Honor and the U.S. South

FrzDuellImBoisDeBoulogneDurand1874 The U.S. South has long been viewed as a place of leisure, charm and romance.  Its populace has been credited warmth, gentility and a love of sport, cuisine…and violence.  For several hundred years the south has been regarded as more violent than it’s Northern counterpart and three reasons are often offered as reasons for the southerners tendency towards violent acts; temperature, slavery, and poverty. Later I will argue that an honor culture established by a herding culture exists today and is the main reason for violence in southern states.

Temperature, which is much higher south the Mason Dixon, has been suggested to account for the violence in the South.  While it is possible to correlate the temperature with higher crime rates, this analysis falls apart in other hot climates. If it were true that higher temperatures resulted in more crime than this would be true everywhere, it is not.  Also, rates of homicide in the South are highest in the mountainous region which are typically cooler.

Slavery is offered as a culprit. Even Tocqueville believed the institution of slavery and its “contagion” from the treatment of slaves has resulted in a society more prone to violence and military style acts.  This seems logical in the slave-owning states and the Confederacy itself however it does little to explain violent crime rates in 2013. Furthermore, studies have shown that homicide rates tend to be lower in areas where slavery was common.

The third explanation of poverty holds some possibilities.  The South has always been poorer than any other region, this extends to every population unit, and has a higher homicide rate than other part.  It is also true that the most violent societies are those with high numbers of unemployed male youth. However, experiments done by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen reveal that college students from the North and the South show differences in the uses of violence regardless of income level.

What these explanations ignore is that the South’s origin and economic upbringing differs from the North which has had profound cultural impacts. Namely, the establishment of an honor code.   Cultures of honor exist all over the world and all have one thing in common: The individual is prepared to protect his/her reputation by resorting to violence.  These cultures are likely to exist where the individual is at risk from his fellow citizens and the state is weak and cannot control theft, or property damage.  These two aspects when combined with the herding economy of the early Southern states lays fertile ground for an honor culture.

The herding of animals is an economic system associated worldwide with honor and the use of violence when confronted with insults or threat to lively hood.  Herdsmen constantly face threats to their wealth through loss of their herds, thus, a aggressive stance is taken.  Furthermore, they adopt a stance of vigilance toward any action that might imply that they cannot defend themselves or their property.

Anthropologist Robert Edgerton studied two tribes in Africa one a farm community and the other comprised of herders.  Edgerton stated that the herders exhibited something akin to machismo, where the farmers stressed that they needed to get along with each other. In North America the Navajo and Zuni inhabit similar ecological areas, but the Navajo are herders while the Zuni are farmers. The Navajo are reported to be great warriors and even served with distinction in WWII. The Zuni have never been noted as warriors in their history.

What does the culture of the Navajo and herders in Africa have to do with the South? A great deal.  While the Northern states were established by the Puritans, Quakers, Germans and Dutch–all farmers who emphasized cooperation.  The Southern states were settled by the Scots-Irish who had always been herders.

The geography and low population of  density probably served to reinforce honor culture as the law was weak and in the absence of the state or any order the citizens develop a system of retributive justice or lex talionis.  This may explain the North Carolina proverb ” Every man should be the sheriff of his own hearth.”

With the focus on the individual and use of violence in honor cultures both as a deterrent and as societal regulator it can be concluded that arguments for less government regulation and increased states rights have deep cultural roots.  If statecraft is soulcraft then our governments and institutions are a reflection of ourselves and culture.  If the honor culture sees protection of one’s property and loved ones as the end goal then that person may see government intervention as an interloper and thus a threat to honor. Perhaps the arguments facing the U.S. today are less about political games and more about differences in how people should co-exist in a modern developed society.

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One response to “Honor and the U.S. South

  1. Interesting analysis !

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