Monday, June 10, 2019

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

“As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” ~ Oscar Wilde


One of the most bizarre phenomena of the Obama presidency (2008-2016, for those of you not immersed in US politics…) was the horrified pearl clutching about thoughtful ideas that didn’t seem particularly partisan. Basically, President Obama would mention some respected (and often centrist) academic sort whose ideas had influenced him, and suddenly, that innocent person would be branded as the next coming of Stalin, and his or her ideas spoken of the way one tends to speak of human sacrifice or cannibalism.

Probably the most famous, of course, is Senator Elizabeth Warren (before she entered politics), for suggesting ideas - and detailed plans supported by evidence - which would have been uncontroversial to, say, Horace Greeley, Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, or FDR.

Or, for those of us with a legal background, the first we noticed was probably Cass Sunstein. Who is, if anything, center right (at least by 1980s standards) and not even in the same zip code as a communist.

[Side note here on Sunstein: Why Societies Need Dissent made my list of most influential books - for good reason. Both the modern American Right Wing and white Evangelicalism have purged those who refuse to bow down and worship the political dogma, and have thus become increasingly extreme and f-ing crazy over the last few decades - and Sunstein explains why. Likewise, Nudge is a powerful look at some ways to work for the common good through incentives and default settings, rather than regulation - a conservative approach for sure. And Constitutional Personae is a fun exploration of judicial styles and the US Supreme Court. Seriously, unless you are a blind ideologue, Sunstein is a delight to read - but Obama liked him, so he has to be evil, right?]

Another unfortunate victim of the “everything Obama likes is evil” thing was Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Appiah was born in London to a British mother and Kenyan father, but was raised in Kenya. He has taught at such august institutions as Cornell, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. He currently teaches at NYU. As far as I can tell, his philosophical and political leanings are what most would characterize as somewhere between center-right and centrist - at least by more global and historical standards. (It is weird to have to point it out, but the current American Right is actually radically reactionary and nativist, not traditionally conservative in any recognizable way, so I use the alignment that makes sense for most of the 20th Century, not the present.) I would say Appiah would be recognizable to the likes of de Toqueville and Burke as being in the generally conservative tradition, with a bent toward “liberalism” in the sense of human rights. 

The Honor Code is a fascinating book. Appiah’s basic premise is that human society throughout history and geography, has tended to be governed more by “honor” than morality in the abstract sense. We care more about our reputation, so to speak, than our actual goodness. Christ put his finger on this a bit with the idea of “washing the outside of the cup.” We care about looking good more than we care about being good.

But this perhaps doesn’t quite capture the idea of honor. It is hard to describe something this abstract in words - and Appiah does it better than I do. While cultures vary greatly in their concepts of what is and is not honorable, the basic ideas transfer well. Certain actions or inactions are honorable, and others are dishonorable. If a person who is entitled to honor does not receive it, he (usually he…) is entitled to retaliate - often violently. Someone who adheres to the code of honorable conduct gets honor, while he or she who fails to do so is dishonorable, and thus loses honor.

As Appiah notes in his concluding chapter, honor isn’t good or evil. It can be either depending on the circumstance. On the one hand, as the book points out, honor can be a source of utterly stupid violence and oppression. On the other, it can be a powerful counterbalance to economic and social power. It can work to control the worship of profit (something we sure need in our times), and it can temper the abuse of power. Honor is a tool of human psychology (like religion, which is related), capable of good or evil. But honor is in many cases far more powerful than the force of law - and often operates in defiance of the law.

To explore this theme, Appiah looks at four moral issues, past and present, where he believes that honor was or is a determinative factor. In the first three - the historical cases - he shows how honor went from preserving a violent injustice to being turned on its head and being used as a powerful weapon in ending the practice.

I quoted Oscar Wilde at the top of this post - as does Appiah. Because that is how a matter of “honor” goes from being a serious problem to the sort of thing one laughs at. Appiah doesn’t quote Dorothy Sayers, but I will, because I can.

“The idea that a strong man should react to great personal and national calamities by a slight compression of the lips and by silently throwing his cigarette into the fireplace is of very recent origin.”

The first practice that Appiah looks at is a perfect example of this: the duel. From the perspective of the 21st Century, the practice of dueling seems somewhere between laughable and horrifying. Why would anyone bother? Why take the risk? For true defamation, file a lawsuit, and for the rest, just laugh, right? But it was not always so.

Appiah points out that dueling was an upper-class practice, related to the military tradition. Well, the military tradition back when the martial arts were limited to the upper classes. (Again, in an era when most of our soldiers are working class, this seems bizarre.) Only a gentleman was entitled to a duel in a case of honor: a commoner who insulted a nobleman would just be horsewhipped. It was when dueling expanded beyond the nobility that it became gauche. When ordinary tradesmen (who may well be wealthy, but lack titles) and {gasp!} those vulgar Americans started doing it, it lost its lustre.

By the mid-19th Century, dueling was on its way out, and Evelyn Waugh could note that the response to a challenge would be derisive laughter.

