Thursday, March 20, 2014


     Last August I listened to a radio piece about Albanian feuds, which supposedly are “all about honour”. The presenter tells the story about a feud that was re-ignited when a couple of guys were drinking in a bar, and one made a remark about a feud that went back several centuries. An argument ensued, escalated, and the other guy shot him dead. This reactivated the feud, and more people killed each other.
     Which raises the question,  what’s “honour”? The word refers to different things in different societies, I mean, we generally don’t think our honour is seriously compromised when someone makes a mildly offensive remark in a bar. Here in Canada, we may even think that the person making the remark has compromised his honour, not ours, because he’s shown himself to be a boor. We also don’t have the same kind of extreme clan or family feeling that Albanians have, so a remark about dead family members usually wouldn’t bother us much if at all. But other subjects might very well rouse us to attack.
     Honour is person’s sense of his reputation. Reputation is a large part of one’s self image. It’s related to our sense of shame. We not only want to think well of ourselves, we want others to think well of us, too. “Honour” is our perception of other people’s perception of us. Shame is the feeling that comes from believing others think badly of us.
     In short, my honour is what I think my reputation is. It is always and inevitably at least partly an illusion. It is not  knowledge of our reputation, because we can't actually know our reputation. We may get some sense of what our reputation really is, but what people tell us about ourselves is usually more or less complimentary, so the dark side is missing.
     So what’s going on in a culture in which even slight injuries to one’s honour can prompt lethal rage? I think that in societies that overvalue honour, there is a tacit conspiracy to avoid telling anyone what you really think of him. The reason is paradoxically simple: by doing so you damage his “honour”. Weird, no?
     It’s even worse when honour is linked to someone else’s behaviour. Then the opinion of a person’s family becomes tangled with his reputation. “Family” can and often does extend many generations into the past. But the terrible consequence of this version of honour is that to maintain your own honour you must somehow control your family members’ behaviour. Thus so-called honour-killings and other abominations. It’s really bad when this twisted sense of honour is codified in law and custom. Then the whole community can and will do the most evil things to each other, all in the name of honour.
     However, a sense of honour can make us behave well. When we say a person acts honourably, we mean that he or she is living up to their good reputation, especially when that’s done at some cost to oneself. In the limited reference to one’s desire to maintain a good personal reputation, “honour” promotes everything from courtesy to honesty. It helps you to control your behaviour it helps you to act more morally and ethically than you would might otherwise act. It’s when reputation becomes linked to things over which one cannot have control that “honour” becomes evil.

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