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Dec 26 2011

About That “Honor” of Yours

I’ve wondered for a while now what kind of a thing called honor could possibly be restored by killing someone. Honor is an abstract concept, so we can only really understand it by viewing its effects, and this particular abstract has had me perplexed for decades.

The existence of duels taught me that honor isn’t something integral to a person. I know that it’s supposed to be. All the stories tell me so. They tell me that so-and-so is a man or woman of honor, that this protagonist or that historical figure behaved with honor.

However, when honor can be taken away by a word and only returned on the point of a sword or the ball of a pistol, it can’t be internal. You can behave bravely and altruistically, and your honor can still be lost–to a lie, no less! Then it can only be returned by public contest. So honor, as it turns out, is really just petty reputation.

Then there is honor killing, or should we call it “reputation killing.” Here we eliminate the competition involved in determining where honor lies. I suppose that’s more fair than a duel, in a way. I can steal your honor with my clothing or my education or by falling in love. You can steal it back with my life. But it does tell me more about the nature of honor.

With a duel, as with many of the practices of the time in which they were popular, the idea of a contest was that God could intervene to pick the rightful winner. If your honor was truly yours to begin with, God would make that obvious by guiding your hand. An honor killing, on the other hand, cuts the uncertain hand of God out of the equation. It is a simple case of revenge, the dishonored killing the dishonoring.

At least, that’s what I thought until I read this article:

The appeal court rejected an appeal by the father “F” against a decision last July refusing him a residence order allowing the baby to live with him.

The judge ordered that “baby Q” should be adopted by a couple, also Muslim, from the same country as the mother, but from a different community.

She found there would be “a very significant risk of two and two being put together” if the child went to the father because Q was quite obviously not the child of his wife, who had a child of her own.

If the child’s maternal grandfather found out about the affair “it would be a matter of intense almost unimaginable shame to him and his family,” said the judge.

The appeal court said on Wednesday: “It was plainly the judge’s view that this might provoke action to preserve the family’s honour.”

Q’s mother managed to hide the pregnancy from her father. Now the courts have allowed her to hide the baby as well, far away from its father, so grandpa doesn’t sniff this out and kill the child.

Suddenly, honor no longer looks like a game of reputation football with deadly stakes. It looks like more like one of those silly mystery novels in which hiding the corpse of one’s dead honor inevitably results in a trail of bodies that point the entire world’s attention directly at you. I’m pretty sure this is not the intended effect.

This honor thing is going to take me a while to sort out.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    dcortesi

    I think that in a small, close-knit community, “honor” would be shorthand for “personal status in the eyes of one’s peers.” The craving for which, I seem to recall, is one of the strongest psychological motivators. If you haven’t got status, some level of respectful regard, in the eyes of your community peers, you’re dirt.

    So it isn’t a solipsistic thing, a solitary abstraction, as you seem to think. It is a personal perception based on other people’s actions and subtle cues, and probably easily distorted by fear or mental illness, but it is a public, multi-personal valuation.

    The components of “honor” — status, standing — in a given community would vary. Among the natives of the Pacific Northwest, public displays of generosity were key, and families would beggar themselves holding give-away parties, preferring public standing in poverty, to possessions.

    The components of “honor” in some of these middle-eastern communities seem to be toxic in their results. But it isn’t insanity or evil on the part of the individuals. You could say it’s institutionalized insanity in their community.

  2. 2
    kraut

    Honour (spelled the proper way) is a concept from the age of feudalism, and a word that should be abolished as nonsense.
    A better word is “integrity” imho.

  3. 3
    kraut

    PS – I always had a tough time to understand what it means other than an overblown sense of self and how one is perceived by others – about the latter I really don’t give a shit..

  4. 4
    Dorothy

    try looking up the news in The Toronto Star. We have a court case going on right now about this concept. Four women dead (3 teenagers and their step mother, the legitimate first wife of the husband) and the rest of the ‘family’ saying Idonno, I cant remember, not me and other crap. Unfortunately, we no longer hang them. Canada is small and tries to be peaceful, but sometimes we home-grow some real evil.

  5. 5
    JoeBuddha

    I think “honour killing” is aptly named: Murdering kin to cover your embarrassment certainly destroys any vestige of “honour” you might have had…

  6. 6
    Stacy

    so grandpa doesn’t sniff this out and kill the child.

    And the mother. And–for some reason, according to the article–his wife and “her” other children.

  7. 7
    kantalope

    ugh, hate the term honour or honor killings…I kind of like Joe’s suggestion for taking it ironically. But that doesn’t work for people not in on the joke.

    My first thought was ‘asshole killings’ but most newspapers won’t take that up. How about ‘Conceit killings’?

    Any other ideas?

  8. 8
    Stephanie Zvan

    dcortesi, I’m not sure where you get the idea I think this is solipcism. The idea I do have is that what is actually at play (note the reference to “reputation”) is presented to us in a romaticized version that makes the problem worse, as does the weird magical thinking that if the evidence is buried, the deed never happened.

  9. 9
    badandfierce

    Another aspect of honor to remember is that it’s deeply rooted in class (which has a lot of overlap with but is not limited to social status). In the traditional duels we picture, i.e. the ones with white guys holding pistols at dawn, both figures are aristocrats. If a peon offends you, you just get your servants to hit him with sticks. To extend that idea into the scenario here, the one who’s offended grandfather’s honor here is the father of the baby, as only equals can offend equals. The woman and child in question are simply the bullets, spent and destroyed to harm the actual offender under the system of “honor.”

    (I also remember having this discussion in-character at a game once. I was playing a deputy in a Wild West setting, trying to get the sheriff to explain to me why we were letting two guys shoot at each other in the middle of town as long as they were polite and told us about it first. All the other player could come up with was, “Well, honor!”)

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