The World's Most Toxic Value System

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The more I travel, study history and read the papers, the more convinced I become of the superiority of rationalism. With that attitude, I should spend all my time traveling to northern Europe and Japan. However, fate has also seen fit to send me to many places where people think with their viscera and gonads instead of their brains. The more I see it in action, the more convinced I become that societies that place personal "honor" before everything else are truly cursed. This value system has ramifications that pervade the societies infested with it. It is, in my view, the most toxic value system on the planet. The term toxic is carefully chosen and meant to be taken with the utmost literalness because societies pervaded by this value system are deeply poisoned spiritually.

Almost everybody will react to an attack on their honor, but in many societies people are expected to restrain their impulse to get revenge: to forgive or simply ignore insults, and most members of those societies succeed to a greater or lesser extent. But in societies dominated by the "honor" ethic, it's permissible, often demanded, to seek revenge. In many places, this cycle of revenge creates blood feuds that last for generations, or results in periodic flareups of mass violence or ethnic cleansing.

If there's a single attribute that defines the "honor" mentality, it's the notion that private killing over personal grievances is acceptable. But in addition to the most obvious manifestations of blood feud and vendetta, the "honor" mentality includes a constellation of other attributes. Most conspicuous is male domination, which often includes systematic degradation of women and extreme paranoia regarding female sexuality and possible infidelity.

Honor and "Honor"

We use the word "honor" in two ways. One meaning denotes a set of largely internal attributes: trustworthiness, loyalty, courage and truthfulness. The other denotes an externality, as in the expressions "graduation with honors" or "honorary degree." The dual usage arises from the notion that honor given externally by others should arise from behavior that exemplifies the internal kind of honor. Thus, Winston Churchill was given honorary U. S. citizenship (honor in the external sense) because his leadership during World War II exemplified honor in the internal sense. It is perfectly possible, and all too common, to be vilified externally for pursing internal honor. It is also possible to achieve honor in the external sense without having the internal variety, in some cases through deliberate deception. The student who graduates "with honors" by cheating on exams is the perfect example.

When describing other societies, our failure to distinguish between the two types of honor leads to gross misunderstandings. So far I have always put "honor" in quotes except when referring explicitly to internalized honor. I am convinced that "honor" is a gross mistranslation of words from other languages. While these concepts in other languages may overlap some of the elements of what we term honor, the "honor" mentality just as often impels people in other societies to do things that are grossly dishonorable by our standards. The "honor" mentality can blow up a school bus, then demand satisfaction when someone calls it cowardice to blow up a school bus. It can force women to live lives totally dominated by male authority, then become indignant when that domination is portrayed in a documentary. 

When a concept has a label that is diametrically opposed to the normal sense of the term, it's the wrong label. This has nothing to do with value judgment (although my value judgment is clearly stated), it is simply a matter of using words accurately. If you translate a foreign word as "red," and notice that people always use it when describing grass, it's obvious that your translation is faulty. If you translate a foreign word as "honor" and find it often used to describe dishonorable acts, it's equally obvious that your translation is faulty. And I'm not at all interested in the argument that it's their concept of honor. Their concept has a label in their language, but if it doesn't correspond to our concept of honor as we use the word in English, then it's a faulty translation. If all else fails, use the foreign word, but don't mistranslate.

The Blindingly Obvious

It's considered bad form in many circles to criticize another culture's values. In addition, the social science literature contains a number of rationalizations for the "honor" mentality. One is that every value system makes sense to the people that hold it. Another is that every value system exists for a reason. Well, of course. The problem is that you can make these assertions about any value system whatsoever. Rape and genocide and embezzlement also exist for a reason, and make sense to people who think a certain way. That doesn't tell us whether the values are morally acceptable or even whether they are beneficial to those who adhere to them.

So I regard it as trivially obvious that the "honor" mentality exists for a reason and makes perfect sense to the people that adhere to it. I don't doubt it for a moment. I merely claim that these values debilitate the societies that hold them. Smoking makes perfect sense to a nicotine addict, but it can nevertheless kill him. Not exercising makes sense to a couch potato but it will only make his problems worse.

