Philosopher Appiah Explains How Right Wing’s Honor Goes Wrong

Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and other conservatives claim to have America’s honor in mind. According to philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, they’re completely missing the mark.

Philosopher Appiah Explains How Right Wing's Honor Goes Wrong

Right wing leaders have been busy defending America’s “honor” as of late. GBeck in August famously called DC event the “Restoring Honor” rally, and Palin last weekend said voters must “pledge our lives, our fortune, our sacred honor” to electing Republican candidates. Some critics see this honor angle as political pandering, but Appiah understands that honor’s a powerful concept that can either spark moral progress or shame once-great nations.

Appiah knows a thing or two about honor. The Princeton professor’s exceptional new book,“The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen,” explores the ways in which this seemingly obsolete concept helped dismantle three contemptible traditions: dueling in Britain, footbinding in China and the Atlantic Slave trade. And these case studies, he says, provide clues on how mankind can use honor to eradicate today’s equally shameful practices, like “honor killings” in Pakistan.

Honor’s an ambiguous, subjective concept, one mixed with morality, reason and social custom, but Appiah summed it up quite nicely in an interview last week, “Honor involves being entitled to respect. To care about you honor is to care not just about being respected, but also being entitled to respect.” Honor must be earned, and stems from a system of codes that prescribe and define “respectable” behavior. And it’s not just a concept, it’s a biological function.

“Social psychologists,” Appiah writes in “Honor Codes,” “acknowledge a fundamental human disposition to care about hierarchy and respect, with respect understood as something that is derivative of hierarchy.”  We humans, in all of our social glory, crave respect, and not receiving it, or being actively dishonored, can have devastating results, as we saw too clearly in a recent series of gay suicides.

“We’re social creatures and part of our sociability consists in requiring the respect of our fellows in order to flourish. To be denied that respect is a terrible burden,” Appiah remarked in an interview last week, when asked about the relationship between honor and homophobia.

“Homosexuality was seen as dishonorable, and homosexual acts were regarded as shameful. People look down upon gay people and gay people often internalize these attitudes and therefore lack self-respect. There was a culture of dishonor associated with their sexuality,” he explained. “Suicide’s a complicated thing, you can’t reduce it to one thing, but it’s pretty clear that part of the problem in many of these cases is that people feel dishonored.”

Appiah’s assertion helps shed light on key aspect of honor — its “what,” respect, only works when coupled with a “who.” Yes, identity, as happens, plays a significant, three-pronged, role in honor.

The first way identity figures is within the honor world, “The class of people giving and taking of respect matters.” Then honor and one’s own identity have an interaction, typically along gendered lines. And, finally, honor influences shared identities, often through nationalism, which is exactly what happened when China abandoned footbinding at the end of the 19th century.

Though there were already laws prohibiting footbinding and a vocal movement against the practice, for centuries considered “honorable” among the elite, it wasn’t until China began interacting with more industrialized states that the nation as a whole was forced to either defend or discard this honor. They chose the latter.

“The national honor of China was something all Chinese could participate in,” Appiah told me. “Since they came to see footbinding as a source of national dishonor, they had a shared concern to get rid of that dishonor, and that meant giving up footbinding.”

Laws and activism alone don’t work; minds, and a collective sense of honor, must be channelled in new directions. The press can play a significant role in raising awareness, and sometimes shame, to help dismantle “dishonorable” actions. The state, too, helps. In order for honor to flow toward a more righteous end, there must be a shared level of respect, the aforementioned honor world’s must be expanded. And it’s here that Glenn Beck’s “honor” goes awry.

Appiah agrees with Beck: the United States needs to restore its honor. The professor, however, has an entirely different rationale. “I find myself with Glenn Beck that the United States has honor that it needs to recover, and disagreeing with him about what the sources of dishonor are.” insists Appiah. “We have honor to recover of what we did at Abu Ghraib, from what we’re still doing in Guantanamo, and from what we’re doing in our prison’s everyday.” But Beck’s tactics go over honor’s head. They’re far too blunt and off-putting to truly succeed, argues Appiah.

“One of the troubles with the version that Glenn Beck goes in for, is that it misses the subtleties,” he said. “The whole ‘shame on you’… when you get to the point that you’re saying that, your relationship with the person you’re speaking has often degenerated to the point where your attitudes are not going to help.”Beck’s rally, not surprisingly, has sparked a counter protest, led by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, called “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which, amusing as it may be, does nothing to help create the dialogue needed to save America’s honor.

At the end of his book, Professor Appiah discusses Ian Fishback, the Army Captain who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib abuses. Though Fishback could have fallen in line and kept his mouth shut, he instead chose the honorable route, because, as Appiah writes, “He understands that honor means caring not just about being esteemed but about being worthy of esteem.”

If people want to use honor to achieve moral and political ends, they have to use it well, not just wield it willy-nilly. To motivate honor, you have to be honorable yourself. And, sadly, too many of those who speak of this concept get it twisted.