Culture of Honor

Albions Seed

The traditional culture of the Southern United States has been called a ‘culture of honor,’ where people avoid intentionally offending others, and maintain a reputation for not accepting improper conduct by others. A prevalent theory as to why the American South had or may have this culture is an assumed regional belief in retribution to enforce one’s rights and deter predation against one’s family, home, and possessions.

Southern culture is thought to have its roots in the livelihoods of the early settlers who first inhabited the region. New England was mostly comprised of agriculturalist colonists from densely populated South East England and East Anglia, but the Southern United States was mostly settled by herders from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Northern England, and the West Country. Herds, unlike crops, are vulnerable to theft because they are mobile and there is little government wherewithal to enforce property rights of herd animals. A reputation for violent retribution against those who stole animals was a necessary deterrent at the time.

This thesis is limited, however, by modern evidence that a culture of honor in the American South is strongest not in the hill country where herd animals were common, but in Southern lowlands. It has been forwarded that poverty or religion, which has been distinctive in the American South since the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century, may be a more important source of the region’s cultural milieu. Other theories accounting for the culture of honor point to the settlement of the region by members of British aristocratic families.

The Southern culture of honor also includes a notion that ladies should not be insulted by gentlemen. Southern gentlemen are also expected to be chivalrous towards women, in words and deeds. Women play a part in the culture, both ‘through their role in the socialization process, as well as active participation.’ By passing these ideas along to their children, they are taking part in social conditioning. The concept was tested by social scientists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen in their book ‘Culture of Honor.’ Research has demonstrated that men in honor cultures perceive interpersonal threats more readily than do men in other cultures, including increases in cortisol (stress hormone) and testosterone levels following insults. In culture-of-honor States, high school students were found to be more likely to bring a weapon to school in the past month and over a 20-year period, there were more than twice as many school shootings per capita. They are also more prone to suicide.

Historian David Hackett Fischer, a Professor of History at Brandeis University, makes a case for an enduring genetic basis for a ‘willingness to resort to violence’ (citing especially the finding of high blood levels of testosterone as discussed above) in the four main chapters of his book ‘Albion’s Seed,’ particularly the chapter titled ‘Borderlands to the Backcountry: The Flight from Middle Britain and Northern Ireland, 1717-1775.’ He proposes that a Southern propensity for violence is inheritable by genetic changes wrought over generations living in traditional herding societies in Northern England, the Scottish Borders, and Irish Border Region. He proposes that this propensity has been transferred to other ethnic groups by shared culture, whence it can be traced to different urban populations of the United States. However, honor cultures were and are widely prevalent in Africa and many other places.

Historian Randolph Roth, in his ‘American Homicide’ (2009), states that the idea of a culture of honor is oversimplified. He argues that the violence often committed by Southerners resulted from social tensions. He hypothesizes that when people feel that they are denied social success or the means to attain it, they will be more prone to commit violent acts. His argument is that Southerners were in tension, possibly due to poor whites being marginalized by rich whites, free and enslaved blacks being denied basic rights, and rich and politically empowered whites having their power threatened by Northern politicians pushing for more federal control of the South, especially over abolition. He argues that issues over honor just triggered the already present hostility, and that people took their frustration out through violent acts often on the surface over issues of honor. He draws historical records of violence across the US and Europe to show that violence largely accompanies perceptions of political weakness and the inability to advance oneself in society. Roth also shows that although the South was ‘obsessed with honor’ in the mid-18th century, there was relatively little homicide. Barring under-reported crime against some groups, low homicide may simply have been gentlemanly self-restraint at a time when social order was stable, a trend that reverses in the 19th century and later.

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