What is honor… and why has American culture lost touch with it?
It’s the simple pleasures that bring the most joy in life, and one of my favorite pastimes has been listening to my friends play music. Not going to concerts, mind you, but having great tunes performed in my immediate vicinity while drinking, smoking, and kicking back with the musicians while they’re taking a break.
And then some dingus calls the cops because the music is too loud.
This was my experience last night, and although I’ve pondered the question of honor before (see my recent piece on Donald Trump), this incident brought the matter back to my mind. More specifically, it prompted me to raise two questions:
1. What exactly is honor?
2. Why have Americans lost touch with it?
The first question can be answered simply enough. Honor – at least as I’m defining it for the purposes of this article – has three main characteristics:
1. It involves holding a set of core principles and standing by them consistently.
2. It requires the honor-bound individual to accept whatever negative consequences may result from their actions.
3. It necessitates not becoming a burden to others when you can just as easily carry the weight of a given responsibility yourself.
Having established the parameters of what can be defined as honor, the next challenge is to determine whether our culture has lost touch with it. To explore that, I’m going to return to a debate that ensued last night.
Although I wasn’t among the so-called noisemakers, I was pretty appalled that my friend’s neighbor (whoever it was) had called the police instead of simply knocking on his door and asking to keep the music down. In the grand scheme of things this is obviously a pretty minor dishonorable act, but it nevertheless struck me as cowardly. Much to my surprise, two of the three band members who had been playing disagreed with me and sympathized with the anonymous caller. After one explained that many people are simply non-confrontational and/or don’t want to be inconvenienced by having to leave their house late at night, the other told a story about a friend of his who did confront noisy neighbors, only to be subjected to stalking, vandalism, and physical harassment for his troubles (after they refused to turn the music down, he did call the cops… but naturally they now knew who had done it).
In a sense, these experiences cover the gamut of reasons why people may choose to be dishonorable (for instance, by calling the police before even attempting to resolve a dispute amicably). Deconstructed they break down into two basic points:
1. Standing your ground can be uncomfortable (which is a diplomatic way of saying it’s often a pain in the ass).
2. People are afraid that if they stand up for themselves, their loved ones, and/or their principles, a bad situation might escalate into a worse one.
Of these two positions, I find the first to be the least sympathetic, which is why I will dispense with it right away. While it may seem unfair for an individual to be inconvenienced in the name of standing up for their beliefs, it is far worse for them to refuse accountability for their actions while insisting on acting anyway. Yes, it might annoying to put on your slippers and walk over to a neighbor’s house at 11 PM simply to ask that they turn off their music. At the same time, if you’re going to risk getting them in trouble with law enforcement, the least you can do is give them the opportunity to do the right thing first. In the grand scheme of things, it’s rather petty and selfish to subordinate their freedoms to your desire for immediate comfort.
As to the second point: Unfortunately, I have to concede that to my friends. Every situation involving a potential confrontation is ultimately a risk/reward analysis. How important is it that I resolve this problem, you ask yourself, and what kinds of risks will be involved if I allow myself to be personally sucked into it? If the potential risk is harm to your person or property – to say nothing of harm befalling your loved ones – than the peril may not be worth the potential gains… and if that music remains too damn loud, it’s just easier to call the police.
Of course, while this concern is unquestionably valid, it nevertheless reinforces my larger point about society’s loss of honor. After all, in a culture where individuals were held to the standards articulated in my three-point list, the average man or woman standing up for their values wouldn’t need to worry about such disproportionate backlash. Indeed, a brief skimming of American history reveals that for a very long time, this was the case; before Joe and Jane Q. Public could pick up a phone and beckon the police, law enforcement was reserved only for particularly heinous crimes, with the average citizen expected to confront one another over minor offenses. Just as a business historian will tell you that capitalism became particularly exploitative once corporations began to replace small businesses (since a small business owner generally finds it harder to screw over employees that he personally knows, whereas a CEO can lay off thousands unfairly and never see their faces), so too has our disconnectedness made it easier to be dishonorable.
That doesn’t make it right, however – if anything, it makes the loss all the more lamentable.