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Honor, Shame, Scandal and Integrity

[ by Charles Cameron — reflecting on the anthropology of honor – shame, its relevance to cover ups of many kinds, and its potential for impact in our search for a more peaceable modus vivendi ]
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Cardinal O'Brien & Lord Lennard, their images as juxtaposed on the Cranmer blog


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Recent political news in the United Kingdom, from The Telegraph:

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has been forced to admit that his office knew for years of claims that a senior party figure might be sexually molesting volunteers and staff.

The Deputy Prime Minister changed tack in a statement on Sunday evening over the sex scandal which is engulfing his party.

He broke into the end of his holiday to admit for the first time that his office had been aware of the allegations surrounding his former chief executive Lord Rennard since 2008. But he said he was personally unaware of the claims.

Nick Clegg admits his office knew of Lord Rennard rumours for five years

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In today’s Wired, concerning a cover-up in the US Air Force:

A military jury found Lt. Col. James Wilkerson guilty of groping a sleeping woman’s breasts and vagina. But the Air Force wasn’t done with the “superstar” F-16 pilot. It reinstated Wilkerson to active duty and wiped away his conviction — but, to save face, is pledging not to promote him to full colonel.

[ … ]

Now the embarrassed Air Force is looking for a face saving way out of its institutional mess. Its answer thus far, reports Stars & Stripes, is to remove Wilkerson’s name from its promotions list. There’s an opportunity for Wilkerson to appeal the decision.

Air Force Accountability for Sexual Assault: Not Promoting Convicted Officer

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And concerning Lockheed and China, a short while back from emptywheel:

I’m just wondering out loud here: what if China did more than just steal data on the F-35 when it hacked various contractors, and instead sabotaged the program, inserting engineering flaws into the plane in the same way we inserted flaws in Iran’s centrifuge development via StuxNet?

[ … ]

I don’t know that we would ever know if this clusterfuck was caused with the assistance of China. It’s not like Lockheed would publicize such information, just as it asked for another $100 billion. And I don’t want to underestimate the defense industry’s ability to screw up all by themselves.

What if China Not Just Hacked — But Sabotaged — the F-35?

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I think one of the least appreciated parts of our human make-up is what anthros call the honor-shame system. It considers the honor of a larger group — the family, the regiment, the city, the nation, the corporation, the church — as of overriding importance, with personal considerations clearly secondary. And by honor I mean the respect with which the rest of society views it.

That’s the system that gives us “honor killings” in a swathe of countries, and in modified western form it’s also at the root of every cover-up, every attempt by hacks and flacks to put a good face on things — and it’s very much something that investigative journalism exists to uncover, just as PR attempts to cover it up.

To my mind, this is one of the big battlefronts in the world today, comparable perhaps to the battle post-Descartes between “enlightenment” and “superstition”. And when there’s murky business to cover up or admit to, corporations are often slower than individuals to ‘fess up — if only because the stock market favors appearances rather than realities. Until the bubble bursts.

And much the same is true for politicians and the electoral market, and for churches and the market in faith.

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My mentor Richard Landes believes honor-shame is a large part of the battlefront between “the Israelis” and “the Arab world” — he quotes these two definitions:

Politeness is not saying certain things lest there be violence; civility is being able to say those certain things and there won’t be violence.

and writes:

In an honour culture, it is legitimate, expected, even required to shed blood for the sake of honour, to save face, to redeem the dishonoured face. Public criticism is an assault on the very “face” of the person criticised. Thus, people in such cultures are careful to be “polite”; and a genuinely free press is impossible, no matter what the laws proclaim.

Modernity, however, is based on a free public discussion, on civility rather than politeness, but the benefits of this public self-criticism – sharp learning curves, advances in science and technology, economic development, democracy – make that pain worthwhile.

Leaving aside their applicability to the Israeli-Arab issue, are those fair distinctions between two modes of being? How much of the battle between those forces can be found in the world around us, in our politics, our economics situation, and so on?

How much impact did the differences between honor cultures and modernity have, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Where else might this kind of conflict of values confront our leaders and ourselves?

How can we best handle interfaces between these two ways of experiencing, evaluating and acting in our shared world?

