Honor and Politics at the RNC

July 28, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

So far, the speakers at the Democratic convention have seemed much nicer than their Republican counterparts. The Republicans reveled in demonizing, insulting, and humiliating the people they disagree with. Trump of course, is the shining example, with his insulting names for his opponents. But that style is just a nastier variation on a theme that runs through Appalachia and the South – honor.

It’s not just Trump and the Trumpistas.

Maybe it was because I’d just been reading Honor Bound, Ryan Brown’s new book about “honor culture,” that I paid attention to this clip that Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs tweeted from the Republican convention. Ted Cruz had just spoken at a contentious breakfast meeting with the Texas delegation. Trump had already sewn up the nomination and many Texans resented Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump. Here's a screenshot. For the full 28-secod video click on the link.

The delegate on the left, a Cruz backer, tells the bearded delegate (Steve Toth).“You’re a coward” 

“I’m a Texan,” says Toth.

“No, you’re a coward,” says the other.

The Cruz supporter makes a reference to Trump’s statements to the effect that Cruz’s wife is ugly and that Cruz’s father was in cahoots with Lee Harvey Oswald.  “If he said that about your wife or your dad, I hope you’d do the same thing. I hope you’d have some character to stand for your family.” A few seconds later, Toth responds to the earlier accusation, “You’re calling me a coward, sir.”

If you’d asked actors to improv Southern honor culture in thirty seconds, you couldn’t get much better than this. The central element in the culture of honor is reputation. From that, the rest follows:
  • Hypersensitivity to insult, especially insult to one’s reputation and character or that of one’s family
  • Chivalrous defense of women (so long as those women are loyal)
  • Value on group loyalty
  • Formal politeness
  • Willingness to use violence to defend that reputation. (This does not make an overt appearance in this clip, but I could easily imagine that “You’re calling me a coward, sir,” being followed by, “Them’s fightin’ words.” Similarly, the Cruz supporter is implying that when a man scurrilously insults your family, you don’t then make deals with him. You challenge him. You fight him.)
The “coward, sir” line nicely embodies the aspect of the Southern culture that Dov Cohen calls “the paradox of politeness.” Cohen, along with Richard Nisbett, contributed much of the early thought and research on honor culture. Some of their experiments tested how men would react to a person who was being annoying and rude. Northerners showed their anger earlier on and increased their anger as the provocations continued. Southerners remained polite. . . up to a point. But when that point was reached, as Ryan Brown puts it, “Southerners went ballistic. Their reactions were so extreme, in fact, the researchers decided the study should be shut down.”

Honor culture extends beyond personal interactions. Its ethos gets written into l aws and policies. The most obvious examples are gun laws and stand-your-ground laws. States and regions where honor culture runs deepest are least likely to restrict guns and most likely to permit their use against other people. The arguments favoring these laws are always about protecting what’s yours - your life, your property, your family -even when you might safely retreat.

Those arguments rarely mention protecting your reputation and honor. And even in Texas, if you shoot a man for calling you a coward, you’re probably going to wind up in prison. But jurors, judges, and parole boards might be more sympathetic there might be more sympathetic than those where people are less burdened by the idea of honor.

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