Honor is Dead
When someone is called honorable today, we expect that the person is reliable - someone who keeps his word and is without hypocrisy. While these qualities are worth imitating, the word honor has deviated radically from its original meaning in such a way that the concept of honor has almost become without meaning.
In our own language, the word honor sounds slightly archaic, which of course means that there is not a common understanding of it; I have seen young students capitalize on this by adopting the British 'honour' when writing essays. However, there was a time not long ago when people lived their lives around honor; indeed it was so important that one could be expected to take his own life to save it. The Declaration of Independence confirms this notion with its closing line, "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." - honor is the only item with an assigned adjective.
Robert E. Lee famously stated that he was willing to sacrifice anything to preserve the Union, except honor. It is obvious without even knowing what honor is that it does not hold much currency in the present. In America, honor is dead, and it is safe to assume that it is gone forever, but hair and the nails still sprout from the corpse.
I apologize for writing this far without properly defining honor. It is a somewhat difficult task, for it is a broad term and a malleable concept. For our purposes, honor is the appearance of strength based on a system of values shaped both by the individual holder and the society in which he lives. Honor can only be defended or redeemed by the entity in possession of it, with one notable exception which I shall come to later. Julius Caeser thought it was dishonorable to have as much power as he and not hold a crown.
In early America, if a man were to insult you, especially in public eye, he would have violated your honor and you would be expected to react. Honor cannot exist in a society in which there is no dueling. If someone were to slander you today, you would take them to court - the antithesis of honor. Honor can also not exist unless everyone in the society believes in it. Much lampooned in cinema is the gallant young hero challenging his more experienced teasers.
The death of honor was hailed by the arrival of the Leviathan. I do not wish to debate on the origins or the necessity of the state, though I do agree with Thomas Paine's assessment that society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness. Before the state had the capacity to fully implement the law, individuals or groups who wished stay in possession of their property or land had better have appeared strong lest some enterprising thief might try to annex it as his own.
Turning the other cheek to a public insult would have most definitely been perceived as a sign of weakness. As the state developed, vigilante justice became a nuisance and proved to be ultimately incompatible with the demands of modern civilization. Thus it is not surprising to find that remnants of the honor culture still exist in the American South, which became urbanized much later than the North. A study at the University of Michigan found that southern students were more likely to exhibit dominant behavior and aggression after being provoked than the northern students.
It is also southerners who tend to gobble up surrogate honor without discrimination: wrestling, guns, rap music, MMA, sports in general. For these fans, the drama found in these events isn't just an integral part of it, it's the main attraction. Some of the more group minded find it in what Kipling of all people called "Jelly-bellied flag flapping".
The movie "300" would have done much better and would have been far more credible had it at least mentioned the word "honor" instead of ridiculously insisting that the Spartans were free men defending reason from the hordes of tyranny and superstition.
By now you have probably guessed what I am getting at. Honor is manifestation of masculinity that has been suppressed by the state in order to make the male animal function within modern society. If a man fights for his honor, it easily just as well said that he is defending his masculinity. Take the early example of the young hero; he challenges the men after they tease him - or to use another expression - after they busted his balls.
The southern men in the experiment were shown to have elevated levels of testosterone after being insulted (before you get any stupid ideas, the subjects also showed elevated levels of cortisol). A woman too had honor, but it was a man who was required to defend it, and in most cases, especially one regarding a purportedly unfaithful wife, the man's honor was at stake as well. In warfare, the culmination of masculinity, honor is everything.
I believe that while the suppression of honor is necessary - I certainly don't want to live in a society where I am expected to duel every asshole that insults me - its absence has created problems that have yet to be solved. For one thing it engenders a man who is sexually unappealing - the nutless wuss, a.k.a. the nice guy. For another, frustrated men channel their masculinity into destructive pursuits; the military, honor's last refuge, is not for everyone. The desire for honor is innate within us, and I think we can do better to accomadate it.