Fun additional note here: Lin-Manuel Mirada didn’t come up with an original idea for his song in Hamilton, “The Ten Duel Commandments.” In fact, there were multiple “codes” that governed duels, which had a number of commandments that were supposed to apply. Miranda borrowed from these codes (and from the late Biggie Smalls, of course) for his song. Which is fantastic - there is zero shame in borrowing and reimagining in art.

But where Appiah gives a profound insight is in this: duels were roundly morally condemned - and outlawed - for literally centuries before they died out. Wait, what? All the moralizing and even criminalizing didn’t stop them? Nope. Because ultimately “honor” trumped all. Need some proof on the moral side? Well, there is Shakespeare, writing a few hundred years before dueling ceased. The two “fools” - who can speak their mind - Touchstone and Jaques - give a hilarious riff on the rules of the duel.

Despite all this, though, it wasn’t until the meaning of “honor” changed that progress was made in ending the practice.

This segues into the second practice which Appiah examines: footbinding.

For those who don’t know, during over 1000 years of Chinese history, the feet of well-born Chinese girls were bound until the bones were broken and the feet irreparably damaged. There were a variety of reasons for the practice. Some were aesthetic (and a bit similar to the use of high heels for women today.) Some were sexual and fetishistic. But Appiah also notes two connections to honor. First, because honor is often connected to class, it was about class signaling. Working class women didn’t have bound feet, because it made manual labor difficult to impossible. A woman with her feet bound was a decoration, so to speak - she didn’t have to work.

But even more than that, footbinding was a symbol of chastity. A woman who couldn’t walk far couldn’t (theoretically) exercise sexual self-determination. She must remain pure until marriage, and faithful thereafter. And thus, for the upper classes, a footbound woman was “honorable,” while an unbound woman was dishonorable - a slut.

It isn’t difficult to see why the practice persisted. Once it because bound up with family honor, that consideration would overrule law and morality. The moral arguments against the practice were made for literally hundreds of years. And various rulers attempted to outlaw it. Again, Appiah shows that, while moral arguments and legal restrictions were part of the process of change, what really made the difference is when China started caring about the opinion of the rest of the world. Once footbinding was seen as a national shame, it ceased to be “honorable.” And this ended it.

The third section is on the transatlantic slave trade. This should not be confused with slavery itself, as the Unitied States needed a vicious and bloody war to end slavery, and far too many today are still not happy about the outcome - that’s how you get a white supremacist elected to the presidency. Appiah focuses instead on England - because England abolished the slave trade by legislation decades before the American Civil War.

Appiah points out once again that there were abundant moral arguments against slavery and that these were made continuously for years and years. It wasn’t until the trade triggered an honor reaction that progress was made. In Appiah’s view - and he may be right - it was the working class Brits who turned against slavery. Unlike in America, where a poor white man could always say “at least I’m not a n----r,” in England, poor whites were at the bottom of the heap. Visionaries like Wilberforce hit on a successful strategy by showing that slavery meant that manual labor was treated as dishonorable, and that by permitting slavery, working people were being dishonored as well.

The other successful tactic - and one that I have been using for the last few years - was to point out that England’s reputation as a so-called “Christian nation” was undermined by its thoroughly unchristian actions. We need that more than ever - to point out to those who support family separations and concentration camps for migrants are in fact dishonoring our country and our faith. (Yep, I have family and acquaintances who defend this evil - and are not happy when I point out that they are dishonoring Christ by doing so.)

The final practice addressed by Appiah is one which is more or less ongoing: honor killings. Appaih starts off by looking at the practice in a less familiar setting. There is nothing inherently religious about the practice of honor killing, and it has been pretty widespread throughout rather divergent religious cultures. So, Appiah first looks at how it was practiced in Sicily. Who knew, right? Well, there was a complex system of “honor” surrounding female sexuality which required varying levels of violence to restore honor to a family dishonored by female sex. In some cases, this meant killing, but in others, it meant that a woman would be forced to marry her rapist - even if she was engaged to someone else. (Hey, that is actually in the Bible, by the way - so don’t make it an Islamic thing.)

Appiah then looks at it in the context of Pakistan, which is the Islamic country where honor killings are the most problematic. He points out some things which get lost in the miasma of Islamophobia that taints our discussion of so much in our country. First, honor killings are part of a particular culture - and have been part of that culture for hundreds of years before Mohammed was born. Second, honor killings are and largely have been illegal in all the places they are practiced. Third, honor killings are considered morally wrong and downright un-Islamic by all mainstream branches of Islam. (In other words, honor killings are like polygamy in the FLDS cult - they are not part of mainstream LDS, let alone Protestant Christianity. Ditto for honor killings and Islam.)

So why are they still all too prevalent? Well, because of “honor.” That idea trumps morality, the teachings of Islam, and the law itself.