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10 Responses to “Honor, Shame, Scandal and Integrity”

  1. back40 Says:

    I find ingroup/other and near/far explanations to be more compelling than honor and shame. Any act that reduces the status of a group is perceived as an attack on the essence of the group, and longer term (far) consequences are discounted.
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    One benefit of this lens is that it reveals the defects of “modernism”. For example, civility, as opposed to politeness, is a behavior of a sect. Denigrating politeness by citing its extreme expressions, while remaining silent on the extreme expressions of civility, is an attack on another group. Further development of this concept reveals that modern society is identical to all human societies in structure, but the details vary; the taboos have shifted but are as strong and numerous as ever. There are different ingroups, but the structure of in/out is the same as ever, and humans still value birds in hand above those in the bush.
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    What, you may wonder, is an extreme expression of civility?  Speech can destroy as surely as swords. It is not news that pens are mighty. Privileging one type of violence against individuals and groups while disallowing another favors one group above another. People can be destroyed by accusation, whispering campaigns, rumor and innuendo as surely as by projectile weapons.
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    Can it seriously be argued that this is a reduction in violence, an increase in fairness, an improvement in society? It’s different, but by what standard is it better? It’s a preference shared by many, but is it anything more than that?
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    IMV it isn’t that modern sensibilities are worse, it is that they are no better, and that this is human. 

  2. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Charles –
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    As so often happens, I would wield the analytical knife a little differently. (ref. Robert Pirsig) This post intersects with some things I’ve been thinking lately.
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    The theme I’ve been working with is responsibility. Those who were perpetrating the wrongs had a responsibility to their victims and their groups that they failed. Those who knew something was going on and averted their eyes also failed their responsibilities.
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    Or we can consider people who simply don’t take responsibility for their lives, often justifying that by saying that they are serving some higher cause. That’s part of the clergy’s excuse, both the perpetrators and the witnesses. Or the New York Times tells us about a physicist who couldn’t be bothered to recognize an obvious scam and now feels victimized. There is something of a history of this irresponsibility for scientists. James Watson comes to mind. That’s part of why this story made the times: we all knew scientists were like that.
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    I’m not sure how the emptywheel excerpt fits into your schema, or mine. But it is a fascinating thought.
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    And then we go on to the honor-shame system, in which responsibility to an abstract characteristic of the group overrides all other responsibilities. 
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    And another flick of the analytical knife: the people you are talking about, and the ones who are most egregious in rejecting their humane responsibilities are male.
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    I agree with back40 that there is an element of ingroup behavior in this. The ingroups are defined first by including males only and then are narrowed – church, military, or those to whom “honor” is the standard, tribes. The women are the victims or, if they are lucky, chattels.
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    Seems to me that excluding the feminine in such radical ways as these groups do (with a partial exception for the military) can be predicted to result in bad behaviors. I’m talking “the feminine” in a spiritual sense as well as physical, personal. 

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Cheryl:

    I’m not sure how the emptywheel excerpt fits into your schema, or mine. But it is a fascinating thought.

    Ah.  The “continuity” is in the sentence:

    It’s not like Lockheed would publicize such information, just as it asked for another $100 billion.

    I left the rest in to give it some context.
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    And yes: the gender distinction is an important feature of the system, but the woman’s place within the system means they are (physically) “protectively included” rather than “freely permitted” — your point about victims / chattels, in other words.

    I’m pretty sure I once saw a US Army sponsored document that went into the ways in which pastoral living constructed that place — wish I could find it again and post a quick quote here. Are you familiar with Merlin Stone’s book, When God was a Woman?

  4. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    I think I read Stone’s book about a million years ago when I was reading such things. I still have The Lady of the Beasts, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess, and Priestesses (by Norma Lorre Goodrich) on my shelf, and there was a Lithuanian archaeologist…
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    All that is kind of fun, and the symbolism is comforting to return to when this world gets too masculine. But I’m concerned with how we move toward a more integrated world, sort of the distinction you make between the honor-shame system and “modernity”, whatever that is. (Minimally, a system that has more humane features than the honor-shame system. I disagree there with back40.) 
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    I think that what a more integrated world, balanced between masculine and feminine, is hard to visualize from where we are. We would have to grow into it. But I’ve never been averse to pushing toward it, and putting the secret societies you describe (and yes, Lockheed qualifies!) into the masculine-feminine perspective immediately suggests what has gone wrong and the direction we need to go in to get past that. 

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Cheryl:
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    By Lady of the Beasts, you don’t mean the poetry of Robin Morgan by any chance…? I think that’s the volume with her Unicorn Tapestries series, which I remember very much admiring many moons ago.
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    I’d like to say more about your “more integrated world” and how we get there, but for me that’s in the province of dream and symbol, an inward matter that grows outward, and I only know how to talk about it obliquely.

  6. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    For me, it’s got to be the outer world as well. I agree that it has to happen in both, but, as a psychologist friend said, “Attitude follows behavior.” That doesn’t include everything we’re talking about, but I think we need to move forward in all dimensions.

  7. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    No, it’s by Buffie Johnson, lots of photos of ancient art.

