How to Keep Your Honour:
Try Killing Your Daughter and Stealing without Getting Caught

by Erik Koht

In the spring of 2007, some 900 Oslo cab drivers of Pakistani origin were found to be involved in a giant tax evasion scheme. Their legal council, the lawyer Abin Raja, interviewed by "Aftenposten Aften", September 14, 2007 demands clemency: "They are desperate due to the economic situation they are in now. Many feel they have lost their honour, and most of all just want to hide." In all, the cab drivers have pocketed the equivalent of 90 million dollars. Their ill-gotten gains have largely been spent acquiring palace-like estates in Pakistan, out of sight of Norwegian tax authorities.

Lately, when I hear the word "honour", it seems to be in the context of violence, violence committed or violence threatened. The traditional idea of honour seems to have gone astray. But perhaps it was never on track? I would have thought that honour is a measure for the individual to apply on himself, or even a measure conferred on the individual by others. But it's not that simple. Honour radiates beyond the individual and is unfettered by time, fairness and even by God. It is all a bit abstract because honour is – for the most part – based on feelings, feelings other than "honour" itself, since honour is not a feeling, but rather an interpretation and merger of emotions like contentment, envy, pride or power – in their several permutations. Though honour does not exist in a physical form, it does not lack for physical expressions. You find such expressions in polite speech, ritual and special objects by which honour is relayed. In the context of honour codes, it is more important that you act according to the code, than what your inner convictions are. In this way it is fundamentally different from a moral code, which requires a self-governing conviction, a conscience. The honour code at most creates conscientiousness in striving for perfection in duty and ritual. Furthermore, moral standards are considered "universal" while honour criteria may be different for each gender, each profession or each class.

Ideally it should be both a private and a public concept. Privately: a person holding himself to the standards he deems right, thus it is like integrity and self-discipline. Publicly: an individual judging himself as he imagines others may judge him. He may judge others likewise. In this broader context each individual needs to know what the community's concept of honour is. Thus honour in a social context is akin to respect and status, it does not need to be reciprocated. Also, it seems, the honour of one may reflect on the honour of another or on a group. Thus a brother may be asked to guard the honour of his sister and thus guard the honour of the family. In addition, honour is a political concept as symbolized by fluttering flags and red carpets. The line between these symbols and fetishism is indistinguishable.

Honour is supposed to have a cumulative effect, being the sum of choices and actions like the choice of a manner of living, complying with ideals of tradition and religion, even ideals of wealth, hospitality and discipline. A person may attain honour by adhering to whatever is mandated – a code of honour. Yet the code of honour seems to strive for perfection, thus a single black mark can remove whatever honour has been accumulated. That is where the desperate acts of violence enter the equation. Though honour may be interwoven with religious ideas, it is not part of religion. And, as we are too often seeing these days, honour often works in opposition to legislated law and religious concepts.

If you want to enjoy the status accorded to a honourable person, it's no good if your noble acts and righteous living go unobserved. Honour is something that you may go out and get with that one purpose in mind, of restoring or accumulating honour. Women may want to repair their virginity before marriage. Athletes use illegal drugs in order to win competitions. You have to be seen to behave in a certain way, seen to fulfil your goals, then you may hope to receive the accolades of your peers, but this is not automatic nor is it everlasting.

In ordinary use we find concepts like: "a man's honour", "a woman's honour", "a nation's honour", "thieves' honour", "scout's honour", "honour bound", "face" and "omertà". All these entail different codes of honour, either vague or specific. In all cases they are impositions on the individual, though the rules may be voluntarily accepted, most often they are not, and once they are accepted, they can no longer be disavowed. The laws of the land may often sidestep issues of honour. That way witnesses may get away with not reporting a crime. We are not supposed to tell on others, now are we? The police informant has very little honour. Also, changing sides in a conflict, especially an armed conflict, is considered morally unacceptable by both sides of the conflict. Schools also like to utilize ideals of honour, and the kids readily go for it, though it often just goes to strengthen concepts that are already a part of their upbringing, like "don't cheat". Calling a list of rules an "honour code" doesn't make it so, and will to a very small degree diminish the transgressor's stature, in fact the opposite may happen. These rules called honour codes are merely "social rules of engagement" and breaking them may by some be seen as acts of an independent mind, bucking authority.

Despite the fact that honour codes work as social bonds, they are also immensely destructive. Their intangibleness is one of the reasons. They can't be documented or repudiated; laws can't abolish them, and they are oh, so easily manipulated. Though both law and religion are discussed openly, honour is often secretive and may cause legal and religious concepts to be set aside. In our world where people of different cultures so often need to live side-by-side, these shadowy codes may destroy any hope of good and constructive coexistence. Ideas of revenge, called "satisfaction", are linked to honour and also the idea that some people are lesser than others. You may not steal from other people, but these "others" are not people because they do not adhere to our … (fill in the blank). The concept of honour is abstract and acquired through culture, its footprints are intolerance, the setting aside of morals, laws and reason, a cause of murder and war. Though I should like to be considered honourable in the eyes of those who appreciate such things, I think I can do without that particular accolade.

