14 May 2016

Honour culture and political correctness

What would the honour-cultures of Northern European Late Antiquity – cultures like Anglo-Saxon England, Kievan Rus’, mediæval Iceland – have thought of trigger warnings, microaggressions, safe spaces and language-policing – in short, what would they have thought of our postmodern campus culture of victim-mentality? Given how insistent the critics of the undergraduate identitarian construct are on making it out to be a deviation, unique in human history, from ideals of manliness of the sort we have inherited from Late Antiquity, this seems to me to be a valid and rather important aspect to the question. First of all, though, we have to make a few observations both of the defenders of this victimhood culture, and of the critics.

The critics are a bit easier to pin down, and they include names like Laura Kipnis, Edward Schlosser, Michelle Duguid, Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt, Jonathan Chait and Caitlin Flanagan, along with a number of stand-up comedians. By and large, the defining traits of the critics are twofold: a commitment to a libertarian ideal that free speech unconditionally serves the good (underwritten by the assumption that the best, the strongest and most fit ideas should win out in an undifferentiated ideological marketplace), combined with a quasi-Stoic idea that individuals (rather than groups however defined) should take responsibility for their ideas without making them into badges of ‘identity’. The political-correctness culture, on the other hand, they view as being fundamentally at odds with both. They see this culture as both a pathetic, unmanly abandonment of the necessary intellectual-emotional work of developing one’s own opinions responsibly, and as an insidious threat to the ideal of free speech. However, the cultures of Late Antiquity, replete with their hardy ideals of manhood, are possibly both closer to the political-correctness culture, and further from the free speech ideal, than either group realises. (Assuredly, the undergraduate lifestyle-leftists would be scandalised to think that they have anything in common with the dead white men their ilk have scorned for so long. Ah well; so much the better.)

But the thing about the critics is that they are half-right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Pace the wishful thinking of libertarians, the honour-cultures of yesteryear were hardly coercion-free individualist paradises. Certain obligations had to be met, and even if the state would not enforce them itself, the state’s proxies (that is to say, lords and heads of households) would not hesitate to do so – no honourable man in such a society would countenance, for example, the attested libertarian belief that mothers and fathers have no duties to their children. Every man has socially-enforceable duties, in such a society, to his kin, to his lord, to his home and to himself – duties that cannot be abrogated with appeals to the legal abstractions of ‘liberty’. Freedom in an honour culture is always context-based, and tied to a corresponding social role or duty.

As such, a free man in 10th-century Iceland, for example, was meant to be jealous of his reputation and the reputations of his near kin. This was, in an age where one’s whole family’s well-being was dependent to such a degree on one’s good name and good standing, utterly needful for their protection and welfare. You could not simply say anything you liked in his presence and expect the law to protect you: if you insulted him, his wife, his parents, his brothers or sisters or cousins, or his lord, depending on the severity of the insult, he would be justified under the law if he killed you on the spot for it. Words could be a life-or-death matter, and therefore had to be chosen with care. As might be expected, Icelandic society was both well-armed and (contrary to the usual stereotypes) polite. The ‘free speech’ of a fool, a drunkard or a níþing was not respected even by the law – and make no mistake, the men of Late Antiquity would understand much of what passes these days for ‘free speech’ activism as foolishness: ‘to the heedful comes seldom harm… Let the wary stranger who seeks refreshment keep silent with sharpened hearing’, and ‘the hasty tongue sings its own mishap if it be not bridled in’. Those who wag their tongues too loudly about a man’s character, a man’s standing or a man’s kin-grouping would do well to look to their heads.

Even deeper than this, though, the dright of Late Antiquity would likely be bewildered by the libertarian, free-speech advocate’s assertion that all opinions are equally worth defending and protecting under the law. He would not share the conviction, born of a capitalist ethic foreign to him, that good advice and bad advice are of equal value to one’s lord, and deserving of equal hearing. Unrede, or bad advice, can lead to death – of oneself, one’s lord, one’s family – if it is taken seriously. Even if not taken seriously, it can lead to an equally-deadly indecision. Bad advice is deserving of formal scolding, not of protection.

In one important respect, though, the dright of Late Antiquity would indeed agree with the advocates of free speech, at least insofar as the new political-correctness culture is concerned. It is not wrong, taking the view of the Northern European man of the end of the first millennium, to defend one’s kin and one’s home and one’s honour even from the words of the witless; however, it is laughable and weak to do so without having first laid down one’s own resources and well-being – that is to say, a man or woman who throws challenges around and cannot back them up is untrustworthy, and likely a coward. If words can do harm, then one should be willing to throw oneself in that harm’s way.

It’s probably oversimplistic to say that the cultures Western traditionalists like to associate most with ‘manliness’ would have viewed free-speech libertarians as fools and our illiberal postmodern identitarians as cowards – as I noted before, the libertarian neutrality with regard to the substantive value of specific opinions might also be regarded as cowardly in such societies, or at the very least counter-productive – but it is hoped that this may make for a good rough sketch.


  1. Great piece.

    One thing I have noticed in honor societies (and it appears in medieval Iceland too) is the contageous nature of shame. Shame and honor being contageous not only shape what can be said in public but they also isolate the private. If you accuse someone of dishonorable behavior, you force them to react, and those who are close to them to react. This encapsulation is something most people miss when looking at liberal/libertarian narratives not only of free speech but also of sexual morality.

  2. Very interesting thoughts. I do worry a lot about the way certain views are being silenced on campuses. Yet on the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the fact that the BBC has granted interviews to right-wing racist extremists like the British National Party