Sunday, May 23, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Eleven

Problems With Honour:

In much the same way that people have learned to question the faith that motivated past generations, so they now question traditional definitions of “honour”. To understand why this concept has declined as a human motivating force, I think that it is important to understand exactly what role that it played in society. I believe that if we do so, we can see the decline of “honour” as being a somewhat natural result of changes in the way that people relate to each other.

While, as I suggested earlier, the concept of “honour” has always played a role in developing the group cohesion necessary for the creation of an effective military force, I would suggest that we need to understand that the primary locus of “honour” is the individual officer or man, not the collective being of the “regiment”. If the overwhelming majority of men in a regiment feel that their personal honour is dependent on their being brave, the incidental result is group cohesion and because of this we talk of the “honour of the regiment”. But the fact is that only individual people can respond to this emotional complex. The collective is just an intellectual abstraction. And that individual concern about one's “honour” is the result of specific social and economic imperatives. Once these ceased to be of importance to most people, the concept itself began to decline. I would suggest that one can see this point if one looks at the history of dueling in Western society.

Dueling grows out aristocratic societies where power is directly associated with ones military prowess.

Ancient Vikings, for example, settled various legal disputes through a practice known as “Holmgang” which was a form of ritualized combat. The idea was that a man could challenge any other man to combat over disputed money, land, a woman, or a simple insult. If the person challenged refused to fight, then he would be declared “nioingr” and he would then be considered an “outlaw” and in some jurisdictions have all his land and money confiscated. If, on the other hand, the insulted of the parties is killed in the duel, a modest payment (one half of the normal fine for simple manslaughter) would have to be paid to the family of the dead. If the insulter died, that was considered his own fault and no penalty was levied.

The important thing to understand about individual combat like the “holmgang” is that one's “name” or “honour” was seen as being directly tied to one's ability and willingness to fight to defend it. This was implied in the ritual that one went through to become a medieval knight. Nowadays people believe that all that was involved was kneeling before a king and being tapped on the shoulder with a sword. But in the beginning the feudal overlord actually slapped or punched the knight in the face. The idea was that this was the last insult that the man would be able to accept without having to fight for his honour. And, as we see in the “holmgang”, “honour” was not just some sort of emotion felt by a person---it had legal, social and financial importance. Refuse to defend your honour when called to holmgang and you risk being declared an outlaw (that is, no longer being defended by rule of law which meant than anyone could rob or kill you with impunity) and having all your property seized. The ultimate idea is that any sort of priviledge that one enjoys in a feudal society rests upon your ability to fight. Whether it is your land, your wife or your title, if you are too weak to defend it by sword, you did not deserve to possess it.

Social customs like dueling and the holmgang come about as a way of introducing fairness into an inherently unfair situation. That is because the combat involved at least has rules that attempt to “level” the playing field. Without the rules of the holmgang, for example, the Viking Chief with the largest group of retainers would simply send his men out to steal whatever he wanted. At least with the holmgang a poor yet strong warrior had the chance of fighting a duel with the mightiest chief and winning. And the threat of being challenged to holmgang no doubt served as a check on the arrogance and abuse of power by the powerful.

In the same way, in societies with extremely weak and corrupt legal systems; where police simply did not exist; and where communications were so primitive that one could escape justice simply by riding a horse for a day or two into another jurisdiction---people were pretty much “on their own” when it came to defending themselves. Even in the 18th century, if you did not stand up to bullies by yourself, they could and would rob you of everything you owned. That is why gentlemen were expected to know how to fight with a sword and gun. And the rules of the duel were similarly codified in order to “level the field”. That is why, for example, the person who was challenged was allowed to choose the weapons (so an expert with one weapon couldn't challenge people to a type of fight where they didn't have a chance.) The institution of dueling was a logical social response to the intractible problem that the strong tend to prey upon the weak.

