethical construction with considerable effect American historians, however , have been slow to recognize the significance ofthis nearly universal way ofordering social arrangements. In the West, honor and its code ofbehaviorlongpredate Christianity. Atthe same time, honor flourishes feverishly in our own day in other parts ofthe globe, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. In spite ofvariations from one locale to another, diverse emphases from nation to nation, and changes over time, honor has retained a remarkable consistency. Historians in the United States should welcome its explanatory power. By now, the broader apprehension of honormaybe familiar enough to make unnecessary a lengthy explanation. Suffice it to say, the scheme is based largelyupon the nature of human existence—the accidents of birth and rearing no matter how outrageous, unjust, or irrelevant they might seem to the modern mind. Among them are: the primacy ofmale over female, senior overjunior, inherited over acquired wealth. A noted blood lineage is favored over obscure or disreputable origin. In some societies an allegedly superiorclaim to religious truth separates the body politic. A freeborn condition over enslavement marks the honorable from the shamed. Other distinctions come to mind but are too numerous to mention. Psychologically, honor requires that self-identity not be determined by selfgenerated factors. Radier, assessmentofworth relies upon a watching public. The individual then must accept that community judgment (good or bad) as valid and adopt it as part of the inner self. Honor thrives in the absence of law. Yet it often can exist as an alternative to laworprovide the basis oflaw, as in the case of die Muslim sharia. Sometimes it takes the form offer grimmermob actions orlynchingsthan, for instance, the "shivaree" in the musical Oklahoma] In the West, the compulsions that drove men to duel, bite, or kill . . . no longer carry theirformal moral sanction. Elsewhere, though, honor thrives as a deadly, anti-modernforce . For mostcultures, a warriorspiritelevates honor to the zenith of ideals. The interdependence ofmen at arms upon the reliability oftheir comrades and the necessity ofan ironclad discipline make honor avital part ofmilitaryculture . Essential diough itmaybe in that domain, the same tenets ofauthoritycan play a deplorable role in other situations. For instance, the sociologist Orlando Patterson in Slavery and Social Death (1982) has studied nearly two hundred slave societies, with their inhuman proclivities and determination to obliterate autonomy. Allofthem, he concludes, were honor societies. Yet, not all honor societies , he observes, were based on bondage. With orwithoutthe regimen ofslavery, devotees ofhonormaymistake gendenessforweakness , kindness foreffeminacy. Ofcourse, magnanimity , condescension, and noblesse belong among traditions ofhonor. Yet these alleged virtues mustappearto beuncoerced: the giver sets die terms, notdie recipient Inresponse to outside criticism, men sensitive oftheirhonor insistonviolentrepudiation. Theyare likelyto lambaste reluctant or prudent skeptics with charges ofcowardly, unforgivable acquiescence . Compromise and the eagerness to negotiate rarely rank high in honor-shame societies. On thatunhappy basis, nations may be pressured into making war. Aggrieved or subjectedpeoplesmaybeswiftiyledintorebellion , even to the point ofself-destruction. In earlier days, gendemen might have felt compelled by the opinion ofpeers to duel, while lesser folk were goaded into eye-gouging, knife-throwing, orambushingan enemywith firearms. To demonstrate the uses towhich diisparadigm has been put, we might begin with the ancient world. In biblical studies, the explorations ofDavidArthur de Silva, Krister Stendahl , Bruce Malina, and others have clearly demonstrated the significance ofthe honor code indie culturesthatproduced the Old and NewTestaments...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 13-15
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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