In an OpenDemocracy post published today, Joerg Friedrichs (International Development, Oxford) and Ryan Berg (currently a doctoral student at Brasenose College, Oxford) argue that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford exemplifies the pernicious qualities of an emerging moral culture that honors victimhood, stifles speech, and privileges feelings over facts.
Friedrich and Berg’s analysis builds off of an important article by Bradley Campbell (Sociology, UCLA) and Jason Manning (Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia) entitled “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.” Campbell and Manning persuasively argue that we are transitioning from a dignity-based culture to an honor-based one of victimhood. By “dignity” culture they mean one that sees everyone as innately endowed with an unearned and inalienable moral worth. On this scheme, our basic moral equality is assumed, assaults on welfare and property are punished by a central authority, and insults are largely disregarded and thus comparatively rare. This regime replaced the traditional honor culture on which some people have more value than others, personal value could be easily lost through shame and insult, and riposte to offense had to be handled personally—the traditional honor culture.
According to Campbell and Manning, the new honor culture of victimhood combines and inverts various aspects of its predecessors. Like a traditional honor culture, victimhood culture is highly stratified and is highly sensitive to insult. However, it elevates victims and demotes non-victims, which traditional honor cultures would find bizarre. Moreover, on it offenses to dignity are properly handled by authorities, not personally, as if they were “material” attacks on person or property (hence “microaggressions” and not the more accurate “micro-offenses”). These appeals to authority are what makes this honor culture so dangerous to free speech and inquiry.
For their part, Friedrichs and Berg take no stance on whether the Rhodes statue should fall. What they bemoan is the way RMF activists hijack debate with the imperative of their offense and puritanical zeal. Here’s a teaser:
While students were not that supportive, the RMF movement found resonance with the media. This was due to the fact that those campaigning associated themselves, in sometimes tenuous ways, with the victims of colonialism, racism, and other forms of vicitimisation. The movement thus exemplified the move towards offense taking and the celebration of victimhood. It hardly occurred to the campaigners that an honest dialogue about Rhodes, his highly controversial legacy, and the merits and demerits of censoring history might have been more befitting of Oxford than trying to sanitize the place from anything potentially offensive and unpleasant, such as association with an ambivalent and flawed character like Cecil Rhodes.
I encourage you to read the whole post: “Rhodes must fall: from dignity to honour Values.”
Followers of this blog might be interested in a forthcoming article by Professor of International Relations (Oxford) Joerg Friedrichs, “An Intercultural Theory of International Relations: How self-worth underlies politics among nations,” forthcoming in International Theory (a pre-publication version is available here, the FirstView version is here for those who can get past the paywall).
Here’s the abstract:
“This article introduces an intercultural theory of international relations based on three distinctive ways of establishing self-worth: honor, face, and dignity. In each culture of self-worth, concerns with status and humiliation intervene differently in producing political outcomes. The theory explains important variation in the way states and nations relate to members of their own culture of self-worth, as well as members of other such cultures.”
I’d like to summarize Friedrichs’ scholarly, insightful, and thought-provoking essay here, but I will also embellish a bit with questions and commentary. Discussion in the comments section below is welcome as always. (By the way, Joerg may be posting on the blog soon, so keep an eye out for that.)
The dignity-honor-face model
Friedrichs begins his analysis with the increasingly plausible premise that “self-worth is the ultimate human motivator.” Continue reading
Identity-based oppression is usually framed as a harm to dignity. When someone has suffered an injustice based on their race or gender, we commonly say that they have not been treated with dignity, or that their dignity has been violated. On the dignity account of oppression, oppression is morally wrong because 1) it is a failure to respect an individual as a human being, due to their identity in a social group, and/or 2) it is a failure to even recognize that an individual is a human, due to their identity. Note that social identity is the reason for oppression, on this account, but it is not the primary thing that is being disrespected. What is being disrespected is fundamental humanity, if we can abstract such a thing from supposedly morally irrelevant features of identity. To stop oppression, we should get oppressors to see their victims as humans. We need not respect collectives as such, only the humanity of individuals within these collectives.
