The Anxieties of Honor

Honor has been much on my mind, because it has been the subject, explicit or otherwise, of a lot of my reading recently, and because it (or its absence) keeps popping up as the explanation for this or that crisis. And because I don't understand it. In my life, it is decency, not honor, that stands as the opposite of shame, and this decency is in no way connected to my being a man. When I consider the aspects that honor does not share with decency, as I do below, they appear anything but virtuous. But then it's well to remember that 'virtuous' started out (long ago) as a synonym for 'manly.'

Like honor, decency is a matter of repute, but unlike honor, the factors that attest to one's decency are not only overt but coincident with our secular constitution. Decency will never tempt me to challenge someone who has insulted my wife. It will oblige me to do what I can to shield her from further insult, and to register whatever effective verbal (non-violent) complaint I can think up, and to refer the matter to duly constituted authorities if words prove ineffective. The same decency would oblige her to do the same for me, and, once again, decency, unlike honor, would not cause me to lose  self-esteem because I had accepted a woman's help. There is something so obviously inarguable about my maleness, at least in my mind, that I have no need of a gender-specific prop to establish that I am not a woman. 

On top of that, I don't associate strength with men and weakness with women. Strength is often thought to have been important in the pre-industrial world, and it was, but the nature of this importance is revealing. Those who had strength and cultivated it, in order  to master their horses and carry their armor, never put it to any practical use if this could be avoided. A brawny young man of any background might very well expect, until the ossification of social classes in the later middle ages, to rise to a rank where he might be called upon to fight and to die, but not to labor. Labor was the occupation of the relatively weak, undernourished peasants for the most part, men, women, and children. When industry began to replace agriculture as a source of jobs, it quite paradoxically reflected a successful attempt to cut the size of the workforce. This may sound counterintuitive or wrong, but in fact the emergence of factories in each of many different industries began only after machinery had been developed to do most of the work, thus reducing labor requirements from the hitherto utterly unattainable to the manageable. Industrialists have been whittling away at jobs ever since. It is not part of classical capitalism to employ workers. 

For the most part, we live in a world where extraordinary physical strength is of little more than cosmetic importance - say, at weight lifting events. Wars require fit young people, it is true, but thanks to the American passion for sports, we appear to produce as many fit young people as are required, and fitness is in any case not the same as strength, or women would not be part of the military. Most people are strong enough for most purposes, and in a state that monopolizes violence, strength will not be required for self-defense. The state's monopoly is invariably imperfect, and muggers have been known to roam the streets of Manhattan. But unlawful violence that is also unaided by weapons would appear to be confined to barroom brawls, and, disgracefully as well as dishonorably, domestic fights. So completely displaced is our valuation of brute strength that the handgun has replaced musculature as a component of honor. I do not see much evidence of a general longing to return to a pre-modern environment in which the right to do violence is possessed by every man concerned for his honor.

Machines have leveled so many of the differences among people that it's grimly ironic to note their heavy contribution to today's inequalities of wealth, which threaten us with an almost medieval stratification. In the middle ages, prevailing political theory obliged workers to contribute to the upkeep of their defenders, who for their part did not work, ever. There was only one kind of work for the overwhelming majority, and that was agricultural. Some workers prospered, but most did not. Today, prevailing economic reality, driven by machines of all kinds, not least the computer, continues to eliminate the kinds of jobs that allow most people to prosper, while concentrating the wealth in circulation into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Do we foresee a world of rich lawyers and subsistence clerks? Even if we do, it is unlikely to recapitulate the medieval differentiation of the ruling class into hardy knights and gentle maidens. Machines have changed war as much as anything else, and indeed our military puts women in the front lines.

Where is there room for honor in this world?

The question can be asked in different tones of voice that will ensure different answers. I ask it in a way that makes clear, if you hear me speaking, that I regard honor as a social problem, like drugs or prostitution. As an expression of outraged tradition, however, the question calls for the radical restoration of an imagined past, one that, among other things, confines women to lives of segregated domesticity, the better to insure the honor of their men. Here it is everything but honor that is out of joint; if there is no room for honor in this world, then the world has got to be refashioned not just to accommodate it but to focus on it. But what is this honor, exactly? I cannot speak from experience; I have never lived in a society of which it could be said that honor and decency were not the same thing. If the men among whom I grew up were preoccupied with honor as a reflection of their wives' chastity, I was completely unaware of it. So I can only assume that, with reference to the chastity of one's wife, honor is a virtual badge of one's ability to defend one's home from intruders. It also signifies - again, as a virtual badge - the legitimacy of one's children: they are so assuredly one's own because one's wife has never been alone with another man outside her own family. In emphasizing the difference between men and women, moreover, honor makes men more - manly.

