Honour, Jealousy And Egalitarianism

W[illiam ]I[an ]M[iller]: [...] What's interesting to me in studying honor cultures is how redeemable dishonor is. Honor is never tested if you're not already down; if you don't get knocked down and see if you can reassert it. So some kind of dissing is built into the system, where you've got to experience being up against the wall. Where you're tested.

T[amler ]S[ommers]: What are some of the tests?

W[illiam ]I[an ]M[iller]: There're a bunch of tests. The prime virtue is clearly courage. So test number one kind of resembles playing chicken. You have to show that you don't scare easy. Everybody knows that people are scared, but you have to show that it's not going to interfere with you actions. So keeping a level head under stress -- you know, not everyone can be a physical tough guy. And the [Icelandic] sagas are so good about this. They show a lot of physical weenies who are dominating. It's because they're smart. And they don't scare easy. That's the one thing you've gotta have -- not scaring easy. You're got to keep your cool.

But suppose you've got a lot of courage, you don't scare easy, and then you have one bad day. You run away from battle one time, or you break down and cry. Soldiers tend to be more forgiving about this -- they know everyone has their good and bad days. But in honor cultures? If you have a bad day, that can always be brought up to ridicule you. That might well be commemorated in song. Even though you can redeem it to some extent it's still there to...create tension in situations such as feasts. Someone will get up and say, "Everyone thinks you're so brave, but that's not what they said about you at the battle of so-and-so." And then the question is: can you take that kind of "dis"? Are you cool enough to be able to just laugh at it? Or does that guy have to be taken out and whacked?

T[amler ]S[ommers]: And you believe that these kind of attitudes rise out of situations where everyone is roughly on equal ground?

W[illiam ]I[an ]M[iller]: I'll put it like this. Honor cultures are a necessary condition of roughly egalitarian communities. Because people will compete for precedence that isn't articulated, it's always how you're standing in the jealous eyes of fellow competitors.

-- Tamler Sommers , William Ian Miller

from "A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain"

Quoted on Thu Mar 22nd, 2012