Thar

Although this "honor" mentality tends to be a feature of what anthropologists sometimes call "shame" cultures, "shame" is not really an accurate term either. There really is no specific term in English to describe this value system. The social science literature commonly describes this mentality as "feuding," but though feuding is common in such societies, the term "feud" tends to obscure other aspects of the value system. The term "Mediterranean" is also widely used in the social science literature, and although it's accurate in that almost the entire periphery of the Mediterranean shares this value system to some extent, we find it far beyond the Mediterranean. The term "traditional" is sometimes used to describe cultures imbued with the values I'm discussing, but the word is unsuitable as a general label for too many obvious reasons.

Words from other languages like "vendetta" and "machismo" aren't really satisfactory because they have been taken into English and at best cover only a part of the attributes of this value system. What we need is a foreign term unfamiliar in English. There's a Spanish word, pundonor, a contraction of punta de honor or "point of honor", but it's not really satisfactory for two reasons. First, its components are too similar to English to avoid confusion and second, it's really not fair to saddle Spanish culture with the term. While we can find this attitude in Spanish cultures, it's much more virulent, destructive and unmoderated by humor and common sense in other parts of the world. Until I find a more accurate term, I will use the Arabic word thar, "blood vengeance," for this value system. The term embodies many of the attributes of the "honor" or "feud" mentality, has no semantic baggage attached to it for English speakers, and comes from one of the largest languages and cultures where these values are widespread.

We find this mentality developed to differing degrees in different places. Hispanics, Turks and Greeks can be roused to seek revenge if insulted, but my experience with these cultures is that the "honor" mentality is deeply moderated by pragmatism, a sense of humor, and a general zest for living (another reason I consider the label "Mediterranean" inappropriate). On the other hand, I recall a bank clerk in Naples who refused to cash travelers' checks even though he had cashed them the previous day. His attitude seemed to be "You're the SOB who makes it necessary for me to come to work and I'm not going to do a thing for you." 24 hours afterward, I cashed a large amount of checks in Greece, totally wiping out the cash supply of a small bank office. Not the slightest problem. The attitude here seemed to be "It's too much trouble to be a pain. Let's cooperate and enjoy life." Where I've personally seen the "honor" mentality at its most grim, deadly, and unredeemed by humanizing characteristics is in the Balkans and the Middle East.

The thar mentality can be said to include these features. They vary in degree from person to person and place to place but if we find all or most of them in a society we can justly apply the label thar.

Nothing better illustrates the thar mentality better than the fury directed by Islamic militants against Danish and Norwegian cartoons of Mohammed. Sacrilegious art in other cultures can offend and get people angry but the lunatic response of radical Islamists is in a class by itself. It's the shrieking, out of control petulance of a three-year old throwing a tantrum. People infected with this attitude will be utterly incapable of recognizing wrongdoing by their own society, utterly incapable of taking criticism or recognizing the need for correction. This is remarkably close to the image of Hell painted by C. S. Lewis in his books Perelandra and The Screwtape Letters: a paralyzing self-absorption that imprisons the individual in hate and impotent rage while simultaneously blinding him to any possibility of escape.

Bushido is not Thar

One of the most profound consequences of mistranslating foreign terms as "honor" is a tendency by many people to regard Japanese society as similar to the thar cultures of the Balkans and the Middle East. Japan is not a "shame" culture - Japan and the West are the two great "guilt" cultures of the world (and this, I'm convinced, is directly responsible for their leadership in technology, but that's a long story I'll touch on below.) The Japanese code of Bushido indeed placed great emphasis on personal honor but also on obedience no matter what. When the Japanese were ordered by the Emperor to surrender and submit in 1945, they did. When the Japanese were told by the Emperor to submit to the worst, they quite literally expected to be punished and enslaved. We for our part expected sullen acquiescence at best and terrorism at worst. Both sides, to their immense relief, saw the best side of the other. Just imagine the PLO ever accepting an order to recognize the right of Israel to exist. Just imagine the Irish Republican Army obeying an order from the Vatican to disarm. Just imagine the Serbs following an order to give up Kosovo. Just imagine any of these groups accepting the legitimacy of anyone who even tried to issue such a command.

