Iran’s Culture of Honor vs America’s Culture of Dignity

East and West fundamentally misunderstand each other. It’s probably the source of most issues; and to some extent it explains constant inflammation and missteps on both sides. The differences are cultural. Generally speaking – most of the West has a culture of Dignity; while the East (and especially Iran) has a culture of Honor. As simple a concept as this is, Politicians on both sides need to be very sensitive to this reality.

In honor cultures, men maintain their honor by responding to insults, slights, and violations of rights by self-help violence. … During the 19th century, most Western societies began the moral transition toward dignity cultures in which all citizens are legally endowed with equal rights.

A culture of honor is a culture in which a person (usually a man) feels obliged to protect his or her reputation by answering insults, affronts, and threats, oftentimes using violence. Cultures of honor have been independently invented many times across the world. Three well-known examples of cultures of honor include cultures of honor in parts of the Middle East (notably Iran), the southern United States, and inner-city neighborhoods (of the United States and elsewhere) that are controlled by gangs.

Cultures of honor can vary in many ways. Some stress female chastity to an extreme degree, whereas others do not. Some have strong norms for hospitality and politeness toward strangers, whereas others actively encourage aggression against outsiders. What all cultures of honor share, however, is the central importance placed on insult and threat and the necessity of responding to them with violence or the threat of violence.

Self-worth in an honor culture is externally driven, and dependent on the social interactions. Honor manifests in a reputation for toughness in protecting self and family and not letting others take advantage of you. Honor cultures are thought to have been developed in regions with unstable economies, for example herding societies (unstable economy and wealth) rather than agriculture with stable wealth, and in societies that lack a strong central government and or a weak rule of law. The culture of honor is very pertinent to the Iranian society in which its members are individualists with strong relational ties (i.e. protecting self and close kin), high level of mistrust of people outside the immediate circles, and lack of trust toward the central government and people of high power (Bar, 2004). In Iran and Middle Eastern societies, status and public reputation, especially those pertaining to strength and courage (manhood) are very important. Popular beliefs associated with mistrust in the Iranian culture include: men are by nature evil, power-seeking, and irrational (mistrust of human motivations); everything is in a state of flux and change (mistrust of stability); acceptance of exaggeration in verbal communication (mistrust of the verbal communication of others); distrust in interpersonal relations; the need for manipulation in the struggle for life (expectation that others will try to manipulate); lack of belief in altruism; hostility towards government as an exploiting enemy; a belief that nothing can change for the better. Moreover, because of geographic conditions, modalities of family life, or the despotic structure of all the political regimes that have been in power in Iran, individuals have learned to fend for self and family and not to trust anyone outside of one’s intimate circle.

On the other hand, American and Western European cultures fall under dignity culture, in which a person’s self-worth is intrinsically derived and not dependent on others, tends to be stable, and is perceived to be equal to other members of the culture. Dignity is theoretically defined as “the conviction that each individual at birth possessed an intrinsic value at least theoretically equal to that of every other person.” This worth is neither conferred bothers nor can it be taken away by them. Dignity is associated with independence and focusing on personal, individual goals. A person with a sense of dignity is thought to be autonomous, behaves according to his or her own internal standards, is not fixated on the external situation, and is not easily influenced or corrupted by others.

Insults and threats take on great meaning in cultures of honor, because of the environments in which cultures of honor develop. Such cultures develop in lawless environments where there is no central authority (such as the state) that can offer effective protection to its citizens. In such a situation, a person must let it be known that he will protect himself, his family, and his property. Insults and affronts are important because they act as probes, establishing who can do what to whom. A person who responds with violence over “small” matters (e.g., an insult or an argument over a small amount of money) can effectively establish himself as one who is not to be messed with on larger matters. Thus, an effective response to an insult can deter future attacks, when the stakes may be much higher.

Many violent incidents in cultures of honor center on what might be considered a trivial incident to outsiders. Such matters are not trivial to the people in the argument, however, because people are defending (or establishing) their reputations. What is really at stake is something of far greater importance than a one-dollar debt owed or a record on the jukebox.

