03 Jul 2011

Culture of Honour

An excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story Of Success, chapter 6 “Harlan Kentucky,” which details an experiment concerning the “culture of honour”:

The experiment went like this. The social science building at the University of Michigan has a long narrow hallway in the basement, lined with filing cabinets. The young men were called into a classroom, one by one, and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Then they were told to drop off the questionnaire at the end of the hallway and return to the classroom — an innocent, seemingly simple academic exercise. > For half the young men, that was it. They were the control group. For the other half, there was a catch. As they walked down the hallway with their questionnaire, another man — a confederate of the experimenters — walked past them and pulled out a drawer in one of the filing cabinets. The already narrow hallway was now even narrower. As the young men tried to squeeze by, the confederate looked up, annoyed. He slammed the filing cabinet drawer shut, jostled the young men with his shoulder and, in a low but audible voice, he said the trigger word — “asshole.”


The results were unequivocal. There are clear differences in how young men respond to being called a bad name. For some, the insult dramatically changes behavior. For some it doesn’t. But the deciding factor isn’t how emotionally secure you are, or whether you are an intellectual or a jock, or whether you are physically imposing or not. What matters — and I think you can guess where this is headed — is where you’re from. The young men from the northern part of the United States, for the most part, treated the incident with amusement. They laughed it off. Their handshakes were unchanged. Their levels of cortisol actually went down, as if they were unconsciously trying to defuse their own anger.


But the southerners? Oh my. They were angry. Their cortisol and testosterone jumped. Their handshakes got firm.

The spoiler here is that it’s not the American South that makes southerners more prone to anger or violence — America’s youth as a country and its first-world survival rates prevent people from evolving genetic predispositions — but the southerners from the area of the Appalachians are largely descendants from the Highlands of Scotland (Gladwell explains that immigrants frequently choose geography similar where they’re from, so as to prosper in similar occupations), which prompts Gladwell to then hypothesise an explanation:

Cultures of honor take root in highlands and other marginally fertile areas […] If you live on some rocky mountainside, the explanation goes, you can’t farm. You probably raise goats or sheep, and the kind of culture that grows up around being a herdsman is very different from the culture that grows up around growing crops. The survival of a farmer depends on the cooperation of others in the community. But a herdsman is off by himself. Farmers don’t have to worry that their livelihood will be stolen in the night, because crops can’t be easily stolen unless the thief wants to go to the trouble of harvesting an entire field on his own. But a herdsman does have to worry. He’s under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals. He has to be aggressive: he has to make it clear, through word and action, that he is not weak. He has to be willing to fight in response to even the slightest challenge to his reputation — and that’s what a “culture of honor” means. It’s a world where a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self worth.

Although Gladwell takes care to describe this as a culture of honour instead of genetic predisposition, the effect culture has on our internal brain chemistry is minimal compared to environmental factors that affect survival over many generations — even as culture plays its role in nurturing behaviour, it is secondary to evolutionary forces, such as that not being willing to fight in response to a challenge means not surviving to propagate.

I took an extra interest in this chapter because the Highland ancestors of the southerners from the Appalachians are also my ancestors. My surname Rankin is a sept of the Clan Maclean from the Inner Herbrides, a mountainous island region on the west coast of Scotland, which looks like this:

I travelled there in 2005 and it’s only slightly more magnificent than the picture suggests. Not many farms though. Also not spotted — Nessie (she lurks about a bit further north). The Wikipedia entry on the clan doesn’t say much about herding or farming, it’s mostly a list of battles in which the clan partook, but it does have a picture of the crest badge:

So I think my great-great-greats were pretty into honour. That and belt buckles. They had to keep on their toes in case their neighbours (the MacLeods of “there can be only one” fame) stole their herds, they spent a lot of their time killing Vikings, and their motto was “honour is my virtue.” (Apparently their war-cry was “Bàs no Beatha” from Scottish Gaelic “death or life,” which to me seems a little obvious, but I guess it sounds better when you’re holding a broadsword.)

Over the past few weeks I’ve thought a lot about all this and whether my lineage has influenced my disposition, and I must conclude that it very much has. After living in inner-city areas for the past four years, and trying ti fit into a society I find generally corrupt and repulsive, I’d trade it all to be a goat-herder in the Scottish Highlands, just preferably with wifi. But it’s more than that. Any friend, relative or reader of this blog will have no doubt identified me as the snobbish intellectual type, which I’ll not deny, but do mention in preface so what I’m about to say doesn’t come off as anti-intellectual, anti-liberal or anti-whatever but instead as evenhanded and/or contrarian.

