The Magazine

On My Honor

Deciphering the human code.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By JAMES W. CEASER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A highly publicized incident during the finale of the World Cup speaks directly to Bowman's point. When the French soccer star Zinedine Zidane was expelled for a head butt, commentators universally described the act as "inexplicable." Following three days of painful silence, Zidane was forced to respond. Claiming that his female loved ones (mother and sister) had been continually insulted in the most degrading way, he offered the following "explanation": "I'm a man first and foremost; therefore I reacted." And he went on, "I apologize, but I do not regret it," thereby drawing a distinction between wrong conduct and dishonorable conduct.

Here we enter into pure Bowman country, for one of his main arguments is that while considerations of honor may often overlap with ethics or prudence, honor is an autonomous phenomenon having its own distinct source in the human constitution.

Another incident, which I draw from one of Bowman's favorite authors, Anthony Trollope, adds further to his point. In The Small House at Allington, the heroine (Lily Dale) is jilted by one Crosbie, a gentleman by class, who ignobly leaves her in the lurch to pursue a target of opportunity to marry up for status and money. And how is Lily Dale to be vindicated? Dueling now being forbidden, a former admirer, from a modest class, takes matters into his own hands and administers a public thrashing of Crosbie at the London railway station. The judgment to be pronounced on this act is left to a good Christian, Lady Julia, who allows that although she never would have advised it, neither could she bring herself to disapprove it.

Trollope takes over and speaks in his own voice:

Ladies . . . are bound to entertain pacific theories, and to condemn all manner of violence. . . . But, nevertheless, deeds of prowess are still dear to the female heart, and a woman, be she ever so old and discreet, understands and appreciates the summary justice which may be done by means of a thrashing.

James Bowman is less interested, however, in pursuing the natural underpinnings of honor than in exploring different honor codes and their relation to what he calls "honor groups." When honor assumes its variety of conventional forms, it becomes highly group-oriented and stresses the subordination of the individual to the requirements of the corporate entity, be it a clan, a guild, a class, or--with more difficulty--a nation. Honor is esprit de corps, and its violation is found chiefly in the harming of the group, even when the group does what is "wrong." In this analysis, the idea of the police Blue Wall, for its good and ill, is the expression of honor, not the splashy deed of the individual, like Frank Serpico, who exposes the problems of the corporate service in the name of some higher value.

But what conception of honor constitutes such a group? Bowman attempts a general and abstract formulation. Honor is "the good opinion of the people who matter to us . . . because we regard them as a society of equals who have the power to judge our behavior." Yet no sooner does he offer this definition than he has to qualify it, for honor so conceived could apply to those who regard themselves as being "above the demands of honor" as well as to those who take pride in despising the little acts of attention once known as politeness.

A gentleman colleague of mine, known for his impeccable manners, once made the error of pulling up a chair for a well-known feminist scholar, a gesture that earned him the stern reproof, "I can put my own ass down wherever I want." While the good lady's reply was sure to win her the "good opinion" of her peer group, it misses what Bowman intends by honor. In the end, he gives up on this exercise and restricts his universe to groups regulating violence and force or defending "traditional" propriety. He knows honor when he sees it.

Bowman is appreciative, at some level, of honor in any of its real forms, yet by no means does he defend all honor groups. Just the opposite is the case. He wants us to understand the full meaning of honor so that we in the West can know what we are up against. He describes, for example, an honor culture in Pakistan in which raped women are killed to protect the group's idea of honor, and he contends that the terrorist jihadists are motivated far more by notions of honor than of religion, though the two are linked. The world is filled with honor groups that are pitiless and "primitive."

(His continual identification of these honor groups as "non-Western," while accurate, risks leaving a false impression about the elaborately structured honor codes found in Japan and China, which he hardly mentions.)