In sharp contrast to thar, Bushido was an internalized code of honor. One could be shamed in Bushido even if nobody else knew.

In her book The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang recounts the story of a Japanese doctor who had willingly committed atrocities in China during World War II. He now has a shrine of remorse in his waiting room. Many Japanese are in denial about Japanese war crimes but others want to know the truth; it's a terrible struggle for many given their cultural conditioning, but many are making the effort. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for anyone in Hamas, Serbia, Rwanda, or Liberia to build a shrine of remorse.

The Toxicity of Thar

There is, in my view, a direct correlation between the poverty of many societies and their tendency toward the thar mentality. Italy is a striking example. There is a remarkable north-south gradient of attitude and wealth in Italy; the far north is wealthy, highly industrialized, participated vigorously in the Renaissance, and is fully in the European mainstream. Although machismo is everywhere in Italy, in the north it rarely leads to anything more than loud exchanges in traffic. As you travel south in Italy, and particularly in the mezzogiorno, the region from Naples south, the poverty increases and so does the thar mentality. Blood feuds over petty slights are commonplace in Sicily and Calabria (the "toe" of Italy). Many historians see this mentality as springing from deep poverty and long oppression, but it's not hard to find poor societies or societies with long histories of oppression where the thar mentality is much less virulent. Instead, I argue that the thar mentality causes poverty, and causes or certainly reinforces the oppression in the society.

The thar mentality hinders technological progress in a host of ways. Most obviously, it hinders people from moving into new occupations. You can't become an engineer if the family demands that you go into shoemaking like all your ancestors did. It also blocks progress by causing people to shun necessary but low-status tasks or occupations. Some examples:

The most pervasive block to technical progress in thar-dominated societies is more subtle. It is summed up in a Middle Eastern proverb: "it is not enough for me to succeed - others must also fail." This attitude is related to a concept called "absolute scarcity" in the social science literature - the notion that all human needs are in finite supply and there is not enough to go around. Obviously such an attitude will lead to resentment of success by others. A thar-dominated society will never achieve equality, regardless how prosperous it becomes, because prosperity for the masses is a direct affront to the status of the elite.

Degradation of Women

Thar-dominated societies aren't merely male-dominated, but subject women to extreme degrees of degradation. Part and parcel of the thar mentality is extreme paranoia (take that term in the literal, clinical sense of mental illness) regarding female sexuality and possible infidelity. 

French filmmaker Pierre Rehov, interviewed about his film Suicide Killers on MSNBC's "Connected" (July 15, 2006), had this to say:

I came to the conclusion that we are facing a neurosis at the level of an entire civilization. Most neuroses have in common a dramatic event, generally linked to an unacceptable sexual behavior. In this case, we are talking of kids living all their lives in pure frustration, with no opportunity to experience sex, love, tenderness or even understanding from the opposite sex. The separation between men and women in Islam is absolute. So is contempt toward women, who are totally dominated by men. This leads to a situation of pure anxiety, in which normal behavior is not possible. It is no coincidence that suicide killers are mostly young men dominated subconsciously by an overwhelming libido that they not only cannot satisfy but are afraid of, as if it is the work of the devil. Since Islam describes heaven as a place where everything on Earth will finally be allowed, and promises 72 virgins to those frustrated kids, killing others and killing themselves to reach this redemption becomes their only solution.

Thar and Overpopulation

Although the Vatican is commonly cited as a villain in discussions of overpopulation, a cursory glance at demographic statistics reveals instantly that the fastest-growing countries are not Catholic. Attacking the Vatican is a bit like dropping your keys in a dark alley and looking under the corner lamppost because the light is better there - it's an easy and obvious target. Also, it's a safe target; nobody will criticize you for being a racist or ethnocentrist if you attack a Western institution. Finally the Vatican is fun to attack because they just won't stop raining on the sexual liberation parade.

But the reality is that much of the world's overpopulation is driven by the thar mentality. In thar societies manhood is measured more or less directly by the ability to father children. I confess I have always found this attitude a bit puzzling - gerbils can mate at the age of 90 days, so procreation isn't exactly a high-order skill. And the attitude is not just limited to men. When women in some African societies were asked if they would limit the sizes of their families, they said first of all they would not go against their husbands' wishes, and second they would not want to face the ridicule of other women. This attitude is not limited to foreign societies. I know of a young black woman with two children who was asked by her family "you're 26 and only have two children? What's wrong with you?"

