Honor and its discontents

In the quotes post from early in January, I included a line from Lois McMaster Bujold: “Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall as it will. And outlive the bastards.” I like those sentiments, but I don’t think separating honor and reputation is actually possible. They’re twinned and they don’t separate well.

Being honorable has a lot to recommend it. Keeping your word. Paying your debts (though there are lots of circumstances where not paying your debts is not dishonorable). Doing your duty. But like chivalry, the good stuff is tangled up with a lot of stuff that I don’t think is so positive.

Most significantly, honor, like I said, is tied to your reputation. Honor isn’t about doing the right thing or the noble thing, it’s being seen and respected for doing them. A warrior can do the right thing even if nobody knows about it. They can be courteous and just towards the weak and helpless, even if everyone thinks they’re a vile bully. But if people think the warrior acts dishonorably, then they have no honor.

That’s why people fought duels in 18th century America, among many other eras and places. Honor mattered, but it was never enough to live by a code of honor if someone else questioned it. A suggestion you were a scoundrel or a coward (in the U.S., “puppy” was a fighting word too) tarnished your honor even if it wasn’t true. To disprove it, you had to issue a challenge; you didn’t necessarily have to fight (seconds would negotiate a truce, if possible) but you had to be willing to fight.

I don’t see a lot of this side of honor in fiction, probably because it’s not very attractive. Characters like Dumas’ Musketeers, who challenge a stranger to a duel at the drop of a hat or an impolite word, look irrational and unappealing by today’s standards (and I say that as someone very fond of the Musketeers). Post-ST:OS handling of the Klingons, while showing them as violent, makes their honorable ways more commendable than irrational (a subjective opinion). But generally, the only way to guard your honor was to hit, stab or shoot someone.

A related problem is that like chivalry, honor is very much tied up with fighting and masculinity. Being a Marine and doing your duty gives you “honor”; nobody says that about working yourself to the bone to support your kids. Paying your gambling “debts of honor” is one thing; keeping your promise to your kids is another. A woman’s honor was traditionally limited to “is she a virgin?” And like other forms of honor, whether she was didn’t matter as much as whether people thought she was; even a rape victim could be “dishonored” and worthless. For a woman, “death before dishonor” didn’t mean heroic fighting, it meant choosing death over rape (some examples here).

Which is why I have mixed feelings about being told I should respect a character because oooh, their sense of honor is so noble and awesome. By itself that’s not enough. And there are other virtues — honesty, loyalty, bravery — that can get the job done just as much.

Honor is, in short, one of those things I’d love to see deconstructed in a story some day.

#SFWApro.

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Filed under Personal, Reading, Writing

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