[ 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 ]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?