I am skeptical that the dignity account correctly diagnoses the nature of oppression. Oppression seems to occur not because people fail to see similarity, but because they fail to respect difference. At best, the dignity account tells an incomplete story. It may even go so far as to obscure the nature of oppression so that some means of resistance are seen as illegitimate. I want to suggest that honor, an old tool that has historically been used by radical activists, might allow us to look at oppression with new eyes. As Sharon Krause has noted in Liberalism With Honor, Frederick Douglass and the suffragists have framed their oppression using the language of honor, emphasizing the martial virtues and the duty to stand up or die trying. So have radicals from groups as diverse as the founding Zionists and the Black Power movement, who rejected assimilation into the dominant culture and thought their cultures worthy of special respect. Today, black racial justice activists continue this tradition by describing the Baltimore protests as an “uprising” and emphasizing self-love not in spite of their race, but because of it. Since these individuals were and are on the frontlines of resistance, we should take the idea of honor seriously instead of trying to shoehorn their ethos and actions into the dignity framework. Continue reading
It’s my pleasure to welcome a new contributor to honorethics.org, Valerie Soon.
Valerie is a first-year PhD student in philosophy at Duke University. She recently earned her Masters in philosophy from the University of Houston. Her interests are in ethics and political philosophy, especially as they relate to the problems of climate change and social injustice. She came to her philosophical interest in honor by a non-philosophical route, by thinking about the resistance tactics and ethos that have guided racial justice movements from abolitionism to Black Lives Matter.
She is currently working on a paper, previously presented at the 2014 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress in Boulder, Colorado, about the connection between honor and collective resistance to oppression. In it, she argues that honor can capture some important features of oppression that dignity cannot account for. Reorienting our perspective to focus on honor has implications for what count as legitimate modes of resistance, and for what it means to be a self-respecting person under conditions of oppression.
Valerie will be posting a blog-post version of her ideas on these matters soon, so keep an eye out for that. Welcome, Valerie!
The ethics of honoring seems to be increasingly relevant in mainstream discussion, no more so than the controversies over the monuments, statues, and institutions honoring great—but racist—historical figures.
In a recent essay, Peter Singer takes up the issue. Especially noteworthy is that he mentions honorethics.org contributor Ajume Wingo‘s Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States, which discusses (inter alia) the importance of image-making and civic mythology to liberal democracies.
The most popular professional philosophy blog, Daily Nous, has just started a discussion on the ethics of honoring historical figures in light of recent campus protests.
The recent wave of student protests in the United States have focused on a range of issues related to the status and treatment of racial minorities and other vulnerable parties on campus. One issue that has come up on several occasions are the ways in which universities have decided to honor various historical figures—for example, by naming buildings after them, or having statues of them.
Last week, students at Princeton University were protesting the university’s prominent recognition of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was president of Princeton prior to becoming president of the United States, and Princeton has a college and a school named after him. Though he was a progressive on many matters, as Inside Higher Ed reported, “historians have also noted that he was an unapologetic racist who took many actions as president of the United States that held back even minimal rights for black people.” Recent protests at Georgetown focused on the fact that one of its buildings was named for a former university president who sold off some of his slaves to a plantation to pay the university’s debt. And now, IHE reports that at the College of William & Mary and the University of Missouri, “critics have been placing yellow sticky notes on Jefferson statues, labeling him—among other things —‘rapist’ and ‘racist.’”
These developments may have some people wondering what the appropriate stance is towards honoring historical figures who have held what are today understood to be highly objectionable views, or acted in highly objectionable ways. To shrug off the concerns and say “no one’s perfect,” seems insufficiently sensitive to the ways in which such honors might contribute to an unwelcoming environment for some students. Yet to require historical figures to be morally unobjectionable by today’s standards in order to be honored seems unduly strict and inflexible. We might recall that even moral heroes are not morally perfect (see, for example, Lawrence Blum’s “Moral Exemplars” essay).
I am not aware of work on the ethics of honoring historical figures. Perhaps this is an area in which philosophical expertise can help clarify an issue of current pressing concern. Thoughts welcome.
Since February, some of the most intense and continuous fighting in Ukraine has been around the village of Shirokino, just east of Mariupol. Now, the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko, has declared that the village has ‘no military value whatsoever’.
Muzhenko’s statement drew howls of protests from Ukrainian soldiers and political activists, angry at the suggestion that blood had been shed for no purpose, but he is probably right. And Shirokino is hardly an isolated example. It is a sad fact that war often descends into bloody struggles for territory which has no tactical or strategic value, only symbolic importance. War is not a very rational endeavour, if one measures rationality in terms of material costs and benefits. Rather, as I examined in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, it is about honour as much as anything else. Why else keep attacking…
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Moral dilemmas make for compelling stories. Should we nuke this city to stop the virus from spreading? Should we derail the train to save our child caught on the tracks? Honor-dilemmas used to be a favorite type of moral quandary. One legendary honor-dilemma in particular has inspired artists and storytellers for millennia: the rape of Lucretia.
