A Western Bias: “Honor-Shame Cultures are Violent”

“Cultures of honor and shame are violent.” This common assumption is a myth rooted in a pejorative cultural bias.

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Westerners often define honor-shame cultures by their violent retaliation against personal slights. People in honor-shame cultures are sensitive about their reputation, so they use aggression to maintain honor. This violent portrayal of honor-shame is widespread. Here are two examples:

  • The book Honor Bound (written by a research sociologist and published by Oxford University Press) portrays honor cultures as dominated by male violence, such as domestic abuse and aggressive revenge.
  • Some NT scholars (esp. Malina, Neyrey) have popularized anthropological models to explain honor andshame. But their models—e.g., limited good, philotimeo, challenge-riposte, envy, male-female divisions—assume honor-shame cultures are highly agonistic and competitive, as though all of life is an aggressive, unbridled honor-grab.
  • An influential sociology article explains, “members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them . . . Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing.”

The reductionist definition of honor-shame culture as singularly violent reflects a Western cultural bias. To say “honor-shame cultures are violent” is ridiculous stereotype, akin to saying, “Black people are thugs” or “Muslims are terrorists.”

Yes, violence is an aspect of honor-shame cultures, but violence is not the defining feature of their moral system, as many a Westerner supposes. It is dangerous and unjust to define an entire social group by a few extreme outliers. Remember, violence is present it all cultures. Violence is ultimately rooted in spiritual separation from God, not merely in cultural or psychological dynamics.

Why the Bias?

I believe this myth persists because violence in honor-shame cultures is sensational to Westerners, whereas the violence in Western contexts is legalized and normalized. The legality of Western violence allows our minds to easily justify, condone, and forget it.  The difference between honor-shame and Western countries is not the amount of violence, but the nature of violence—for cultural reasons, the violence of honor-shame cultures is more shocking than the violence of Western cultures.

The violence of honor-shame cultures is senseless and mind boggling to Westerners. Honor killings and terrorism make for great headlines in the news. Rather than understanding people of honor-shame cultures as a whole, we reduce the culture to the most outlandish examples that stand out to readers’ eyes. Simply put, honor-based violence grabs our attention.

Our Legislated Violence

Guilt-innocence cultures are arguably as violent as honor-shame cultures. The main difference is that much violence in Western contexts is legalized. Our government legislates “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt—i.e.,violence. Laws often provide a social justification for Western violence. This explains why Westerners can overlook the violence in their own culture, but then label honor-shame cultures as “violent.” Consider these examples of rampant-yet-legalized violence in America.

  1. Gun Violence. Every year 112,000 people are shot and 33,000 die of gun violence. Four U.S. Presidents have been assassinated by guns. The presence of 300 million guns in America has a legal basis—our second amendment rights. Several states have legalized gun violence with “stand-your-ground” laws.
  1. Incarceration. America has 5% of the global population, but almost 25% of the world’s inmates. In 2013, 2.2 million Americans were incarcerated. Many Americans are unaware of this massive system of state-sanctioned violence (e.g., arrest, confinement, isolation), partly because we think it must be deserved because the “justice system” has declared those people “guilty.”
  1. Capital Punishment. The American judicial system kills its own citizens (28 in 2015). The only countries that execute more citizens are China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea—not exactly great moral company. Plus, over 60% of all Americans continue to support the death penalty, claiming the legal rational that criminals deserve an eye for an eye.
  1. Military Aggression. The budget of the American military is $600 billion per year; that is roughly 40% of the world’s military spending. Hiroshima, Afghanistan, and Iraq are consequences of American military intervention. Regardless of its noble intention and great sacrifice, the American military has wrought significant violence in the world.
  1. Abortion. Since Roe v. Wade legalize abortion in 1973, over 58 million unborn babies have lost their lives. This violent medical procedure takes 2 lives every single minute.

Conclusions

My point here is not to debate the morality of these issues (though that is certainly an important conversation). I mention these as examples of rampant, legalized, and generally-accepted forms of violence in American culture.

Not to get too cynical, but violence is often highly-industrialized. Corporations reap large profits from the gun, prison, and military industrial complexes, so they have powerful lobbies to influence legislation that perpetuates these forms of violence. This reminds us that government laws are not always synonymous with morality, since corporate interests influence laws.

Nor is my point to romanticize shame-based cultures as hippy communities of love and peace. Shame obviously leads to violence, as depicted in the Old Testament stores of Cain and Saul. Shame and violence are deadly partners, but that does not mean honor-shame cultures should be one-dimensionally defined as violent. 

The Main Point: For a Westerner to suggest, “Honor-shame cultures are violent,” is an inaccurate cultural bias that (1) falsely stereotypes majority world cultures based on one misunderstood element and (2) ignores the rampant, legalized violence within our own culture (speaking as a fellow American).

