Honor Violence: Why Nobody Should Demand Respect

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Pakistani Signboard via Kate Harding

Honor violence is a sort of violence committed where the perpetrator’s goal is to regain his honor. Mostly it’s committed by fathers to their daughters after going against cultural or religious norms like rejecting an arranged marriage, or adopting a Western lifestyle. It’s a huge problem in Islamic communities, and it’s something that doesn’t exist at all in so many other communities.

There are two flaws to discuss here. The most harmful flaw is intolerance — the idea that it’s best for a person to initiate violence on another person because he has dissenting ideas. The less harmful flaw is the idea that a person’s social status is important and should be sought after and preserved. An important thing to note here is that these flaws are connected, in the sense that they are both caused by the same kind of thinking.

The lessor flaw can be explained by answering the question, why do some people care about having respect from their peers? What’s the point of it? What problem is it intended to solve? One way to approach this is to think about why some people get offended. Consider that when somebody perceives that he has been disrespected, he gets offended, and he may respond in a way to regain respect.

Fallibility and first impressions

One problem with thinking in terms of having respect, is that people are often wrong in their interpretations of other people’s actions and intentions. Often people perceive that they’ve been disrespected, when the person had no intention of disrespecting anybody. Most of the time it’s a case of jumping to conclusions. It’s because we’re all fallible, meaning that it’s possible, and very common, that we are wrong about our ideas. And a lot of people are not familiar with the idea of checking for other possible interpretations and critically questioning them as a means of avoiding jumping to conclusions, as a means of finding the correct interpretation.

One common first interpretation that people make is that someone wants to hurt them, or to make them lose in some way. But this is a bad way to think about people’s actions because some people don’t want to hurt anyone or make anyone lose anything. So assuming that there is always malicious intent is a mistake because it ignores all the cases where there isn’t malicious intent.

This way of thinking sees human interactions as win/lose. But this is a mistake. It’s entirely possible, and desirable, for human interactions to be win/win, for everybody to get what they want and nobody loses anything they want. There is no law of nature preventing it from happening.

So the better way to think about human interactions is that win/win situations are possible, where the people involved share the same primary goal, of everybody winning. Now it is true that sometimes a person is trying to make you lose something, or otherwise hurt you, so it’s important to try to look out for this as a means of protecting yourself from harm.
One common misinterpretation people make is to treat a criticism of an idea or an action as a personal attack. But this is a mistake because a criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea, so criticizing the idea does not make the holder of the idea lose anything. In fact, criticism helps a person go from wrong to right. It helps him change his mind. It helps him find the truth, which is a great thing! So why perceive it as an attack? The person loses nothing. He only stands to gain.

So consider a situation where you’re presented with a criticism of your idea. If you agree with it, you stand to gain the truth, and if you disagree with it, you stand to lose nothing. So with criticism, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. So giving and receiving criticism is win/win.

Some common responses people make to criticism is to say “that hurts my feelings,” “I’m offended by that,” and “that’s insulting!” These people respond in this way to communicate that the other person is wrong in some way. But that’s not a valid argument — it’s not objective. A person’s feelings can’t be used as a means of judging the truth. What’s needed is an explanation, one that doesn’t depend on a person’s feelings.

Now some people mistake personal attacks for criticism. But calling somebody stupid because he believes an idea does not constitute a criticism. It’s not an explanation of a flaw in an idea. Instead it’s an attack on the holder of the idea. And it’s designed for only one thing, to hurt. People who make personal attacks instead of arguments see human interactions as win/lose. And this is where the idea of respect comes in. The personal attacks are about disrespecting the person. But why would anybody want to do that? What’s the point? What problem does it solve?

Truth-seeking vs Status-seeking

People who see human interaction as win/lose also see the world in terms of status. They think in terms of people having status, and getting more of it, or keeping the amount they currently have, is something they want. So when they disrespect another person, they perceive it as raising their own status while necessarily lowering the other person’s status, hence win/lose.

The rest of us, who see human interaction as win/win, see the world in terms of truth. We are truth-seekers instead of status-seekers.

To get a better understanding of the difference between truth-seeking and status-seeking, let’s consider how they differ in the way they work. Status-based thinking means judging ideas by figuring out how much status the ideas have. In contrast, truth-based thinking means judging ideas by their merit. As I explained in Chapter X _Atheism: The faith of intellectuals?, judging ideas by status means believing ideas by looking for confirmation, while judging by merit means believing ideas only after they have survived all currently known criticism.

