Have You No Honor?
If there is one thing the 2016 presidential election highlighted, we are desperately in need of honor.
I remember, one of my first wrestling practices, some of the guys had written swear words in the condensation on the widows of the school bus. My wrestling coach addressed the team, “I’ll give you a choice. Whoever did this can come forward, and they’ll do burpees for the entire practice, or the whole team has to do burpees for half an hour right now.”
For the yoga-doers, I should clarify; burpees are no fun. Doing them for half an hour would suck; doing them for an hour and a half would suck more. For the entirely self interested person, it would make no sense to come forward because you would get only an hour of extra burpees for your trouble. I, as recent addition to the team, expected no one to step forward. In fact, I laughed to myself that my coach had even given them the choice instead of just assigning the whole team half an hour of burpees.
But, the guys who had written those words on the windows did step forward. Immediately. I was surprised, and it was my first lesson in how that group of people worked; you owned up to the things you did wrong. Even if you’d get punished. Even if what you did wrong didn’t seem like a big deal.
And it all came from the top; my coach set the example for the rest of the team. Once, he told an off color joke about gender and I turned to him and said “Stop!” and he stopped immediately.
He took me aside after practice, and said “I owe you an apology for that joke.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal,” I said.
“No,” he replied. “It was a big deal. I shouldn’t have said it, and I’m sorry that I did.”
I think it’s the only apology I have ever received for any gender-related infraction. There was no justification, no attempt to mitigate — just “I’m sorry.” And, it mattered. It made clear to me that even though I was the only woman on the wrestling team, that it was a safe place. In fact, and I would’t have been able to identify this for years, the fact that I was able to tell my wrestling coach to stop indicated that I was already comfortable. I already knew, basically, that he was the type of guy who didn’t say those things normally. I mean, he was the type of guy to tell a few off color jokes, but he wasn’t the type of guy who wanted to make anyone genuinely uncomfortable. I had trust that neither him, nor anyone on the team, would want to make me uncomfortable; that anything they said that ended up making me uncomfortable would be a miscalculation, a mistake they would gladly rectify.
You know — cuz they were honorable.
And, I’m really grateful for the time I had on my high school wrestling team, but in some ways my time with them set me up to be overly trusting. My initial assumption, that most people will not come forward and own up to their wrongdoing, has turned out to be far more accurate when dealing with the wider world.
I remember talking to a friend who had done a silicone valley VC-startup, and he told me that his co-founder (who was also his friend) had convinced him to take a lower salary under the assumption both co-founders would take low salaries. However, his co-founder secretly gave himself a raise without telling my friend. I was shocked when I found that out. People do that? Like, people that I know? People who seem nice?
And — more shockingly — people do that to their friends?
It seems almost quaint when I write it out now, but that was one of the most shocking things I’d ever heard at the time. I mean, I knew conceptually that people did things like this, but to have witnessed it — to have witnessed the warmth between these two people, and to know that one of them had so consciously deceived the other like that was really shocking to me.
What I have come to understand, is that the world of capitalist consumerism is completely devoid of honor. So much so that it warps people, people who I think were originally good people.
Peter Sloterdijk talks a lot about honor in Rage and Time (which I am reading right now, so these topics will probably recur) but says this about consumerism:
It is remarkable that contemporary consumerism achieves the same interruption of pride for the sake of eroticism, an achievement reached without altruistic, holistic, or other noble excuses. Consumerism simply buys the interest of dignified human beings by providing material concessions and discounts. The initially absolutely implausible construct of the homo oeconomicus thus reaches its goal in the form of the postmodern consumer. Anyone who does not know of any other desires or is not supposed to know any other desires than those that, to cite Plato, derive from the erotic or desiring “part of the soul,” is a mere consumer. It is not an arbitrary fact that the instrumentalization of nudity is the leading symptom of the culture of consumption.
Rage and Time, Peter Sloterdijk p 17
Sloterdijk proposes that “erotic” urges, or “wanting” urges, are the only urges that are allowed under current consumerism. The idea that there are desires or needs that cannot be satiated through a purchase of some kind, the idea that some things need to be earned and cannot be acquired with capital undercuts modern consumerism and threatens to weaken the hold of the governing powers. Attachment to money as a panacea keeps us trapped. Most Americans do need more money; but they are stopped from having enough from corporate structures designed to disproportionally benefit those who run them. Those at the top, those in control, pay themselves more than they could ever spend because personal wealth matters more to them than caring for those they employ.
The very rich, like most people, have no honor. However, they do have resources. They take for themselves far more than they need, leaving the masses to suffer, because money is more important in our society than than respect from the community. At the end of the day, honor is fundamentally about doing difficult things for the benefit of the community in exchange for recognition from the community. Not that you need recognition to have honor; in a corrupt community, often the most honorable thing you can do is to live by your own standards the best you can. But, in an ideal world, we will honor people who make sacrifices for the community.