A Ministry Application: A negative bias against honor-shame cultures hinders Christian ministry, as Westerners assume the Christian life cannot expressed within the values of honor-shame, but that Christians must “convert” to an guilt-innocence based moral system. We implicitly assume honor-shame cultures are inferior and degenerate, unworthy vessels of the gospel. But this assumption is like saying: “Black people thugs, so they can’t be Christians” or “Muslims are terrorists, so they can’t follow Jesus.” These statements are obviously false, in both premise and conclusion. But this is the implicit logic often applied to honor-shame cultures in our stereotypes.

The next post offers a better unifying definition of honor-shame cultures: connection.

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Posted in Culture, Honor, Shame, Wesetern
6 comments on “A Western Bias: “Honor-Shame Cultures are Violent”
  1. Doug Waterman says:

    Is that my Western bias hitting me upside the head? It certainly shapes my immediate thoughts in response to the list of legislated violence. Hmmm.
    Most interesting article, thank you.

  2. Sean Christensen says:

    Thank you, Jayson, for an eye-opening and challenging article. I did some research on rates of violent crime in the Caribbean recently and found that the islands that are more honor-shame oriented (specifically the French-speaking islands) have the lowest rates of violent crime, and those that are the most guilt-based (English-speaking islands) all have the highest violent crime rates. I’m not saying that is the only factor, but I question whether the French system of honor helps people get along better?

  3. Stan Nussbaum says:

    I think you nailed it with the point about cultural blind spots that make the honor violence appear “senseless” to the West, and “legalization” is certainly a big factor in our blind spot to the violence in our own culture.

    All five examples you give of legalization are both legal and impersonal, and I would think that the impersonality is also a big blinder. We are horrified when a family kills one of its members who has brought shame. How could they? Yet we easily watch the evening news clip of a bomb from a drone strikes a pinpoint target and kills several people we don’t know who just happened to be in or near the car with the person we were targeting. Granted in the abortion example, abortion is personal violence but those involved are blind to it because they depersonalize the fetus.

    I haven’t read the sources you cite, but from your description it seems they all emphasize the personal side of honor-shame violence, not the ethnic or national side, such as Arab shame over inability to wipe Israel off the map. Perhaps at a national level, honor-based violence is less “senseless” to us than at a personal and family level.

  4. Damien says:

    Hi.
    America is partly honor/shame. Redneck culture is honor/shame they are Scott Irish herders who in turn also are honor/shame if perhaps diluted through time and coexistence within Britain. The African American in the ghettos have appropriated the Scott Irish redneck honor/shame culture cfr black rednecks with liberals by Thomas sowell. The civil war was in fact a culture war between the liberal farmers of the north against the honor/shame herders of the south.
    It isnt the liberals who do the shooting or the war going but the descendants of honor/shame perhaps diluted rednecks culture.
    As far as agressivity is concern a good predictor is whether the population evolved as farmers or herders. The rice farmer of Asia had to avoid conflict in order to share the water necessary to grow the crops. Their solution was to decided that the person who made someone else lose face would also loose fave. Herders developed a different strategy. Since they could lose it all in one razzia it was paramount that you be regarded as a dangerous I dividual capable of anything to ensure thief’s would strike somewhere else. Your reputation is everything.
    So saying that honor/shame culture are only perceived as violent due to a western bias seems a little easy. Some honor/shame cultures are inherently violent and others inherently not.
    As a side not I do think that Islam emerged as a strategy to temper a violent honor/shame culture gone wild. The Islam acts like a lid giving very practical day to day advices on how to approach situations in order not to have to resort to violence for the smallest threat made to ones honor. With a strict code of conduct society could further function without tipping into violence all the time.
    What is your opinion on the matter ?

  5. Damien says:

    Great website by the way!

  6. Robert says:

    I agree. To my mind we can define honor as ‘moral reputation’ or ‘reputation for morality’. Protection of one’s honour in the sense of moral reputation against attacks of others (i.e. slander) is also an important Human Right (no. 12).

    The obvious reason is that damage to one’s moral reputation (i.e. to be dishonored or disgraced) causes people to be stigmatized, rejected and ostracized. Recent research (Vonasch e.a., 2017, Death Before Dishonor, Soc Psych Pers Sc) has shown that people are ready to enormous sacrifices to avoid damage to their moral reputation. Obviously social damage, or social death, can also occur if one actually has morally misbehaved or a family member who does. The concern about one’s reputation for morality is the essence of all types of honour related violence, including honour killings. Instead of exoticizing honour and honour related violence, and other populations, let us try to understand why and how it occurs and save both victims and perpetrators. See also Ermers, Honor related violence, Routledge, 2017.

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