Monday, December 29, 2008

The significance of honour codes

Every time Israel and its enemies go at it, out come the cheerleaders for the combatants.

Generally, I find those that support the Palestinian side are left-leaning liberal types, many of whom are infected with a utopian world-view that posits that all deadly conflicts can be resolved by reasonable people sitting around a table and discussing their differences with a view to honestly trying to resolve them.

Not in their universe are notions of the overweening power of emotions, history, tribalism, clan claims, or religion. Since these people eschew power relationships, it does not register with them that many people in the world view well-meaning attempts at amelioration, negotiation and compromise as weakness – weakness that is not to be rewarded by concessions but by ruthless exploitation.

One of the more interesting books I have read this Christmas holiday is The Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. He reviews the popular concept of people succeeding in life by dint of simply working hard and being smart. He demonstrates that there are many external factors that will determine the chances for success that are not controllable and have little to do with individual effort.

In one chapter he discusses the famous family feuds that left a bloody history in the Appalachian mountain region of the United States throughout most of the 19th century and well into the early 20th. He attributes these to the region of the world from which the immigrants who settled Appalachia derived. For the most part they were Scotch-Irish and they came from a culture that for centuries lived by clan codes of honour. Personal insults to these people required acts of revenge, including murder.

He says that modern psychological studies carried out in universities confirm the idea that honour codes are nearly genetic for such people, even today. The point of this chapter was to show how legacy codes, at buried emotional levels, can still impact our behaviours. And this is amongst the rational, reasonable people of North America.

When I read this I reflected on my own life. Like anybody else, I have been subjected to my share of insults from other people. Generally, I am a pretty level-headed sort of fellow. I have been accused of being na├»ve or of advancing stupid ideas, and a host of other unpleasant things, even being called a racist. But the only one that I was never able to simply laugh off was an insult that impugned my integrity – like one that stated or implied I am a liar, or less than an honourable person. Such an accusation causes me to immediately feel enormous waves of anger. I nearly lost a job because of this reaction.

One of my sons was getting into a lot of fights with other students during his high school years. He would go off the school grounds at lunchtime and square off with somebody, while his classmates egged him on. He won all these fights. I became concerned when I learned about it and had discussions with him to try to persuade him to desist. What I found was perceived honour code violations led him to combat. Worse, he would challenge people who impugned the integrity of his friends.

Gladwell’s stuff made sense to me, because on my father’s side, I am of Scotch-Irish ancestry. My grandfather immigrated to Canada from Belfast.

How does this relate to Israel versus the Arabs?

The Jews are normally considered to be a rational and reasonable people. Much of our modern western culture is derived from Jewish precepts, both moral and legal.

So when Israelis go to war, a certain part of our society thinks that they are acting immorally, that they are betraying the liberal ethos. The reality is that the Israelis are facing enemies comprised of tribal people who live by honour codes and for whom anything insulting requires retaliation. When you add in the notion that power is respected and conciliation is not, and top that off with the religious ideas that the land belongs to the people of one religion and not the other, one can easily see that the conditions for reasonable negotiation of differences simply do not exist.

Israel understands their enemies even if the rest of the world doesn’t.

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