Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tierney Spins in Cirles on "Honor"

Behind the NY Times firewall, John Tierney shares his opinions on honor, insisting that in the Middle East they follow a "traditional" concept of honor which is alien to us:
In the West we’ve redefined “honorable” as being virtuous, fair, truthful and sincere, but that’s not the traditional meaning. Honor meant simply the respect of the local “honor group” - the family, the extended clan, the tribe, the religious sect. It meant maintaining a reputation for courage and loyalty, not being charitable to enemy civilians. Telling the truth was secondary to saving face.
If the concepts are that far apart, at what point should we recognize that we are discussing two separate concepts, even if we classify both as "honor". If the West views an orange as a tasty piece of fruit, and the Middle East views it as the result of a combination of red and yellow pigments, the fact that we can agree that both are orange doesn't mean that we're discussing the same thing. It is far too simplistic to suggest that, even if in other cultures the ties are stronger, people in the West don't form intense bonds to friends and family, to the point of being willing to lie, steal, or kill to protect their "honor group". Isn't it more than a bit simplistic (and perhaps more than a bit bigoted) to suggest that honor in the Middle East is synonymous with lying to save face?

Tierney elaborates on Western "honor":
Instead of might-makes-right, Christianity preached turning the other cheek. Instead of according special honors to an elite class of men, it preached egalitarianism and love toward strangers. It emphasized inner virtue, not outward glory.

The result was a new honor system in the West, chivalry, that was an uneasy combination of Christian virtues and knightly violence. Eventually, with the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeois and democracy, the system evolved into what Bowman calls honor-by-merit, epitomized by the Victorian ideal of the gentleman who earns his reputation by working hard, playing fair, defending the weak and fighting for his country.
Another way of looking at this would be that the "honor group" became expanded to include a much larger population, and thus the requirement that to remain honorable you had to respect the rights of that larger population. A longer historical view might question what seems to be portrayed as a direct causal connection between Christianity and an interpretation of honor that arose in a small island nation some 18 centuries after Christ's birth. A more cynical view would be that this presentation of public virtue was not necessarily maintained behind closed doors. A more honest view would be that, whatever the Victorian reality may have been, we've not done a good job of living up to that ideal - and perhaps we never have.
The problem today, as Bowman sees it, is that the whole concept of defending one’s honor has been devalued in the West — mocked as an archaic bit of male vanity or childish macho chest-thumping. But if you don’t create a civilized honor culture, you risk ending up with the primitive variety.

“The honor system in Arab culture is the default honor system, the one you see in street gangs in America — you dis me, I shoot you,” says Bowman, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “We need a better system that makes it honorable to be protective of those who are weaker instead of lording it over them.”
If by honor we're talking about multi-generational honor-based blood feuds, well, yes... we of the West do tend to look down on that. But our culture is immersed in what Tierney contends is the "traditional" form of honor. We espouse a business culture which favors deception, if not outright lying, in order to maintain market advantage. We root for our local sports team, simply by virtue of its proximity. Our blood-soaked action heroes bring in hundreds of millions at the box office, and have even been known to ride their popularity into political office. We increasingly follow a concept of the meritocracy where the rich deserve to be wealthy beyond imagination, and the poor deserve penury. As a nation, we essentially shrug when the President demonstrates no particular concern about the loss of civilian life in a nation with which we are at war or which we don't deem to be of strategic importance, or with the secret detention and mistreatment of people our nation holds prisoner. When was the last national election where Victorian notions of honor were put ahead of winning?

Tierney's adopting a comparison of Arab honor to that of the inner city gang member? Is it that Tierney sees Arabs as being violent thugs, supporting themselves through crime, and who would kill a complete stranger over a pair of sneakers? Or is the parallel drawn exclusively in relation to taking revenge on someone for "dissing" you, in which case a less inflammatory example may have been G.W. Bush's five consecutive years of declining to attend the NAACP's annual convention? Perhaps instead, Tierney presents the parallel so that we can be drawn into his perspective - Arab culture, like street gang culture, is something to be eliminated without regret.

As for how you might transform the proposed Arab "primitive variety" of honor into a civilized honor culture, mabye Tierney would endorse attempting to introduce such concepts such as egalitarianism, and treating others as you want to be treated? He doesn't state what he has in mind, probably because the only things he could propose would undercut his thesis. As, for that matter, would any effort to examine the history of conflict in the Middle East through his prism of street gang philosophy. It's too easy to stand Tierney's arguments on their head: if Hezbollah hadn't "dissed" Israel by kidnapping its soldiers, and Israel weren't concerned about "looking weak" by negotiating a prisoner exchange, would we be seeing this massive military assault on Lebanon, or hearing Alan Dershowitz argue that "Every civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others"?

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