  8. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Dunno.
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    There is a bit of transference going on in, both, the abstract notions of value/valuation and the concrete way that power is distributed.
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    In ye ol’ Handbook of 5GW, one of my included pieces (copy-pasted from an older blog post) include it it’s conclusion that,
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    “Many people seek saviors of one sort or another; many are happy to delegate responsibility for the things they themselves cannot touch or do not have the time or motivation to fix themselves — or do not understand, themselves. The crux of the Barnettian paradox involves the manner and method of assigning these delegations so that the general man-on-the-street can rest easily knowing his prosperous future is assured.”
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    Several times since I wrote that, I’ve alluded to it when stating my general impression that the Question of Our Time ™ will relate precisely to this question of delegation of authority.  The world is too complex and large for any one individual to learn everything about everything and do something about everything.  There simply aren’t enough days in any one person’s life.  (And many individuals are constitutionally prohibited from doing much at all; the dummies of our world.)  So, however we might feel about government, specialists, and so forth, we can be sure that we will need to delegate.  Delegation implies a level of trust, also.  Delegation and trust imply a level of dependence.
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    As I’ve moved more into the realm of considering the role of performativity, I’ve been looking at the way that these systems of delegation (or merely procedures and habits of delegation) and dependence are created and maintained.  Shame worked best and continues to work best when it is backed by power; for instance, in early societies shame could lead to ostracism or exile which pretty much assured destruction or a severely diminished life.  I find interesting the proposition that so-called Developed Western Societies ™ have largely lost the utility of shame the more they have allowed a multiplicity of power arrangements, modularity, and so forth.  Job-hopping is one mere example; or, the ability to move from one state to another, one coast to another, one religion to another, and so forth.  Shame continues to play some role of course — for example, extremely negative news stories about this corporation’s practices or that corporation’s practice can frighten a corporation to change its ways, perhaps even one political party to change its ways.
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    On the other hand, some corporations and groups have already become “too big to fail.”  In other words, society has grown so dependent upon them, society refrains from exerting too much power or threat of power against them.  Alternatively, the possibility of alternative power structures (systems of support) allows much that is shameful to continue to exist if not always thrive:  e.g., so-called “sub-cultures” or alternative cultures, even criminal cultures, find just enough alternative systems of delegation and support to escape destruction.  There are small businesses and groups that can weather negative feedback if the number of positive conduits remains sufficient; e.g., the NRA or Chick-fil-A.
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    On the following quote included in the post above,
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    “Modernity, however, is based on a free public discussion, on civility rather than politeness, but the benefits of this public self-criticism – sharp learning curves, advances in science and technology, economic development, democracy – make that pain worthwhile.”
     .
     I feel obliged to introduce an idea I learned from Nietzsche.  In discussing punishment, he noted that we often confuse effect for cause.  Punishment may now be used to some effect such as a rehabilitation of malefactors or to protect a society against same; and so we say, “Punishment is based on the rehabilitation of malefactors” or “Punishment is based on the protection of society against malefactors,” or any number of other statements of cause for the institution of punishment; but the institution, if we look far enough back, came into being for entirely different reasons.  (Generally:  the powerful exacting revenge, retribution, while also safeguarding its own power.)
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    So I would say that an institution of “civility” does not owe its existence so much to “the benefits of this public self-criticism – sharp learning curves, advances in science and technology, economic development, democracy” –though these might be results–but to the fact that modern developed societies have not much other choice.  Shame loses its value as a conduit for power as societies multiply potential conduits exponentially, and this produces the need for negotiation, which in turn often requires the laying out of so many cards on the table.
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    Fortunately or unfortunately, modernity also gives rise to factionalism, as conduits of power become monopolized or controlled in some manner (often chaotic at first).  This neo-tribalism has ever so many tribes vying for power.  Can one individual survive or compete against an opponent that is a tribe of many?   The transference I mentioned at the lead in this comment relates to this question.  I don’t think there is much point in asking whether “protecting the tribe” is the primary motive in secrecy without also asking whether “protecting oneself” and “protecting the tribe” are equivalent in the minds of those secret-keepers.   The funny thing about this neo-tribalism is the fact that members of the tribe are often just as suspicious of other members of the tribe as they are of non-members:  perhaps this relates to the general fluidity of modern societies, or the ability to “job-hop.”
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    Sorry for the long comment.  Been a long day and I could meander on this topic forever.  

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Cheryl & Curtis —
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    A quick word of thanks — I’m working hard on some upcoming papal and other posts, and haven’t had time to do justice to your responses, but that doesn’t mean they’re not appreciated. Please forgive me.

  10. The Question of our Time | Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    […] Yesterday I ran into an interesting question on the blog ZenPundit, by Charles Cameron, in a blog post titled Honor, Shame, Scandal and Integrity. […]


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