A philosopher offers an impassioned, but disturbing, defense of honor cultures.
In a social critique sure to generate controversy, Sommers (Philosophy/Univ. of Houston; Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility, 2012, etc.) argues that honor cultures offer a better ethical model than “Western liberalism,” with its insistence on universal dignity. Honor cultures, characterized by “social cohesion and solidarity”—think sports teams, urban gangs, and Navy SEALS—emphasize “courage, integrity, and accountability” and adherence to a “formal and informal” set of codes. Such cultures “take great pride in their exclusivity.” Societies guided by liberal values, writes the author, lead to “diminishing personal accountability, increasing social isolation, alienation and a weakening sense of solidarity and community spirit.” Responding to the “common objection” that honor cultures mistreat women, Sommers asserts that honor itself does not require “sexist norms and practices.” He acknowledges, however, that honor cultures can inflict “systematic violations of the rights of women,” as well as incite “long, bloody” family feuds and “trap individuals within rigid social roles, limiting their autonomy as rational agents.” To address these concerns, the author argues that honor cultures require constraints; white working-class Southern men, for example, engage in ritualized, circumscribed violence as a form of “active resistance to the domination of others” and a way of gaining respect. Condemning the “depersonalized, excessively rationalistic” legal system, Sommers argues persuasively that “honorable punishment” can be facilitated through the restorative justice movement, which involves mediated encounters between victims and criminals. The violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 was for Sommers “an eye-opening event” because he “didn’t quite realize the extent” of white nationalists’ “abhorrent racist ideology.” Neofascists, he admits, “do use rhetoric that isn’t too far off from the language I’ve employed to describe honor communities,” and he belatedly acknowledges “the morality of dignity and its focus on equality and respect for human rights.”
A celebration of insular, exclusionary honor culture that does not adequately account for its pernicious effects.