Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The "right" to respect and honor culture

G and I were just talking about what respect means, and the extent to which people can expect or compel respect for their culture or religion. It is a live subject in view of the horrific attacks in Libya and Egypt.

There's no right to respect, says G, but mockery goes too far. I think you do have a right to a fair hearing, she says, a right to be listened to, even if you don't have a right to positive approval. I also don't think there ought to be automatic negative views of a culture or religion any more than there should be automatic positive views.

I agree with that, I say. People tend to live within their own separate realities, though, and will fight to preserve them, and that is a problem. We have an abstract tradition of formal human equality in the West, which probably stems from the ancient Christian idea of the soul and the equality of souls. But that doesn't necessarily entail equality of substantive respect or recognition. We get confused about this. People don't have a right to compel others to think their cultural preferences and traditions are praiseworthy or valid.

However, perhaps the deeper problem here is not respect, or Islam per se, but a much older unreconstructed honor/shame culture in the Middle East. It's the same disposition that drove early modern aristocrats to fight formalized duals for perceived insults or sleights upon their honor. It's impossible to imagine two US politicians fighting a deadly duel like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.

David Pryce-Jones writes in his book The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs that

What otherwise seems capricious and self-destructive in Arab society is explained by the anxiety to be honored and respected at all costs, and by whatever means. ..Honor is what makes life worthwhile: shame is a living death, not to be endured, requiring that it be avenged. Honor involves recognition, the openly acknowledged esteem of others which renders a person secure and important in his or her own eyes and in front of everyone else. (p35)

We find it almost impossible to understand parents killing their children in honor killings, but it happens even in the US and Canada.

James Bowman points out in his book Honor: A History that although we find this way of thinking extremely hard to understand in the contemporary West, it is pervasive in most other times and places.

When we hear such people speak of Islamic "honor" as being at stake in the jihad against the "crusaders" of America and the West, we naturally regard it as an exotic growth, or perhaps a bizarre survival of an age long past in the West. Yet we are, in global terms, the odd ones out. Our disdain or disregard for honorable imperatives cited by others as a reason for action is at least as bizarre to most of the world as honor seems to us. p23

Bowman traces how appearance matters more than truth or reality to the honor culture. Of course, it was embedded deep in our own culture for centuries, but always sat more uneasily with "turn the other cheek" Christianity, and sank with the aristocracy and the revulsion at the First World War.

The problem is how you deal in practice with people obsessed wih honor. It isn't an argument about abstract free speech rights or "live and let live". Appealing to truth or common interest will not work because it is not what is at stake. But truth will continually wound a sense of honor that is sharply divergent from it.

And eventually people in the West may feel humiliated and angered by incidents crazed intolerant fanaticism in Islamic countries. "Turn the other cheek" has always had its limits as a political philosophy as well. Walter Russell Mead has written about the Jacksonian approach to foreign policy, which is sensitive to US national honor in his book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. It still has broad appeal in the US, especially in the South, which is why Obama has to be very careful not to appear like Jimmy Carter.

Part of the answer has to be to avoid as much as possible the obsessives and honor-crazed. Seal them off. Contain them hermetically. Reason will not work.


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