Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Honour, dignity and victimhood

"I don't know how the baker's boy got down, but I do know that he missed the cart, and got into the very hottest of hot water when he turned up at last at the bakehouse. I am sorry for him, but, after all, it was quite right that he should be taught that English boys mustn't use their feet when they fight, but their fists." (Five Children and It, first published 1902.) 

I was reminded of this passage, which struck me more forcefully when I re-read it in 2015 than when I first read it in 1980-something, by reading this.

At that link you will find Jonathan Haidt summarising a sociology paper about micro-aggressions, which sounds pretty ditchwater-esque, but it isn't. The nub of it is a theory that we (let's assume that American university campus culture is the vanguard of "we"), having moved from a culture of honour to a culture of dignity, are now moving to a culture of victimhood.

In an honour culture it is important to maintain a reputation for not being dominated by others. That means responding to slights and insults with aggression and violence. The man of honour will find himself being left with no choice but to fight, and calling on a third party to help him would itself be unworthy. The culture of honour is, of course, long behind us. (Unless you are the Pope.)

A dignity culture, on the other hand, regards people as having an inherent dignity that will not be compromised by mere insults. "It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor". On the other hand, there is nothing disreputable about appealing to the authorities for help: indeed, "taking the law into your own hands" is morally questionable.

In the culture of victimhood, people are again very sensitive to insults, as in a culture of honour. It would be wrong to say, "get over it, it's just words" in both kinds of society. But, as in the culture of dignity, it is entirely acceptable to bring in third parties to adjudicate and to punish the wrongdoer. Indeed, status is gained by displaying weakness or marginalisation which triggers protection from (or at least punishment of transgressors by) the authorities.

Well, that is all very interesting. I don't know whether we are getting a new culture of values in Western society and I'm happy to defer to Haidt.

What interested me, hence the reference to Five Children and It, is the position of children. You see, I'm pretty sure the culture of honour persisted among children at least into my own childhood. A culture of honour, like the boys of my childhood, can distinguish between a fair fight and an unfair fight; between those insults that require satisfaction (to adopt the terminology of duels) and those that should be laughed off. I don't know whether 12 year old boys still have more respect for the boy who stands up to the bully than for the one who runs off to a teacher, but if they do then the culture of honour still endures among them. I rather hope it does.

Equally, the children of my childhood had to navigate a culture of dignity. That was the culture of teachers, parents and so on. This made for quite Isaiah Berlin-ian examples of an agonistic clash of values: X and Y are both told off for fighting; "but X had to fight Y, sir, because Y said ...". Does it matter who won the fight: if X won then what harm was done? Or does that make X the worse person?

Now I worry that children will have to navigate three cultures. If you are on the receiving end of a racist insult, will you be rewarded for - will you rise in the estimation of your peers by - (a) punching the baddy, (b) rising above it or (c) going crying to a teacher? Perhaps the best thing is to get the baddy hated on social media across the world. Bye-bye honour, bye-bye dignity ... 

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