On or honor off

Alongside the musings of Hoffer and findings of Allport, a line of research has illuminated one mechanism that might be fueling some of the violence in far-right ideology. This can be found in the culture of the southern United States. 

The fact is, the number of hate groups has greatly increased since 2017 and a vast majority of them are concentrated in the southern United States  (Southern Poverty Law Center n.d.).  Why the large concentration of violent hate groups? Some have looked into the honor that is so ingrained in America’s south. Within the psychological literature, it is referred to as a “Culture of Honor” which is defined by the American Psychological Association as:

a cultural norm in a region, nation, or ethnic group prescribing immediate, definitive retribution as the preferred reaction to an insult or other transgression, particularly one that threatens a person’s reputation. Ethnographic studies suggest that cultures that subsist by herding typically attach more importance to honor and reputation than do people from agrarian societies, since a person in a herding culture who vociferously defends against threats is less likely to have his or her livelihood taken away by rustlers (APA n.d.). 

The culture of honor was investigated by Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz (1996), who found that men in honor cultures react more aggressively to interpersonal threats or slights with a notable increase in cortisol and testosterone levels. Furthering this, Brown, Osterman, and Barnes (2009), also concluded that the culture of honor states had higher instances of students bringing guns to school and that these states had 3 times as many school shootings, compared to non-culture-of-honor states. These findings were also utilized by Osterman and Brown (2011), who showed that honor culture states also had elevated levels of suicide and also hypothesized that it was due to the expectations of reaching the cultures traditional idea of male and female gender roles and where instances of failure are often internalized. They also note less help-seeking behavior and exposure to symbols of violence building an inoculation to pain and a primer for violence.  

The culture of honor is very much tied to ideas of patriarchal gender roles and attitudes, where one is assumed to do anything they can to protect and maintain their way of life. In their studies, Nisbet and Cohen (1996), also showed that even the women held similar views towards violence (self-defense, gun control, corporal punishment, and capital punishment) as the men. The authors also note that women help socially condition the culture of honor by teaching it to their sons and enforcing it on their husbands. 

 Now, on the internet and the way interactions can sometimes be full of conflict and insults, due to a mix of anonymity and accessibility, the culture of honor is put to the test. We might very well be seeing this in a time when very traditional concepts that fall into the culture of honor are clearly being uprooted by a push from more progressive and egalitarian movements. As gender roles and even interaction with the state and its institutions are being brought to task under scientific and humanitarian investigation. There is also the direct challenge to its very foundations as many are asking for the truth about its origins to be recognized and amends made to those whose lineage and peoples suffered through the appalling acts of genocide, abuse, and slavery at the hands of those who would call themselves a “culture of honor.”

Of course, the ramifications still reverberate and feed into a cycle that perpetuates itself. These challenges have obviously brought up considerable resistance and can be implicit in nature as mentioned by Bobo (1983)

Such resistance appears to them as a simple defense of a lifestyle and position they think they have earned and do not question, not as a rejection of blacks as such (p.1208). 

Many of the memes utilized by the far-right often contain notions of tradition as well as language that reinforces a culture of honor. With reputation notifiers such as “based” (admirable), “king”, and “Chad”, to name a few. The nomenclature carries some of the hallmarks noted by Lowenthal & Guterman (1949)

Friends and allies are equipped with seemingly unmistakable identification marks. The agitator makes his followers feel that they are something special. They must be convinced that they belong to an elite even if the elite presumes to include the vast majority of the people (p.109).


 Perhaps the most effective though indirect method by which the agitator encourages violence is his consistent use of images which condition the audience to accept violence as “natural” and respect- able (p. 115).

The last quote seamlessly blends into a culture of honor, with violence being viewed as a way to deal with a threat, it is meant to prevent future attacks. No doubt, “might makes right” is a common theme amongst empires throughout history. American culture and those of the far-right are surrounded with symbols of violence and using retribution as a means to deal with a threat is stitched throughout the nation’s policy, both abroad and at home. As mentioned by Bobo (1983)

Specifically, American social organization allows and fosters in whites the belief that blacks, in so far as they demand changes in the racial status quo, are a threat to their lifestyles, as well as to other valued resources and accepted practices (p.1198 ).

Through this lens, one can see why some might defend otherwise questionable incidents of violence. A very recent example is that of Jaccob Blake who was paralyzed after being shot 7 times by the police for circumstances that seem to be a bit excessive for the situation. Some reactions to those who claim that it was excessive to fire that many shots have been the lines “he had a conviction” or “he should have listened.” These arguments are common for those defending the officer’s actions, though it brings into focus, using the aforementioned breakdown of cultures of honor, that he did not act in a way that meets a culture’s values and hence retribution overrides outrage, even if the police response almost resulted in Blake being killed. Even then, in cases of murder, these arguments appear. Another example would be victim-shaming that can show up in cases of rape, where the responses “well they shouldn’t have been wearing what they did” or “being out late and partying, what did you think would happen?” In either case whether through trying to legitimize police brutality and murder to blaming the victim, there is what appears to be an implicit cultural-mechanism pushing these kinds of responses to the surface. Of course, this particular observation is just that, an observation, but fits well with the culture of honor idea of violence along with gender roles and obedience to patriarchal figures. 

Taken all together, due to the reactionary nature of the culture of honor, it would not be terribly hard to weaponize it for political gains. And we are seeing it being utilized thusly.

As noted by Pratkanis, Pratkanis & Aronson (2001) who write about a rationalization trap. Through dissonance bringing on guilt and shame, self-esteem is the target. The aim is to make them feel like a hypocrite or someone who doesn’t honor their word at which point the propagandist offers relief from the dissonance, which is compliance with whatever they might demand. 

Next: The trap


APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2020, from https://dictionary.apa.org/culture-of-honor

Bobo, L. (1983). Whites’ opposition to busing: Symbolic racism or realistic group conflict?. journal of personality and social psychology, 45(6), 1196

Brown, R. P., Osterman, L. L., & Barnes, C. D. (2009). School violence and the culture of honor. Psychological Science, 20(11), 1400-1405

Cohen, D., Nisbett, R. E., Bowdle, B. F., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An” experimental ethnography.”. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70(5), 945

Hate Map. (2020, June 05). Retrieved August 18, 2020, from https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map

Lowenthal, L., & Guterman, N. (1949). Prophets of Deceit. New York: Harper

Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). New directions in social psychology. Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Westview Press.

Osterman, L. L., & Brown, R. P. (2011). Culture of honor and violence against the self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(12), 1611-1623

Pratkanis, A. R., Pratkanis, A., & Aronson, E. (2001). Age of propaganda: The everyday use and abuse of persuasion. Macmillan


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