People forget how very common dueling used to be right on up until the early 19th century. While statistics on the subject would probably be impossible to find, one indication of how common it once was is to consider the number of famous individuals who had fought duels at one time or another in their lives. Four British Prime ministers who ruled between 1780 and 1829 fought duels (William Petty, Pitt the Younger, George Canning and the Duke of Wellington---although only Pitt and Wellington fought while actually holding the office of PM.) In 1777 one of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Button Gwinnette, died as a result of being wounded in a duel. In 1804 the then sitting Vice-President of the USA, Aaron Burr, shot and killed a previous Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton in a duel. One could go on and list dozens more very important people from various walks of life. Below the very wealthy and famous, there existed the ordinary gentry, who also seem to have been involved in dueling to a significant degree, if one can believe the literature of the 18th and 19th century. Amongst the common people, although there is less evidence, I suspect that it was also common for people settle slights to their “honour” by violence. One piece of evidence for this comes from our language. If you have ever wondered what the term “at loggerheads” means when two people are arguing, it refers to a sort of low-class duel between two non-gentlemen fight using a tool that consists of a iron bar with a heavy weight on one end (i.e. a “loggerhead”.)

Laws had existed for hundreds of years to discourage dueling but they had been routinely ignored by all and sundry because the institution served a useful purpose by protecting the weak from bullies. People who fought duels took pains to ensure that there were no witnesses and that fights took place in areas of disputed jurisdiction. But even if a case came to trial and enough evidence existed, judges and juries still refused to convict. But as societies have become wealthier and more complex, governments eventually created modern police forces and court systems that have made dueling no longer a necessary defence for the weak. It became possible for middle-class individuals to hire lawyers to fight their duels before a judge using arcane arguments instead of having to meet with pistols at dawn. When this new way of doing things became part of everyday life, popular opinion turned away from dueling. It no longer served a useful public function and instead just became ridiculous. At that point anti-dueling laws began to have teeth because judges and juries started to convict. Eventually the practice died out.

As society changed, however, the concept of “honour” continued to exist although it ceased to serve its original purpose. The necessity of protecting a person's legal and financial standing in the community by force had disappeared. But the secondary purpose, that of encouraging group solidarity during time of war, still existed. Without the objective necessity of having to defend one's self in a lawless world full of bullies, “honour” increasingly became something that the government wished to inculcate in the young instead of an essential survival skill. As a result, it became something that was taught at school and imposed by social sanction. Children were forced to memorize stirring poems of heroic sacrifice. There were encouraged to read “ripping yarns” about soldiers and explorers. And if as young men they refused to respond when their country called, there would be young women to hand out white feathers to any young men who were not in a uniform. In effect, “honour” had become a tool used by nation states to mobilize its citizenry for total war.

The First World War brought this entire edifice crashing down because it sent thousands of the Western World's “best and brightest” to a very nasty doom for what turned out to be a very dubious cause. The revulsion many of these men felt for the way that they had been “played” is expressed by some of the so-called “war poets”. These were highly-educated young members of the British elite who found themselves suffering and dying as junior officers on the Western front. Take a look at the last stanza of Wilfred Owen's poem about a gas casualty, “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

This decline hasn't been complete or uniform. Just as there is still a percentage of the population that still believes in the “Olde Tyme Religion”, there is still a fraction of the public that can believes in the jingoistic glories of military service. But that percentage has declined dramatically in most nations. This decline has been masked to a certain extent for two reasons. First of all, for many people the iconic image of war is World War II. And that conflict was quite exceptional because it could easily be seen as an absolutely necessary war. This meant that a lot of people who were very jaded could still be convinced to put on uniforms and fight to stop the institutional racist insanity of the Axis powers. Similar support for the cold war existed in the beginning (for somewhat similar reasons, given the brutality of Communism) but began to wither away when the moral ambiguity of proxy wars in places like Vietnam became obvious. “Luckily” for the military, by that time the increased mechanisation of warfare meant that there was no longer the need to mobilize huge conscript armies. A small volunteer force of highly-trained “professionals” is all that is needed today. This means that there are still generally enough people around who believe “Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori” to fill the recruitment quotas.

But just as in the case of religious faith, those individuals who are most engaged in environmental issues consist of that fraction of the population that is most likely to cast a jaundiced eye upon any appeal for honourable sacrifice. You cannot appeal to people to “do without” or make exceptional effort in order to help the nation or future generations get through our current environmental crisis if the entire coin of honourable sacrifice has been totally debased in their eyes. Once people have been badly swindled they find it very hard to believe even the most honest of appeals. Again, just as with religious faith, we are back into the Yeats territory of “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

1 comment:

Georg said...

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I am a German journalist, editor and tai chi chuan and chi kung teacher and very interested in daoism and things related to it. Espescially in the modern approach to it.

So your blog is very precious to me. I like very much your tone.