Thursday, February 20, 2014

Honor Violence: And why nobody should demand respect

Honor Violence: Why nobody should demand respect

Honor violence is a sort of violence committed where the perpetrator's goal is to regain his tribe's honor, his family's honor, and his own honor. In most cases it’s planned by a family, and committed by one or more men of that family, to a woman of the family who has done or suspected to have done something against cultural or religious norms like rejecting an arranged marriage, or adopting a Western lifestyle. What's worse is that the family helps the perpetrators avoid justice by helping them flee the country. It’s a huge problem in Islamic communities[1], among others, and it’s something that doesn’t exist at all in so many other communities.

Now before I talk about the kind of thinking that is causing these behaviors, I want to clarify some things. First of all, Islam, at least according to the Quran, does not advocate honor violence. Second, honor violence is a tradition that existed in the deserts of today's Saudi Arabia long before Islam. Third, Arab Muslims spread Islam along with their traditions (including honor violence) to a huge proportion of the world (although, I don't doubt that other cultures already had the tradition of honor violence).

What kind of thinking causes a person to commit honor violence?

There are three flaws to discuss here. The main flaw is violent intolerance of dissenters -- the idea that it's best for a person to initiate violence on another person because he has dissenting ideas or actions. A second flaw is the idea that a person's social status is important and should be sought after and preserved. And a third flaw is that a person's social status should be, in any way, linked with his family's, and tribe's social status. An important thing to note here is that these flaws are connected. To clarify, I'm not talking about which flaw is more or less to blame for a person committing honor violence. What I'm talking about is that all of these flaws must be there, in order for a person to think it's best for him to commit honor violence (i.e. for him to want to commit honor violence).

The least bad of these flaws can be explained by answering the question, why do some people care about having respect from their peers? What's the point of it? What problem is it intended to solve? One way to approach this problem is to think about why some people get offended. Consider that when somebody perceives that he has been disrespected, he gets offended, and he may respond in a way to regain respect.

Fallibility and first impressions

One problem with thinking in terms of being respected, is that people are often wrong in their interpretations of other people’s actions and intentions. Often people perceive that they’ve been disrespected, when the person had no intention of disrespecting anybody. Most of the time it’s a case of jumping to conclusions. In other words, the person is not thinking terms of innocent until proven guilty. The thing is that we’re all fallible, meaning that it’s possible, and very common, that we are wrong about our ideas. But a lot of people are not familiar with the idea of checking for other possible interpretations and critically questioning them as a means of avoiding jumping to conclusions, as a means of finding the correct interpretation.

One common first interpretation that people make is that someone wants to hurt them, or to make them lose in some way. But this is a bad way to think about people’s actions because some people don’t want to hurt anyone or make anyone lose anything. So assuming that there is always malicious intent is a mistake because it ignores all the cases where there isn’t malicious intent. So it's not giving the person the benefit of the doubt.

This way of thinking, of always assuming that there is malicious intent, sees human interactions as win/lose. But this is a mistake. It’s entirely possible, and desirable, for human interactions to be win/win, for everybody to get what they want and nobody loses anything they want -- there is no law of nature preventing it from happening.[2] This is a special case of the idea that 'all problems are soluble'.[3]

So the better way to think about human interactions is that win/win situations are possible, where the people involved share the same primary goal of everybody winning, of everybody getting what they want. Now it is true that sometimes a person is trying to make you lose something, or otherwise hurt you, so it’s important to try to look out for this as a means of protecting yourself from harm.

One common misinterpretation people make is to treat a criticism of an idea or an action as a personal attack. But this is a mistake because a criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea, so criticizing the idea does not make the holder of the idea lose anything. In fact, criticism helps a person go from wrong to right. It helps him change his mind. It helps him find the truth, which is a great thing! So why perceive it as an attack? The person loses nothing. He only stands to gain (the truth!).

So consider a situation where you're presented with a criticism of your idea. If you agree with it, you stand to gain the truth, and if you disagree with it, you stand to lose nothing. So with criticism you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. So giving and receiving criticism is win/win.

Some common responses people make to criticism is to say "that hurts my feelings," "I'm offended by that," and "that's insulting!" These people respond in this way to communicate that the other person is wrong in some way. But that's not a valid argument -- it's not objective. A person's feelings can't be used as a standard for judging the truth. What's needed is an explanation, one that doesn't depend on a person's feelings. And on a related note, if your feelings are hurt by the truth, then what you can do is ignore the truth (not something I advise), or you can change your feelings about the truth. But what you shouldn't be doing is pressuring people to hide the truth.