The Roman noblewoman Lucretia lived in 6th century B.C., in the final days of the Roman Kingdom. As Livy tells the tale, she welcomed the Roman prince Sextus Tarquinius into her home while her husband and father were away at war. Taken by her beauty, Tarquinius stole into her bedroom in the middle of the night and begged Lucretia to sleep with him. She refused. He threatened to kill her, but she remained unmoved. At last Tarquinius threatened to kill Lucretia and a male slave, arranging their bodies so that she “might be said to have been put to death in adultery with a man of base condition.” As this threat touches Lucretia’s reputation, she accedes.
After Tarquinius leaves, “exulting in his conquest of a woman’s honour,” Lucretia calls her husband and father back from battle, and in tears tells them how she “lost her honour” to the prince and that they, “if they are men,” will avenge her. The men swear to punish Tarquinius and they do their best to support Lucretia, assuring her that her honor hasn’t been besmirched. But Lucretia is disconsolate and declares,
“Though I acquit myself of the sin, I do not absolve myself from punishment; not in time to come shall ever unchaste woman live through the example of Lucretia,”
at which point she brandishes a hidden dagger and stabs herself to death (as depicted in the banner art of this blog). Appalled, inspired, and outraged, Lucretia’s menfolk revolt against the ruling family and help found the Roman Republic. Continue reading
I once met a philosopher who remarked that the world of honor seemed foreign to him. Since he was English, I was momentarily taken aback, but my eventual reply focused on the importance of honor in Shakespeare’s plays. My answer was qualitative, in that I highlighted a couple of plot lines. But a quantitative measure would have added a sort of undeniability. So since that exchange I resolved do a word-search of “honour” in Shakespeare’s corpus. I played around a little with that today, and thought I’d share what I found.
According to OpenSourceShakespeare.org, “honour” and its inflections (“honourable,” “dishonour,” etc.) appear 888 times in Shakespeare’s writings. Inflections of “contempt” show up 54 times, “contemn” 12 times; forms of “shame” appear 390 times, and “sham’d” nine times.
How does that stack up with other moral terms?
Let’s start with “just,” which includes the inflections “justice,” “unjust,” “justly,” etc.: 392 occurrences. Keep in mind this includes numerous (I’m too lazy to count) uses of the homonym “just” as in “My mother told me just how he would woo.” The word “anger,” which we’ll generously categorize as a response to injustice alone, appears 58 times (I had to look for it exactly, to avoid “danger” and such from being listed). “Angry” appears 102 times, “anger’d” eight times. “Guilt” and its inflections show up 139 times.
Thus, it seems like honor-based terms are at least twice as common in Shakespeare’s corpus as justice-based ones. This ignores virtue terms such as “coward” (147 inflected uses), “glory” (93 instances), and “dignity” (44), which, in context, usually concern honor.
The word “fair” wasn’t a moral term in Shakespeare’s day. Almost all its uses mean the same as “lovely” or “beautiful.” Some form of “kind” appears 513 times, but many of those occurrences are the non-moral “kind” synonymous with “type.” I would estimate about 450 of instances of “kind” refer to kindness and unkindness, etc., and I’d guess that kindness was the second-most frequently invoked moral quality.
What about terms concerning authority or loyalty? Very surprisingly to me, “loyalty,” “disloyal,” etc. showed up only 75 times. “Obedien-” and its inflections only 89 times. “Faithful,” 50 times. A careful analysis would have to pick through all the uses of “faith” to separate out the moral uses meaning trust, which I can’t do right now.
How about “sin” in general? I count 157 uses of “sin,” two uses of “sinned,” four of “sinn’d,” eight of “sinner,” four “sinners,” and one of “sinning” (“I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning”). I suppose there are more inflections of “sin,” but it’s fair to say that even all sin combined isn’t as topical as honor is in Shakespeare.
Again, I realize this is obviously the crudest possible way to approach the question of honor in Shakespeare (a more scholarly treatment is Norman Council’s When Honour’s at the Stake (1973/2014)). But sometimes numbers speak louder than words.