J. Bowman, Honor. A History (2006)

Literature review

Bowman’s book provides an instructive treatment of topics and ideas that are still of great significance in today’s politics and society. His polemical, heavily politicized reading, however, presents some fundamental problems of conceptualization and consistency.

According to B., a primitive (‘reflexive’, as he calls it) form of honour, associated with conflict and masculinity, can be distinguished from a ‘cultural’ honour, which is the result of a moral approach to the proper/improper use of violence. Having reached its most refined form in the Victorian era through a balanced combination of liberal, democratic, and Christian values, cultural honour has since degraded through what B. calls an ‘anti-honour’ culture, promoted by groups and individuals who have contributed to a disillusioned debunking of honour following the horrors of 20th-century wars and in line with developments in psychotherapy, feminism and equality, and the democratization of social status. Proponents of such approaches, one way or another, have found honour in ‘dishonouring honourable things of the past’. Thus, to B., honour is nowadays generally despised as an old-fashioned relic by the prevailing anti-honour groups, and so has been appropriated, in primitive forms, by marginalized or otherwise heavily polarized groups found in inner-city gangs, (Muslim) terrorists, prisons, and even the police and the military.

B. argues that the West should counter these degraded honour groups as well as its own post-, anti-honour culture, by abandoning the soft approach of the liberal-minded and re-appropriating a hard, masculine form of honour. This should be achieved by three means: refusing timid pacifism and rehabilitating the respectability of war; basing our society on other (esteem-based) forms of inequality beyond that of wealth; and getting rid of a celebrity culture based on appearance, excess, and debauchery. This should revitalize the inherent differences between sexes by making the role of women as wives and mothers (and, more or less implicitly, of men as leaders and soldiers) respectable again, resulting in a new form of democratic honour which will allow the West (i.e., the USA) to regain its proper leadership and reputation.

B.’s book is driven by a reactionary political agenda which becomes increasingly obvious as one reaches its final chapters. While he does acknowledge, from the Introduction onwards, that honour is group-based and as such relative to the shifting values of different groups, there are problems and inconsistencies in his approach.

For example, B. seems unable to draw an entirely clear definition of his own distinction between reflexive and cultural honour: an emphasis on an essentialized form of honour based on violence and conflict sits uneasily with the recognition that different societies have different standards of the honourable. Often, B. seems driven by a sense of shame at – as he himself acknowledges – not having participated in the Vietnam war, which possibly explains quite a lot about his obsession with war as a test of manhood and source of honour.

B. also seems at odds with his own main argument when he states, in the final chapters, that we should recover an updated form of Victorian (cultural) honour which in fact, by the way he describes it, seems to be much closer to the dominant, violent, and hyper-masculine form of honour that he himself regards as primitive (reflexive): in doing this, B. seems to ignore that earlier studies (e.g. by F.H. Stewart) have already demonstrated how the notion of honour in Mediterranan cultures (itself a questionable definition), including ancient Greece, is varied, historically situated, and by no means primitive. Above all, the fundamental weakness of B.’s approach is found in his continuous and contemptuous references to ‘anti-honour’ individuals and groups, ranging from Mark Twain, Hemingway, and Kennedy, to modern and contemporary philosophers, academics, civil rights and gender-equality supporters, and even the passengers of the 9/11 flights who did not react to the terrorists on board. By assuming the existence of such an ‘anti-honour culture’ as the major obstacle to overcome, B. shows to (wrongly) regard honour as one value among many: this apparently common misconception among the military (see, for example, The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual) disregards the fact that honour is by no means a fixed value, but rather a mechanism which may be associated with a wide range of values (see e.g. K.A. Appiah).

B.'s whole approach is thus based on a misunderstanding: his biased, divisive vision of honour does not take into consideration studies that show how honour can function as common ground for different social classes and cultures (e.g. Welsh 2008). It turns out that the people B. regards as responsible for the debunking of honour are not ‘against honour’ at all (how could they be?): their standards of honour merely differ from his. Some of them are, if anything, against war and in favour of co-operation and equality; for them it is falling short of these standards that is shameful, just as weakness is in B.’s eyes.

Matteo Zaccarini, 03/10/18

(updated 10/12/18)

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