Now some people mistake personal attacks for criticism. But calling somebody stupid because he believes an idea does not constitute a criticism. It’s not an explanation of a flaw in an idea. Instead it's an attack on the holder of the idea. And it’s designed for only one purpose, to hurt. People who make personal attacks instead of arguments see human interactions as win/lose. And this is where the idea of respect comes in. The personal attacks are about disrespecting the person. But why would anybody want to do that? What’s the point? What problem does it solve?

Truth-seeking vs Status-seeking

Something closely connected to the win/lose attitude is the status-seeking attitude. People with this attitude think in terms of people having social status, and getting more of it, or keeping the amount they currently have, is something they want. So if a person with the status-seeking attitude tries to disrespect another person, they perceive it as raising their own status while necessarily lowering the other person’s status, hence win/lose. The rest of us, who see human interaction as win/win, see the world in terms of truth. We are truth-seekers instead of status-seekers. We seek cooperative interactions instead of adversarial ones.

To get a better understanding of the difference between truth-seeking and status-seeking, let's consider how they differ in the way they work. Status-based thinking means judging ideas by figuring out how much status the ideas have. In contrast, truth-based thinking means judging ideas by their merit. As I explained in _Atheism: The faith of intellectuals?_, judging ideas by status means believing ideas by looking for confirmation, while judging by merit means believing ideas only after they have survived all known criticism.

As an example, imagine a guy hearing that somebody said something that he perceived as an insult to his parent, and he felt hurt by it. This means he's thinking with the status-seeking attitude instead of the truth-seeking attitude. So he is caring about having social status, and one extra flaw is that he thinks his social status is connected to the status of his parents. And so if he perceives that somebody has insulted his parent, he perceives this as a lowering of his parent’s status, which he also perceives as his own status being lowered. So he is hurt (feels disrespected) by this. He thinks that the "insulter" intentionally did it to try to hurt him, or otherwise make him lose something. But it's a mistake to make such an assumption because the "insulter" may have had no such intention -- maybe he was a truth-seeker not a status-seeker. The truth-seeking attitude does not cause this problem. A truth-seeker thinks like this: "Hmm. Somebody has said something bad about my mom. I wonder if the thing he said is truthful, or not. If it’s truthful, then my mom is bad, and I should talk to her about fixing her error so that she can improve, so I'm glad that he said it because it revealed an opportunity to improve, YAY!! And if it’s not truthful, then maybe this guy is a fool and I don't care what fools think, or maybe he's just mistaken so there's no reason to mind it because mistakes are common." So the truth-seeking attitude doesn’t produce the feeling of being insulted/disrespected. Only the status-seeking attitude does that.

The status-based attitude is one that is shared by many cultures. In gang culture, individuals each have an amount of status that they intend to keep. For this reason, if a gang member perceives that somebody has disrespected him, he sees this as his status being lowered while the other guy’s status being raised. And in an effort to regain his status, he may retaliate with physical violence. So here the gang member is committing two flaws -- demanding respect, and violent intolerance of dissenters. 

There are lots of other examples of this. In tribal cultures, an individual’s status is partly determined by how much status his tribe has. For this reason, if a tribesman perceives that somebody has disrespected a member of his tribe, he sees this as his own status being lowered because he sees his tribe’s status being lowered. Now imagine a situation where somebody perceives that the king of his tribe (like Prophet Mohamed) has been disrespected. He would be very offended by this. And if he also has the violent-intolerant attitude too, and if the circumstances were opportune, then he would initiate violence in his misguided attempt to regain respect for his family, and by association, for himself.

Another example is honor violence within a family, or community. If a man thinks that his status is lowered if his daughter does something against his community’s religious norms, and if he also has the violent-intolerant attitude, then he may initiate violence if she commits such an act, as a means to preserve his family's status in the community, and by association, his own status. I should clarify that what usually happens is the family plans this together, where one person does the murder, and then the family helps him avoid the police, say by helping him leave the country.

What's interesting about the status-based idea is that it denies that respect should be earned. A person thinking like this may be in the wrong, and know it, and still demand to be treated as though he is in the right. Street thugs do it when they violently demand respect. Authoritative parents do it when they say 'Don't argue with me' to their kids. Some husbands do it when they expect their wives to side with them in social situations even when they are in the wrong. And some Muslim men do it when they commit honor violence.

