Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Honor, Dignity, Mutual Respect

Once upon a time I was listening to NPR, and they were talking about "honor culture" in The South. They said how most of America had moved on to "dignity" culture, while honor culture was still strong in the southern states. What makes a culture an "honor" culture is a focus on personal justice - you wronged me or something I hold in esteem, so you must pay. Think of vikings and Klingons when you think of honor culture. Honor culture keeps people polite by maintaining the ever-present threat of a confrontation.

Dignity culture, on the other hand, contains a more subtle approach to offense. Somebody part of a dignity culture will contain their reaction when offended. They know that the offender is in the wrong and should be embarrassed. The dignified person wouldn't deign to correct the offender or even stoop to voice their offense. Dignity culture keeps people polite by shaming people who don't conform to it.

Those were the two cultures they contrasted. I don't remember what they said about demographics or trends over time - I'm sure you can look up the original piece. But I was just thinking that there's another way to react to offense, another way to relate to people: mutual respect.

In a culture of mutual respect, all parties in a conversation are free to converse without threat of confrontation or shame. In a mutual respect culture, both parties can be sure of the following:
  • I respect you, and so will not intentionally disrespect you or your boundaries, and will endeavor not to do so unintentionally.
  • You respect me, so I feel comfortable talking about things that are true for me without unintentionally offending you, as well as calmly voicing my offense when my boundaries are crossed without worrying about being personally criticized.
The important thing here isn't that nobody is ever offended - that's impossible. What's important about mutual respect is that it allows for benefit of the doubt on both sides. In fact, it requires it.

I think the really beautiful thing about a culture of mutual respect is that it keeps people polite by actually creating polite people. Somebody who is considerate of others, who seeks to make anybody and everybody comfortable, is the definition of polite.

People of a culture of mutual respect won't be afraid of speaking their honest minds: both their views, and their views on others' views. But they also won't be afraid to own up to and apologize for an offense when committed, because they have respect for the other person.

I don't think you can look at any given region and say, blanket-statement, that they have an honor or a dignity culture. I've seen these cultures manifest in families, in individuals, in businesses and in subcultures. Living in a metropolitan culture like Austin definitely presents a mix, though I'm thankful my job definitely has a culture of mutual respect.

This is just something I've been thinking about more often, with the current tenor of political conversation in this country, as well as an interesting uptick in "outrage culture."

I think the interesting thing about the difference between mutual respect and honor/dignity cultures is that both honor and dignity require some claim to The Truth. Honor requires a personal truth, while dignity requires a group truth. Mutual respect, however, requires temporarily abandoning one's personal truth (that is, pre-conceived notions about the world, both experiential and philosophical) in order to fully consider somebody else's. That makes mutual respect kind of post-modern, right?