For honour codes to be accepted by so many societies, they must contain some morsel of truth and value. My thinking is that honour systems serve to articulate and channel feelings. Feelings of disappointment, isolation, shame, jealousy, hatred – these are the predicaments the individual may want to resolve through the ideals of an honour code. It's a recipe for murder. On the other hand honour gives substance and meaning to friendship, sexual drives, masculinity and femininity, the spawning of off-spring, pride of achievement and kindness and responsibility between generations. Concerning the individual, we are left with a codification of feeling, concerning society we see a way of regulating behaviour in a way that serves the "tribe". It gives society control of its individual members and groups.

Still, the idea of honour is not one of morality. It does not stop an individual from stealing or lying due to an inner feeling of wrongness, it needs the act to be exposed, i.e. ideals of honour do not work until "everyone knows". It is exposure that brings the shame and loss of honour, not the theft by itself. It goes even further astray when it asserts that any wrongful act can be put right by an act made illegal by law. The second wrongful act, the "punishment", is prescribed by the honour code and is seen as proportionate and righteous despite the fact that it often is neither. In addition, the first offence may be wholly imaginary, and can only be seen as wrongful in the context of the honour code itself and in no other context.

Punishment based on honour codes should not be confused with vigilantism. Acts of vigilantism are most commonly based on citizens' interpretation of the laws of the land, though they may be pre-emptive in nature. In both cases, vigilante acts and acts of honour, the idea of collective and surrogate punishment are deeply rooted. The hired killer – the assassin – will find work in both instances. Dishonour spreads from person to person and from one generation to the next and no atonement will ever be sufficient, but must be paid again and again. Between nations this becomes a political instrument. "Satisfaction" may be demanded after decades or even centuries of peaceful co-existence.

Honour is connected to the act of swearing. You shake hands, you place your hand on Holy Scripture, you give your word, meaning your solemn promise. By doing one or the other the individual is supposedly bound by a higher power, an eternal bond, to speak words or act in a way that may endanger him, cause him to deceive others, send him to prison. Sometimes a person is required to make an oath against his or her own will or better judgement. The individual is held to a promise, a "pledge", without knowing the full consequences of that promise, since the oath that is given doesn't expire at a given date like some legal contract. The first tenet of any honour code is that the code is unbreakable and that one can never abandon it with honour – and may even be killed for attempting it. You are sworn to uphold the code and thus you can never criticize it. You may add to it, making the code ever more complicated, but you can never detract from it. This is the strength of the honour code, but also its weakness – as the depopulated villages of the Italian countryside bear witness to.

The history of blood feuds is a long one, and we can read our first laws as an attempt to regulate and curb revenge. In these ancient laws the act of taking a life is given an exact value and this value varies according to the status of the victim. The money paid for murder is distributed among the relatives according to a descending scale from spouse to second cousin. Thus the law served as a go-between to prevent further escalation of violence. Even today the bereaved may be paid compensation for their loss, though the transfer of funds is couched in other terms. The reasoning may not be all that different. The power of personal redress was gradually undermined as the state and public institutions grew, finally outlawing the principle completely. The term "taking the law into ones own hands" has become an oxymoron because acting on ones own is not lawful, thus no law can be privately enacted and still be law.

Even in countries where legal institutions are well established, honour codes have not been entirely replaced. But another kind of thinking is taking their place. They are in part replaced by morals and ethics and even political and philosophical concepts. We especially find this transfer of "jurisdiction" in ideas surrounding sexual behaviour and prostitution. Despite the many obvious negative aspects and repercussions of honour codes, they still remain, though they may not cover all of society except for the expressions of honour that the state itself promotes. Still society pays homage to honour codes. It is considered honourable to honour honour. In the way we respect other people's religious beliefs, we also respect their honour systems. We see honour codes hiding behind and merging with religious convictions, claiming to be part of religious ritual. Though we regret its excesses, we do not attack the concept itself since we, too, are bound by some of these concepts. We may not be able to do away with the honour concept, but we can question its validity, refrain from participating in ceremonies and other acts that have no other content, and recognize our motives and feelings for what they are.

Other Essays by Erik Koht

Ye twenty-seventh letter of ye alphabet
Taxes: The Tool
How to speak Norwegian? Nobody really knows
They said it couldn't be done: Making a profit while caring for human rights
A Soldier Died Today
The Fable of Anti-Americanism
Propaganda and Censorship: My Head Belongs to Daddy...
Freedom: a Resource, a Condition, a State of Mind, a Slogan, a Dream
Multilateral Treaties and the Bully State

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