Another Perspective

Ralph Peters, in "Spotting the Losers: Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States" (Parameters, Spring 1998, pp. 36-47), identified the following indicators of societal failure. Each is accompanied by a brief quote from his essay.

Restrictions on the free flow of information.
Whether on our own soil or abroad, those segments of humanity that fear and reject knowledge of the world (and, often, of themselves) are condemned to failure, poverty, and bitterness.
The subjugation of women.
Authority over their women is the only power many males will ever enjoy. From Greece to the Ganges, half the world is afraid of girls and gratified by their subjugation. It is a prescription for cultural mediocrity, economic failure--and inexpressible boredom.
Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
The cult of victimhood, a plague on the least-successful elements in our own society, retards the development of entire continents. When individuals or cultures cannot accept responsibility for their own failures, they will repeat the behaviors that led to failure. Accepting responsibility for failure is difficult, and correspondingly rare. The cultures of North America, Northern Europe, Japan, and Korea (each in its own way) share an unusual talent for looking in the mirror and keeping their eyes open.
The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
Where blood ties rule, you cannot trust the contract, let alone the handshake.
Domination by a restrictive religion.
The price of competitiveness is the courage to be uncertain--not an absence of belief, but a synthetic capability that can at once accommodate belief and its contradictions.
A low valuation of education.
Any society that starves education is a loser. Cultures that do not see inherent value in education are losers. This is even true for some of our own sub-cultures--groups for whom education has little appeal as means or end....
Low prestige assigned to work.
States and cultures "win" just by getting up earlier and putting in eight honest hours and a little overtime.

All of Peters' indicators are clearly evident in what I have termed the thar mentality. His points 2-4 encompass the core of the thar mindset, with point 3 probably being the most fundamental. Restrictions on information, clan organization, and restrictive religion are bulwarks to reinforce the system and ward off challenges, and disdain for education and work stem from the definition of status in thar cultures.

The Blindingly Obvious, Part II

Many sociologists point out, accurately, that the features of thar societies stem from long oppression and social stratification. No doubt. But thar is one of innumerable cases where the "natural" response to a problem is the one that will make the problem worse in the fastest possible way. The natural response to being caught in a rip current is to swim toward shore; the response that might save your life is to swim parallel to the shore. The natural response to feeling tired is to rest, but carried to its ultimate conclusion, that response will make you a couch potato. The natural response to a skid is to slam on the brakes; we have anti-lock braking systems to counteract that response. The natural response to trauma is to avoid what caused it; the healthy response is to deal with it and get on with life. The natural response when your clothes catch fire is to run; the way to avoid a long stay in a burn ward is to drop on the ground and roll the fire out. The natural response to prolonged thirst and starvation is to eat and drink, but that response will kill you.

And thar may be a natural response to poverty and oppression. In oppressive systems, the natural response is to reserve trust only for those closest to you, guard what little power you have jealously, and blame the System. Unfortunately, that's the response most guaranteed to keep the society poor and oppressed.

Alleviating poverty can certainly help erode the thar mentality, but it has to be an achieved amelioration. Spain's remarkable growth since the death of dictator Franco is a stunning example. Wealth not achieved by effort, whether Saudi Arabia's oil trillions, medieval Spain's plundered gold and silver from the Americas, or modern paternalistic aid programs, serves only to foster a feeling of entitlement. Achieved prosperity fosters a sense of responsibility for one's fate, whereas prosperity granted externally severs the link.

Our Prognosis

The fact that northern European culture has been relatively free of the thar mentality has been, in my view, one of the most significant factors in explaining its rise to dominance. Thar is the absolute antithesis of meritocracy; in a thar society you have status automatically by virtue of being a male, being an elder, or being a member of an illustrious family. I believe the Western concept of the individual has been one of the pivotal ingredients in the rise of technology, because people who see themselves as autonomous agents, capable of changing the world, invent things. Many historians trace our concept of the individual to the medieval concept of chivalry, which created an elite class that was expected to model its conduct on an internalized code of ethics - and sometimes even did. It is of towering significance that one other society had a similar knightly class - Japan. In thar cultures people are encouraged to see themselves as members of a group rather than as individuals, and discouraged from changing the world because it threatens to undermine tradition.

