Global Extremes

Can dignity and honor explain the rise of violent extremisms?

When the system fails them, some people can adopt honor-based attitudes and turn against it.

Orit Kamir
14 December 2020
Supporters of President Donald Trump during a ''Stop the Steal'' rally in Alpharetta, Georgia, 2 December 2020
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Ben Gray/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved
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There are different ways to conceptualize the underlying cultural rift that threatens not merely the prosperity but even the very existence of many liberal democracies worldwide. So, for example, on the one side of the Atlantic, this rift currently feeds the fierce battle between Trump's supporters and his opponents; in some European societies, it nourishes the all consuming war between adherents of uncensored freedom of speech, and their adversaries, who perceive caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad as unforgivable assaults on Islam and all Muslims.

Conceptualization, as a basis for comprehension, discussion and social activism, seems existentially crucial. Using the concepts ‘honor’ and ‘dignity’ I suggest that wide disappointment in the implementation of dignity-based policies has led to the rise of honor-based politics, and that the current predicament of liberal democracies owes much of its fervour to the conflict between these two worldviews

One appropriate conceptual framework is the once prominent and popular distinction between cultures, societies and mentalities that adhere to the principle of honor, and those that are based on the primacy of human dignity. Cultures of the first grouping require relentless adherence to a societal code of honor, and assess individuals and groups according to their comparative success in upholding the code's commands. They endorse all-encompassing personal and group competition for superior reputation and standing. They usually encourage proud collectivism (such as tribalism or nationalism), militant, aggressive masculinity, and heroism. They abhor anything that can be construed as shame and humiliation, i.e., lack of honor or loss of it.

Cultures of the other grouping are categorically devoted to the reinforcement of our inherent value as humans: our human dignity. They cherish our innate universal humanity, and the human rights designed to secure it. They are far more individual-oriented than honor cultures, and far less conformist: rather than advocating adherence to group norms, they treasure every individual's well being, promoting personal authenticity and unique self determination. They cherish the common human denominator, as well as individual fullfilness realization.

This binary framework, promoted by philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists half a century ago, has been neglected and all but forgotten. I suggest that its absence obstructs our ability to fully identify the devastating cultural clash that is currently rupturing the texture of our liberal-democratic universe.

I develop this line of thought in great detail in my recent monograph, Betraying Dignity: the Toxic Seduction of Social Media, Shaming and Radicalization, which was written during my visit at the European University Institute in Florence. The book argues that in the 21st century, wide-spread disappointment in the dignity-based liberal democracy has lead to the rise of honor-based attitudes. This ignited the contemporary clash between adherents of honor and protectors of dignity, as well as between competing honor-enthusiasts, in Europe and in the USA, as in other parts of the world (India, Turkey, Brazil and Israel, among others). Let me flesh this out.

Many Muslim immigrants in Europe aspire to be full citizens of the post-WWII era of dignity. Raised in the hope of having their dignity acknowledged and cherished, some feel disillusioned, let down, deprived and left behind. In the world of social media, this personal dignity-based frustration sometimes metamorphoses into a sense of collective Muslim humiliation, i.e., dishonor. Once the pain is so perceived, it seems appropriate to avenge it in a manner that radical Muslim theoreticians in social networks present as honorable martyrdom and holy war. The tragic beheading of the French civics teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020 is a case in point.

Raised in the hope of having their dignity acknowledged and cherished, some feel disillusioned, let down, deprived and left behind

The surge of far right supporters in Europe may be understood, at least in part, as an analogous, honor-oriented radicalization: it is an an honor-based response to theEuropean "elites", now often associated with the ‘condescending’. i.e., humiliating, dishonoring EU; it is also an honor-based response to immigration, and to the honor acts of radicalized Muslim Europeans.

On the other side of the ocean, conservative journalist James Bowman warned, as early as 2006, that the United States’,

"new and anti-honor official culture is... caught between two primitive honor cultures, one Islamic and military and the other native or immigrant and criminal, which challenge its hegemony in ways that may require it to do something more than denounce them as unenlightened."

If the US is to survive, Muslim, African American and Hispanic ‘primitive honor’ that is on the rise must be fought and conquered by ‘supreme American honor’. Bowman declares that this revival of American honor must overthrow the ‘castrating feminine, whinny, dignity-based culture’ that is currently in power, with its tolerance and appreciation of cultural pluralism, diversity and multiculturalism.

Less than a decade after this stand was clearly elaborated and voiced by Bowman, many millions of Americans intuitively manifested it by electing Donald Trump as their president. These Americans may have felt that despite Barak Obama's sweet dignity-talk, the ruling elites were pursing their own honor and prosperity, while humiliating and impoverishing the rest to the soothing tune of dignity. Millions of Americans may have felt that as the political elite was tending to its own interests, it was abandoning the rest of the country to the threat of ‘Muslim, African American and Hispanic terror’.

This may have inspired such Americans to escape the dignity culture represented by Obama and seek honor in the shape of a strong leader that would make their America great and honorable again. The results of the 2020 elections have proven that the gulf between Trump's honor-sensitive supporters and his dignity-espousing opponents is deep and wide.

This honor-and-dignity discussion invites several conclusions. 1. Dignity-bound liberal democracies must deliver faithfully on their promise to cherish everyone's dignity and human rights; otherwise, disillusioned citizens, be they conservative white men (Trump Republicans in the USA or far right supporters in Europe), or Muslim immigrants, may adopt honor-based attitudes and turn on the system that failed them; 2. Cherishing human dignity must be the centerpiece of liberal education. Schools should not shy away from emphasizing the predominance of human dignity and the discourse of universal human rights. So much so, that even the strongest urge for honor, personal or collective, would not override the categorical prevalence of human dignity The beheading of a fellow human being must be completely inconceivable for anyone living in a liberal democracy; 3. Members of liberal democracies should practice their human dignity-based human rights (such as freedom of speech), while also respecting diversity and multiculturalism by voluntarily minimizing unnecessary shaming and humiliation of minority groups.

Human dignity should go hand in hand with recognition of all Others. The combination of human dignity, respect and recognition may lessen the need currently felt by many to resort to honor.

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