The status-based attitude is one that is shared by many cultures. In gang culture, individuals each have an amount of status that they intend to keep. For this reason, if a gang member perceives that somebody has disrespected him, he sees this as his status being lowered while the other guy’s status being raised. And in an effort to regain his status, he may retaliate with physical violence. So here the gang member is committing both the minor and the major flaw — demanding respect and violent intolerance of dissenters.

There are lots of other examples of this. In tribal cultures, an individual’s status is partly determined by how much status his tribe has. For this reason, if a tribesman perceives that somebody has disrespected a member of his tribe, he sees this as his own status being lowered because he sees his tribe’s status being lowered. Similarly, somebody gets offended if he thinks that a family member of his has been disrespected — they see it as their status being lowered since their family name’s status has been lowered. Now imagine a situation where somebody perceives that the king of his tribe (like Prophet Mohamed) has been disrespected. He would be very offended by this. And if he also has the intolerant attitude too, and if the circumstances were opportune, then he would initiate violence in his misguided attempt to regain respect.

Another example is honor violence within a family, or community. If a man thinks that his status is lowered if his daughter does something against his community’s religious norms, and if he also has the intolerant attitude, then he may initiate violence if she commits such an act, as a means to regain his status.

What’s interesting about the status-based idea is that it denies that respect should be earned. A person thinking like this may be in the wrong, and know it, and still demand to be treated as though he is in the right. Street thugs do it when they violently demand respect. Authoritative parents do it when they say ‘Don’t argue with me’ to their kids. Some girlfriends do it when they expect their boyfriends to side with them in social situations even when they are in the wrong. And some Muslim men do it when they commit honor violence.

The status-based attitude rears it’s ugly head in people’s politics too. These people align themselves politically by their tribal origin (status), rather than by their ideas (merit). It’s ugly because it’s not based on the truth, and because it means the person is unwilling to consider changing his mind about his politics — because you can’t change your tribal origin.

Judging ideas by status means that if you find out that you’re wrong, you’re going to deny it and claim that you’re right, and demand respect too. This way of thinking means no possibility of changing your political affiliation even if you were given devastating criticism of your political ideas. In contrast, judging ideas by merit means that you’re willing to change your mind if you find out that you’re wrong. And this way of thinking means the possibility of changing your political affiliation.

Rational people vs irrational people

Another way to describe the truth-seeking attitude is to describe the people who have it, rational people. As Elliot Temple said:

Rational people are systems of ideas that can temporarily remove any one idea in the system without losing identity. We can remain functional without any one idea. This means we can update or replace it. And in fact we can often change a lot of ideas at once (how many depends in part on which).

To criticize one idea is not to criticize my rationality, or my ability to create knowledge, or my ability to make progress. It doesn’t criticize what makes me human, nor anything permanent about me. So I have no reason to mind it. Either I will decide it is correct, and change (and if I don’t understand how to change, then no one has reason to fault me for not changing yet), or decide it is incorrect and learn something from considering it.

The way ideas die in our place is that we change ourselves, while retaining our identity (i.e., we don’t die), but the idea gets abandoned and does die.

So a rational person sees criticism as win/win because it’s part of his truth-seeking attitude. So when he gets criticism of his ideas, actions, or feelings, he doesn’t interpret it as a personal attack and instead he tries to judge the criticism in order to try to extract value from it. He sees criticism as a good thing because he knows that criticism leads to further evolution of his knowledge. He sees criticism as necessary to improve himself, to evolve, so he willingly seeks it out and enjoys thinking about it.

As I mentioned before, a common mistake people make is in how they interpret criticism of ideas. They see it as their person being criticized, rather than the idea alone being criticized. They misinterpret this because they consider some of their ideas to be static. They consider these ideas to be part of their identity — something they refuse to even consider changing. And if you criticize an idea of theirs, since they consider that idea as part of their identify, they interpret your actions as an attack on their person. And in retaliation, they may call you out to be arrogant and condescending, or initiate violence, as an attack back at you, in their misguided attempt at self-defense.

So the status-based attitude is what causes people to care about honor. They have an intense desire for status, and it can pervade practically all of their thinking. Now, combine this status-based attitude with the attitude that initiating violence in response to a disagreement is morally right, and what you have is somebody willing to commit honor violence against his daughters, sisters, and other female members of his community, and on anybody who he perceives to be lowering his status/respect/honor. TC mark

image – Shafilea Ahmed

This post originally appeared at Rami’s Philosophy Blog.

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