The only place in American society this comes up with any scale is with respect to the military, which is problematic for various reasons. First reason is that, if the country is run by dishonorable people, it places honorable people in the military in a very difficult position. The honorable thing to do, in most cases, is to fight with your fellow soldiers. However, if a war has been started for unjust reasons and dishonorable people are relying on the fact that honorable people are willing to make massive personal sacrifices to achieve unjust ends, then the most honorable thing to do is protest the war. However, if this protest would screw over the soldiers you are closest to, that… also doesn’t seem very honorable. You have an obligation to protect those closest to you before you protect those further away from you (at least, I think so.) HOWEVER, you also have an obligation to protect people from the worse outcome. So, if you have to embarrass people closest to you in order to protect people further away from you from death, then it becomes honorable again.
Or something. I’ve never served in the military, so I can’t pretend to fully understand the honor dynamics at play there. But, I do know, in such hierarchical systems, if the top is fucked, atrocity will trickle down.
The other problem with honor only being associated with the military, is most Americans have no way of doing honorable things in their own lives, so they don’t understand honor. They don’t understand why it’s important. And so the only thing they know to live for is their own creature comforts.
Sacrifice is crucial to honor.
Even when people do “nice” things for the community, they are generally nice things that don’t hurt them in any way. Which is fine, and to be commended, but it’s not honorable. It’s not honorable when billionaires donate millions to charity, if they still have more money than they’ll ever need.
Sacrifice also has to also be non-coerced, otherwise it’s oppression. If the Fukushima 50 (the workers at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant who risked their lives to contain the radiation) had been low income employees forced to work in dangerous conditions who were then forbidden to leave after the accident, that would have been oppression, not heroism. (I mean, arguably the people who stayed there would still have been heroes, but it would have been a severe mark of shame on the people who prevented them leaving.)
Honoring sacrifice, however, is also not being ignorant of the fact that some sacrifices cost certain people more than others. During the Fukushima disaster, 250 skilled senior citizens offered to take the place of younger people in the power plant because their reduced life expectancy meant the radiation would take fewer years off their life.
“We have to work instead of them,” says Yamada, referring to the estimated 1,000 workers currently at the nuclear plant. “Elders have less sensitivity to radiation. Therefore, we have to work.”
If you were a young man supporting a family, and there was a senior citizen who could take your place at the Fukushima plant, I think the honorable thing to do would have been to let him. It’s not a contest to see who can sacrifice the most; it’s about letting the right person rise to the occasion at the right time.
Anyway. Watching the 2016 election, I feel like we’re so screwed. Frankly, the democrats have never really been about honor. Which, you know, is fine. They have other merits. But the republicans, man, the republicans basically managed to toss up the least honorable candidate of all time by basically any metric. And, isn’t that something the republicans are supposed to be about?
My own views on honor aren’t really compatible with America’s at large. I’m sexually progressive. I swear. I’m a heathen.
But, where I think I do agree, is I believe in courage, and I believe in honesty. I try very hard to be honest, and I try to have the courage to be honest. Sometimes I fail (“Yeah, that’s a great startup idea!”) but honesty is a central tenant of my morality.
Because when people start lying, it’s basically impossible to do anything. It’s impossible to move forward; all progress relies on understanding the truth of the current situation which involves telling the truth. With lies, the whole system gets gridlocked and no one knows whether or not to vaccinate their children.
Honesty, and what facts we can believe, have become a central problem in American life at the moment. Do vaccines cause autism? Which presidential candidate is telling the truth? Politifact says it’s Clinton — but is Politifact telling the truth?
And, it is completely consistent that what facts to believe has become a central problem because American culture does not value honesty. American culture values “optimism,” American culture values money, American culture values success. American culture values success so much, that it encourages people to present the appearance of success even when they have none. Getting caught in a lie seems to be a non-issue.
When I go to interviews, I am told to embellish my accomplishments. When I go on dates, I am told to put my “best foot forward.” It’s expected that my resume will be inflated, so if I don’t inflate it, I will appear less qualified than I really am. It’s expected that my photos on OkCupid will be flattering, and if I put up totally honest ones, people will assume I’m uglier than I really am. Dishonesty permeates all level of American culture, and so when you look to the top, obviously you have no idea what’s going on. We choose people based on who looks the most impressive, but if you don’t severely castigate people for lying, you’re just going to end up with the best liars. Because it’s easier to lie about success than it is to achieve success.
Being caught in a major lie should be a disqualifying event for any major politician. Yet, because they all lie, we sort of have to accept it. Where are the honest people we could replace them with?
Anyway; I think we could use a little more old school honor at the moment. Because telling the truth nowadays, well, that certainly requires sacrifice.