The status-based attitude rears it’s ugly head in people’s politics too. These people align themselves politically by their tribal origin (status), rather than by their ideas (merit). It’s ugly because it’s not based on the truth, and because it means the person is unwilling to consider changing his mind about his politics -- because you can’t change your tribal origin. Judging ideas by status means that if you find out that you’re wrong, you’re going to deny it and claim that you’re right, and demand respect too. This way of thinking means no possibility of changing your political affiliation even if you were given devastating criticism of your political ideas. In contrast, judging ideas by merit means that you're willing to change your mind if you find out that you’re wrong. And this way of thinking means the possibility of changing your political affiliation. 

Another way to describe the truth-seeking and status-seeking attitudes is like this. Truth-seeking means approaching problems as though the person does not yet have the truth, which is why he is seeking the truth. Status-seeking means approaching problems as though the person already has the truth, which is why he isn't seeking the truth, and instead he is seeking confirmation of what he already believes to be true. Note how the truth-seeking attitude accounts for the fact that it's possible one's ideas are in error, while the status-seeking attitude does not account for that fact. So somebody who is applying the status-seeking attitude is acting like he is infallible/omniscient. He's acting like he thinks he's God.

Rational people vs irrational people

Another way to describe the truth-seeking attitude is to describe the people who have it, rational people. As Elliot Temple explained [4]:
Rational people are systems of ideas that can temporarily remove any one idea in the system without losing identity. We can remain functional without any one idea. This means we can update or replace it. And in fact we can often change a lot of ideas at once (how many depends in part on which).

To criticize one idea is not to criticize my rationality, or my ability to create knowledge, or my ability to make progress. It doesn't criticize what makes me human, nor anything permanent about me. So I have no reason to mind it. Either I will decide it is correct, and change (and if I don't understand how to change, then no one has reason to fault me for not changing yet), or decide it is incorrect and learn something from considering it.

The way ideas die in our place is that we change ourselves, while retaining our identity (i.e., we don't die), but the idea gets abandoned and does die.
So a rational person sees criticism as win/win because it's part of his truth-seeking attitude. So when he gets criticism of his ideas, actions, or feelings, he doesn't interpret it as a personal attack (win/lose) and instead he tries to judge the criticism in order to try to extract value from it. He sees criticism as a good thing because he knows that criticism leads to further evolution of his knowledge. He sees criticism as necessary to improve himself, so he willingly seeks it out and enjoys thinking about it.

As I mentioned before, a common mistake people make is in how they interpret criticism of ideas. They see it as their person being criticized, rather than the idea alone being criticized. They misinterpret this because they consider some of their ideas to be static -- they are attached to them. They consider these ideas to be part of their identity -- something they refuse to even consider changing. And if you criticize one of these ideas they are attached to, since they consider that idea as part of their identify, they interpret your actions as an attack on their person. And in retaliation, they may call you out to be arrogant and condescending, or cuss you out, or initiate violence, as an attack back at you, in their misguided attempt at self-defense.

So the status-based attitude is what causes people to care about honor (i.e. social status). They have an intense desire for status, and it can pervade practically all of their thinking. Now in tribal cultures, another flaw they have aside from this status-seeking attitude, is that a person's social status should be linked to his family and tribe. And in some tribal cultures, especially the ones where Islam is dominant, they have a strong tradition linking their status with the women of their tribe. Now, combine this status-seeking attitude and these other flaws, together with the attitude that it's morally right to initiate violence in response to a dissenter, and what you have is somebody willing to commit honor violence (including honor killings) against his daughters, sisters, and other female members of his community, and on anybody who he perceives to be lowering his status/respect/honor.

On a final note, I should clarify something about the relationship between the individual and the community. It is true that a man who commits honor violence is being pressured by his family to commit the violence as a means of preserving their social status, but whether or not he acts on that pressure, or even feels that pressure, depends on his ideas. Will he care what his family and community thinks? Well, in those communities a lot of the opportunities for a man, like getting married or having a good job, depends on the status of his family and his tribe. So if a woman taints his family's status, and if he doesn't remove that taint by killing her, then he'll lose those opportunities. But so what? He could forego all of those "opportunities" by fleeing the country with his daughter. If he doesn't do that, it's because of his evil ideas. Pressure from society is not a defense!  Individuals are responsible for their actions regardless of the "pressures" from their communities.


[1] _Honor Killings Go Beyond Mere Homocide_, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Also see The AHA Foundation on Honor Violence.

[2] See _The Beginning of Infinity_, Chapter 9: Optimism, by David Deutsch.

[3] See _All problems are soluble_, by Elliot Temple. Also see [2].

[4] _Rational People_, by Elliot Temple.

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