Kwame Anthony Appiah has written a new book called “The Honor Code”, and it is reviewed today by Dwight Garner of NYT. Here is the link.
The book merits our attention here because it asks what makes groups change. I talk about promoting change (or call it dynamism) in terms of leadership and followership. Prof. Appiah explains several major examples of social change (ending dueling, slavery, and foot binding) in terms of challenges to the honor of the group.
This is a traditional thesis that was discredited in the anti-hero mood of the 1960’s and 1970’s. For example, Nixon made extravagant appeals to honor. But the discovery that he had considerably less honor himself than was expected provided a dreary reality check. It seemed a sham. In those days, the more popular story lines of movies and books debunked the idea of honor. It was part of a larger cultural rebellion. I am thinking of films like MASH, and Kelly’s Heroes as two examples. There are many others. Serious battles over honor were banished to the world of fantasy tales (like the Lord of the Rings). And while the rebellion is by now a bit long in the tooth, the young still revel in rebellious symbols (like tattooing). Out of this history, social change dialogue these days seems to me to be more focused on issues of romantic idealism versus pragmatism, rather than challenges to honor. But is honor ready to make a comeback?
In my view, appeals to honor tend to work when the group respects and trusts the institutional array. When rebellion is not in vogue. When authority has strong legitimacy. The Bolsheviks, for example, cared little for being honored by other nations. As a practical matter, this precondition reduces the appeal of “playing the honor card” to promote change these days. It is divisive. But there is a deeper issue. Historically, it has been easy to exclude those who were deemed “dishonorable” according to rather arbitrary standards. One thinks of the Jews in Europe and the US, for example. So while I like the chit chat about social dynamism, I am not thrilled by the attempt to reduce it to a value that has this type of baggage. In the end, it sounds to me like nostalgia for social conservatism.
My question - Why can’t we use change models that are open to a more broad range of values instead of reducing the equation to a single value like “honor”? Or is the suggestion somehow dishonorable?
FOLLOW - BTW, I had to laugh when I watched Kelly’s Heroes the other night via YouTube. The story line premise is that money (in this case gold) motivates creativity far more than respect for authority (code for “honor”?). This is a very odd premonition of an upcoming theme of the 1980’s that was championed by self-proclaimed conservatives who argued that authority should unleash the creative power of greed. And it is a theme that we debunk now. Dan Pink, among others, argues that beyond a certain point, monetary incentives actually tend to reduce creativity rather than enhance it. Interesting. And … which of these positions is more “honorable”, Prof. Appiah?
FOLLOW - Thinking further about this “honor” thing, weren’t exaggerated claims to honor at least part of the dynamic that led to the horrors of the first world war? I thought that this was why we still discuss the “lost generation” that staggered about after the war writing books and acting strange. It was supposed to be a lesson learned sort of thing, n’est ce pas?
FOLLOW - To avoid any confusion, readers should not confuse my criticism of using honor as a social change tool as an endorsement by me of dishonorable behavior. To the contrary, I am very much in favor of honor as a value. It is closely related to “trust”, which I highly value as a pre-condition for dialogue. I also endorse findings by sociologists that community standards are effective in promoting changes in the behavior patterns of people in the group (a shaming sort of thing that Prof. Appiah talks about). These findings make the talk about “tribe” behavior (by people like Dave Logan and Seth Godin) interesting. I just think that employing the word “honor” as a social change mechanism carries rather broad implications that for various reasons, are divisive. We can do better.
FOLLOW - Of course, Prof. Appiah’s argument has a rather strong historical foundation. With a few tweaks, it fits squarely in the old Victorian whig/liberal tradition (whigs and liberals by the way, were rebelling against what they saw as the debauched corruption of the Tories who tended to support the interests of the landed gentry). Gladstone would feel very much at home talking about the importance of honor in politics. But perhaps I have to admit that as much as I admire Wilberforce and later Bright, I am just not very whiggish by inclination.