That's the theory. In fact, of course, one can never be sure about any of these things - one's wife's chastity, one's own paternity, and one's own manliness. Every society tells many tales of ingenious lovers who breach the most formidable barriers to illicit intercourse. And it is the fact that these questions can never be settled, once and for all, that makes the world of honor such a volatile place. Manliness can only be demonstrated by acts of manliness, and the more unsure one is of one's manliness, the more often one is obliged to perform such acts - and the more likely such acts are to involve violence, if for no other reason than that handguns and other leveling weapons can be found in every corner of the globe. The chastity of a wife can never be taken for granted during the years when it matters, and doubts about it are stopped only by age or death. How many fathers are propelled by anxieties about paternity to tyrannical levels of assertiveness? The anxieties of honor require ceaseless vigilance and what General de Gaulle called force de frappe. What's more, because such questions of honor cannot be left to the imperfect state, the state cannot be allowed to monopolize violence. Hence, in the United States, the National Rife Association.

This aspect of honor, having to do with women - who, in almost every society on earth, cannot themselves 'have' honor or be honorable, would thus appear to be a vicious circle. Forget about honor, and the problems that it anticipates evaporate. If the only difference between men and women is physiological, then the matter of manliness is settled at birth. There is simply nothing to say and nothing to prove. Nor is there any reason to prefer the one to the other. It's only by imposing artificial constraints - useful in the pre-modern world, perhaps, but no longer - involving costume, behavior, and segregation, that honor and its anxieties come into the picture. Only when men and women are expected to act differently pursuant to man-made codes does the need to guarantee these codes arise.

Why are men afraid of being women? What does this fear really refer to? First, or earliest, it is a matter of being laughed by other children. Surely no worse fate can befall a boy than to be labeled a sissy. The boy considered effeminate is not treated with the awestruck punctilio that boys put on for girls. On the contrary, the treatment that he receives is the exact opposite. I don't know how many sissies have been beaten to death, but I'm sure that it is only the proximity of adults that keeps the number down. And who does the beating? The bully, beset by complementary anxieties: for if one boy can be like a girl, don't all boys face this danger? Indeed, we find this 'infectious disease' theory alive and well wherever men are unaware that there are homosexuals among them, and childish savagery at the first sign of 'contamination.'

Second, there is the dread of impotence. Here one can only speculate, for every man's experience of impotence is his own alone and likely to be forgotten as soon as possible. What does impotence imply? It may easily imply that the man is no different from a woman, who doesn't have to do anything to complete intercourse. I do wonder, however, how often impotence occurs otherwise than because a man's desire for a woman is less than wholehearted. When a man seeks intercourse with a woman whom he does not altogether desire (and true desire has a way of swamping niggling reservations along with all the other refinements of rationality), it is because he desires something else: to perform an act of manliness. (This seems particularly true of drunken sex, whether 'successful' or not.) In short, considerations of honor are both the motivation and the ground for anxiety. The idea, moreover, that men are actors at sex, and women acted upon, is yet another traditional truism that turns out not to be true. But perhaps it is because fertile women, for obvious reasons, are unlikely to have sex for ulterior reasons, disconnected from the pleasure of sex or the prospect of reproduction, there is no need to manifest their sincerity.

Related to this is the mirage of invulnerability suggested by the erect penis. Without the armature of bone or cartilage, this appendage can achieve a hardness not surpassed and seldom equaled elsewhere in the body. As such it is an almost perfect emblem of invulnerability. (It amuses me to note that muscles have nothing to do with this phenomenon, either. Indeed, the dilation of blood vessels that makes engorgement possible oddly echoes the 'passivity' of a woman's reception of coitus.) That is all it is, however - an emblem. A man's skin may be rougher to the touch than a woman's, but it is hardly more difficult to pierce. That a man will probably be better prepared to fight off an adversary is simply proof that the undefended body is anything but invulnerable.

The role of honor in the modern state has been repeatedly shown by the history of the last century to be that of a very wicked fairy. Monopolizing violence, the state itself became the  focus for impulses of honor. When acted upon by huge citizen armies, these impulses wrought unprecedented devastation in two global wars and many smaller ones. Because of its reliance on violence, honor has long led to war, as war has exploited honor. Honor is indeed the only explanation for the outbreak of the Great War. It was triggered when Gavrilo Princip shot the Austrian archduke and his wife, and the cascading disaster that followed spread as quickly as the influenza that would so grimly follow the armistice four years later. Indeed, the conception of national honor that all the European countries cultivated after the Congress of Vienna - an everyman's honor, if you like, for the first time not the sole concern of an aristocracy - was shaped into a virulent pathogen by the newly vernacular press, which would shout anything to sell copies and drum up demand for its product. (Peace is not very newsworthy.) Without the critical habits of mind so indispensable to educated people, newly enfranchised workers were easily convinced that their manhood, hitherto of interest to no one but now seen as a foundation of the modern state's virtue, required 'satisfaction on the field of honor.' Indeed, the trench warfare into which such gallantry quickly decayed may be seen as a demented duel, to be fought until every last man had killed every other.

Truly strong men, truly hard men - if there are such paragons - have no need whatever of honor, but the rest of us need for such men to be decent, and the simplest way to ensure decency is for everyone to pursue it. We must hope that eventually even the bully will be shamed into decent behavior. (June 2004)

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