In many societies dominated by the thar mentality, upward mobility is severely limited. Sooner or later our growth will flatten out. Will we see a rise in the thar mentality in Western society simply because dominance of others will be the only outlet for competition?

I see this as a real danger even if - especially if - we eventually succeed in meeting everyone's needs. In a society where everyone is continually satisfied, the growth of an egocentric world-view is all but guaranteed. Just look at how easily things that were wild utopian fantasies or fabulous luxuries a few decades ago have become "rights" in contemporary American society. In a society where instant gratification is the norm, any obstruction of the will, however trivial, will be seen as a direct personal assault. The more routine gratification becomes, the less able to cope with interruptions people will become. I think we see a harbinger of this in the rise in road rage.

One troubling indicator is the widespread resentment over the rise of intellectual tasks and the increasing economic value attached to intellectual skills. This has a fairly direct parallel to the resentment Asian merchants encountered in many countries when it was discovered that commerce offered better opportunities for success than traditional skills.

Another troubling trend is the increasing politicization of the Civil War. The United States recovered from the Civil War in an absolutely astonishing fashion. But often, symbols from the past take on new meanings and become symbols for grievances. In Bosnia I saw icons displayed by people who from all other appearances had not a shred of religious sentiment, because they had become nationalistic symbols. Thus the Confederate flag has become a focus for attack by black militants and a rallying point for white supremacists. Even more disturbing is a rise in a mean-spirited resistance to any kind of honors for Confederate soldiers. When sailors from the recently-raised Confederate submarine the C.S.S. Hunley were buried with honors, there were a number of complaints that the ceremony amounted to a support for slavery and an insult to blacks. We could see easily see once dormant historical symbols become the focal points for future conflicts.

Peters' symptoms of societal weakness carry some warnings for our own future. The rise of restrictive religion in America is sobering, even more so the attempts to control the flow of electronic information for corporate and government ends. But it's the erosion of personal responsibility that sounds the loudest warning. Erosion of a sense of personal responsibility weakens the work ethic and the value placed on education, fosters resentment of those who do advance through personal effort, and creates pressures to stifle achievement and penalize those who achieve.through personal effort. It gives rise to denial games in which achievement is dismissed as luck or worse yet as theft from those less fortunate. At the same time, it emphasizes rewards based on luck (lotteries, reality television), which reinforce the belief that success is not linked to effort.

America's prosperity may be self-limiting. No American can say he or she earned all the technological blessings around us. People who put out an honest day's work can at least say they contribute their part, but the whole is vastly more than the sum of its parts. A few thousand computer scientists have completely transformed American society, and indeed the whole world. We see people who don't want to pay taxes for education demanding the most advanced health care for themselves. If the reward system for contributing to technology erodes sufficiently and the sense of entitlement becomes arrogant enough,  America's ascent may stall.

Finally, given how the concept of "absolute scarcity" recurs in the sociological literature on thar cultures, if we ever return to a situation of "absolute scarcity" where life is a zero sum game and one person can succeed only if someone else fails, we could well see a return to thar. People who think the collapse of technological society would be a good thing because it would bring us closer to the earth and create closer-knit societies are in for a rude shock.

Thar drives much of the world's terrorism, and in the short term the fight against terrorism is frustrating. But in the long term Western society is doing precisely what terrifies thar cultures the most. We are generating forces that foster individual autonomy and especially demands by women for more equality. These forces attack the very root of thar: the whole fabric of status, hierarchy and authority that creates the reward system in thar cultures.

References

Christopher Boehm, 1984; Blood Revenge: The Anthropology of Feuding in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 263p.  p. 114-5, 177, 

Jacob Black-Michaud, 1975; Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, St. Martin's Press, New York, 270 p. 

Ralph Peters, "Spotting the Losers: Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States," Parameters, Spring 1998, pp. 36-47)


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Created 19 November 2001, Last Update 30 August 2011

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