Gladwell doesn’t come out and say it, but his slant is obviously against the “culture of honour;” he doesn’t, as some might, describe such a culture as barbaric or primitive, but the tone is excusatory, as if an angry or violent reaction to insult is just a cultural flaw born of unfortunate geography. Any violent outcome is without question the worst possible outcome to an altercation, but there is another way to interpret the results of the experiment. The experiment is conducted in Michigan, where the culture of honour is the minority within a more prevalent culture of community. In a culture of community it is more beneficial to laugh off a perceived insult, even at the expense of one’s honour, than it is to settle it. A quarrel between two herdsmen establishes boundaries, but a quarrel within a community has a ripple effect whereby relationships between community members necessitate sides to be taken leading to increased division until a single altercation creates a large rift. A peasant can’t keep up a feud with the brother of the wife of the man to whom he sells his farm’s yield. The value of the community is more than the sum of its parts, i.e. don’t rock the boat. This is how large corporate machines are able to prosper, even when their individual cogs (employees) find going to work every day a demeaning and insulting experience. The employees prefer to be insulted in order to fit in to the community. Corporate culture is essentially the modern day persistence of manorialism — and it works because its constituents are predisposed to it.

To someone safely nestled in a culture of community, I can see how the view of the culture of honour as a cultural flaw leftover from an ancient ancestry would seem attractive: it’s quite easy to say that we’re not herdsmen anymore, get over it, it doesn’t matter; furthermore it’s a great way to rationalise away a distinct lack of personal honour. There is a flip side to this cultural division: those northerners in the experiment, who Gladwell presents as a kind of norm, they who laughed off the insult and rationalised it away thinking it doesn’t matter — what else do they consider doesn’t matter? Because if being insulted doesn’t matter, doesn’t this reconcile that insulting someone else doesn’t matter either? If an individual member of a culture of community willingly accepts a place of diminished self-worth for the good of the whole, what kind of worth does this individual attribute to other individuals?

The reverse is also true for the culture of honour: descendants of herdsmen may be react with anger or violence when insulted, but upholding honour is not merely reactionary. Early in the chapter, Gladwell makes the point that in the Appalachians, “[m]urder rates are higher than in the rest of the country. But crimes of property and ‘stranger’ crimes — like muggings — are lower.” He addresses the higher murder rate with the culture of honour — murder victims usually know their murderer — but never returns to the lower rate of property and stranger crime. If for a moment we take on the perpetrator’s skewed perspective that honour crimes are a perverse form of self-imposed justice, crime in the sense of doing wrong is on the whole lower.

The Highlands are a sparsely populated place now, just 8 people per square km (the whole of Scotland has a population of 5.2 million against neighbouring England’s 51.4 million) and a few hundred years ago it would have been less. Despite this lack of community, the Scots took up arms together and fought alongside each other to defend their land against the Vikings, the English, other Scots, and probably more people if they had the opportunity. They switched from isolated herdsmen to brothers in arms whenever the situation called for it, unlike their manorial peasant counterparts who were accustomed to a system of government whereby their land was protected by an established army. While the peasant was polite to his neighbour in order for the community to function, he didn’t bear any loyalty to his neighbour because when it came down to it, they each probably wouldn’t be fighting alongside the other. Someone else would be fighting their battles. In contrast, a culture of honour has a lower crime rate (when excluding honour crimes) because you don’t do wrong by the man who may one day have your back in battle.

Given this added perspective, I’d annotate Gladwell’s description of the Highland herdsman as follows:

He’s under constant threat of ruin through [foreign invasion]. He has to be aggressive: he has to make it clear, through word and action, that he is [loyal to his clan]. He has to be willing to fight [alongside them] in response to even the slightest challenge to his [clan] — and that’s what a “culture of honor” means.

It’s about loyalty. But if you’re in a culture of community with heritage rooted in manorialism, loyalty is another thing that just doesn’t matter. We’d all like to consider ourselves upstanding honourable individuals, but hold a microscope over the average person’s life and I think you’ll find that honour and loyalty just don’t matter. What matters is one’s place within the community, even if such a place is entrenched through repeated transgressions of honour.

The experiment is presented as illustrating the southerners as anomalies, their predisposition towards anger is described as a move away from neutral (which would be fair enough considering Gladwell’s probable readership) but the reality is more a clash of opposing cultures, equally flawed and equally incompatible.