In cultures of honor, reputation is highly tied up with masculinity. A telling anecdote from Hodding Carter’s book Southern Legacy (1950) concerned a 1930s Louisiana court case, in which Carter served as a juror. The facts of the matter were clear. The defendant lived near a gas station and had been pestered for some time by workers there. One day, the man had had enough and opened fire on the workers, killing one person and wounding two others. As Carter tells it, the case seemed open and shut, and so Carter began discussions in the jury room by offering up the obvious (to him) verdict of guilty. The other 11 jurors had very different ideas about the obvious verdict, however, and they strongly and unanimously favored acquittal. Fellow jurors explained to Carter that the man couldn’t be guilty—what kind of man wouldn’t have shot the others? An elder juror later told Carter that a man can’t be jailed for standing up for his rights. In cultures of honor everywhere, traditional masculinity is a virtue that must be defended.

Various ethnographies have described cultures of honor in detail. Sociologist Elijah Anderson, for example, has written about the culture of honor in inner cities of the United States. Anthropologists Julian Pitt-Rivers and J. G. Peristiany have written about honor in the Mediterranean region, and an important collection of papers can be found in Peristiany’s 1966 book Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society. Notably, the book includes chapters by Pitt-Rivers, Peristiany, and Pierre Bourdeau, who has written about honor and the importance of female chastity among the Kabyle of Algeria. As in many Mediterranean cultures, the sanctity of the family name among the Kabyle depends a great deal on the purity of its women and how well the men guard and protect it. In such cultures, females who disgrace the family may be killed by their male relatives to cleanse the family name.

Interestingly, in the West, one doesn’t have to look very far to appreciate a culture of honor. Within experimental social psychology, Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen’s 1996 book Culture of Honor lays out the case that there is a culture of honor among Whites in the contemporary South of the United States. Among other evidence, they show that the homicide rate is higher among Whites in the U.S. South, but only for killings that involve quarrels, lovers’ triangles, and other arguments (i.e., those killings where honor is most likely to be at stake). They also show in opinion surveys that White southerners are more likely to endorse violence than are northerners when the violence is used in response to insult or in response to some threat to home, family, or property.

In laboratory studies, they showed that southern U.S. college students were more likely than northern college students to respond in an aggressive manner when they were insulted. The insult involved an experimental confederate who bumped into the experimental participant as he was walking down the hallway and then called the participant an expletive. Southern students were more than twice as likely as northern students to become visibly angry at the insult (85% vs. 35%). They were more cognitively primed for aggression, completing scenarios with more violent endings. And they showed surges in their levels of testosterone (a hormone associated with aggression, competition, and dominance) and cortisol (a hormone associated with stress and arousal) after the bump. Additionally, southerners also became more aggressive as they subsequently walked down the hallway and encountered another experimental confederate (who was 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds).

Specific research published at the 25th IACM conference, identified Iranian behavior consistent with the culture of honor, Iranian negotiators are more likely to be competitive, express emotions, and employ distributive tactics compared to Canadian negotiators. Moreover, this competitive mindset leaves Iranian negotiators at a disadvantage as the overall joint gain is significantly lower than Canadian negotiators

Finally, the researchers also showed that the laws and social policies of the South were more lenient toward violence than those of the North. This is important, because social policies may be one way the culture of honor is carried forward, even after the originating conditions (the lawless environment of the frontier South) have largely disappeared.

Trump, Bolton and Netenyahu’s branding of Iranians as ‘cheats and liars’ is very humiliating, and dishonor’s not only Iranian leadership, but ultimately ordinary Iranians too.

Interestingly, these same western politicians (at least recently) are also NOT behaving in a dignified fashion – i.e. abiding by international laws and norms, and therefore treating Iran ‘equally’ with other nations – and providing a dignified support for their arguments and positions. Netenyahu’s Israel for example has never abided by international laws and treaties, yet somehow accuses Iran of ‘cheating’! i.e. dis-honors and un-dignifies Iranians.

One more time: the West’s treatment of Iranians is therefore NOT only undignified by Western standards but also dis-honorable. My recommendation is that if “politicians’ need to ‘pick’, they must prioritize Honor over Dignity in treating Iranians. The rhetoric so far has been very damaging to the “West’s” cause. Much like Iraq, its pointless to win a war, yet lose the support of the population you have conquered!

If the rhetoric and behavior doesn’t change then we will be on a horrific collision course, and the outcome of this simple ‘misunderstanding’ could be devastating. In the end, regardless of anyone’s views, this type of cultural polarization creates an irreversible divide and could lead to war. And even if the “war” is won with sophisticated weapons and bombs, the follow-on to the “war” could be even devastating to the “winners”. Is that what Americans want?

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