Appiah makes a fantastic point about the root issue - and he draws on a movie made about Scicilian honor culture. A character says, “It’s a man’s right to ask and a woman’s duty to refuse.” Or, as Appiah notes, “Self-restraint is unmanly; resistance is appropriately feminine.”

Yep, the old sexual double standard. Men are expected to be hopeless horndogs, and women are solely responsible to stop them. And if a man rapes her, the woman is at fault for failing to do her duty. (Or die in the attempt.)

You might notice that this isn’t too different from “Christian” purity culture here in America. Or too different from the rhetoric surrounding abortion right now. That’s because it comes from the same belief system about gender roles and female sexuality.

I mentioned them above, but want to touch on a few of Appiah’s observations about honor. He closes the book with a look at the positives and negatives of honor, and how it might be directed to support moral and ethical behavior, and not its opposite.

As an attorney, I appreciate his mention of us - along with other professionals (teachers, nurses, doctors, accountants, etc.) who are bound by more than the law breathing down our necks. We have our codes of honor. Sometimes, people misunderstand that (particularly those who don’t get why we are bound by our professional code to represent people with unpopular cases.) But because of our ability to cause great damage to society if we act dishonorably, those standards work to keep us on the right path where mere laws might not. In that sense too, Appiah notes that honor can work to mitigate the profit motive - and it is the sign of our disintegrating society that profit is now seen as trumping (pun intended) all duty to our fellow humans and the fabric of society.

Appiah also looks at the unfortunate connection between violence and honor. But he notes that in the three cases where honor has been turned to the good, honor doesn’t have to be about violence and pain. It can work against those oppressive hierarchies instead of supporting them. (For more on the progress that has been made, and the factors that helped bring it about, I cannot recommend The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker enough - it is a fantastic book. And thus, one which the Right has decided to hate…)   

I want to end with a couple of thoughts. First is this quote from a book by J. M. Coetzee, which Appiah uses to illustrate how we can push back on evil using the language of honor:

Demosthenes: Whereas the slave fears only pain, what the free man fears most is shame. If we grant the truth of what the New Yorker claims [regarding torture during the gulf wars], then the issue for individual Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of this shame to which I am subjected, do I behave? How do I save my honor?

Appiah suggests that we will have more success in changing the world for the better if we work to reshape the meaning of “honor” than if we “simply ring the bell of morality.” Rather than asking people to be good, we may do better to wield shame and “carefully calibrated ridicule.” It isn’t that morality and justice and human rights are irrelevant - they are crucial parts of the discussion. But all too many people will not be moved by these abstract concerns so much as they will be moved by understanding that others see them as dishonorable and shameful.

Whether or not one agrees with everything Appiah says in this book, he makes an interesting case. Clearly, he has thought his thesis through, and supports it throughout with citations to primary sources. In particular, his description of how moral and legal arguments alone were insufficient until the code of honor changed is as compelling as anything I have read as an explanation for how societies make major changes in the course of a single generation. I think we are seeing a similar shift right now regarding a constellation of human rights issues (gender equality, racial equality, economic equality, immigration, and gay rights), and I am reasonably confident that after the Baby Boomers shuffle off, there will be revolutionary - and long overdue - changes.

I feel I haven’t done justice to this book, alas. But I hope I have given a bit of a picture of what is in it. It’s not that long, but it is a good read, and it raises some intriguing ideas about how to fight injustice.


On the “anything Obama likes is evil” phenomenon:

Initially, I figured this was just raw partisanship. And it is that. The polarization happened on the Right long before it spread to the Left - and honestly, the Left is far more open to a range of ideas right now.

But there is more to it. Obama “tainted” others far more than Bill Clinton did - or for that matter, more than any white male on the Left has done during my lifetime. And I think that is part of it. Before Obama, I did not realize just how deeply and viciously racist white people still are (on average) in this country - and particularly white people on the Right. Both the Obama era and the Trump whitelash made that abundantly clear. For someone like Appiah, he is doubly tainted by being liked by Obama and being of African descent himself.

But perhaps another level applies here too. I didn’t realize it until the Trump era: for the most part, the American Right is terrified by reality. Anything that smacks of actual evidence, consistent ethical thought, or in any way challenges their political theological beliefs (including unregulated Capitalism, Social Darwinism, White Supremacy, and Christian Nationalism among others) is anathema, no matter how well supported by overwhelming evidence. Which is why they have been willing to remain in denial about climate change, cascading income inequality, and anything that smacks of sociological or economic research. The dogma is all that matters, and who cares if it destroys civilization? Our theology (I use that in the secular sense too) is right, the evidence be damned. “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” And that is how legitimate thinkers like Sunstein and Appiah get tarred with the “pinko” label, while the village idiot can say obviously ludicrous things and be defended to the death. I don’t even know what to say anymore.

I am rather horrified by the way that anti-intellectualism and anti-reality thinking took over my former religious and political tribes. And how quickly conservative ideals were abandoned as soon as a more (dare I say it?) pure form of racism and hate presented itself. I left both the GOP and Evangelicalism because I refused to check my brain and my conscience at the door.

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