No one really uses the word anymore outside of the movies. It’s relative in an age of truth, soft in an era of science, principle in a society that values outcomes. The sound of it evokes a dated Don Quixote-esque naiveté, and perhaps an over-caring about how others perceive you.
But I wonder… is there something here that we’ve lost over time?
Honour is a quality attached to one’s identity – the heroes of these movies always speak of it in very personal terms, “my honour” or sometimes, “the honour of my family.” Identity is this funny thing that is co-created by the pantheon of: the qualities that are fundamental to you; how the “phenotype” or exhibited surfacing of those qualities are perceived by others - particularly how that surfacing makes you different from most; how others interact with you as a result; and the stories we tell ourselves about this social mini-ecosystem we’re immersed in all the time.
Identity drives us in ways that we don’t fully realize, and we craft stories to rationalize behavior that is fundamentally about who we are and how we see ourselves. The “Stereotype Trap” is one facet of the power of identity. In a study where black and white mini-golfers are primed with the context of the test, black mini-golfers scored four strokes better when told it was a test of natural ability, while white mini-golfers scored four strokes better when told it was a test of strategic savvy. Asian-American females do better on math tests when reminded of their “Asian-ness” and worse when reminded of their “female-ness.” Identity matters. It changes outcomes.
But those same studies remind us what a volatile and constantly fluctuating thing is identity. Just like the flux of the chemical composition of our bodies (and partly because of them), our identities are in constant search for homeostasis, to find places where the story of our self is coherent. It’s not always easy when we are constantly bombarded with new information that we have to absorb.
Honour, when attached to one’s identity, is a particularly unforgiving accessory. It’s easier to worm your way out of the question, “Is this the right thing to do?” versus “Is this the honourable thing to do?” The story it tells you about yourself is not tolerant of fault – like trust, it’s a long-run investment that can be ravaged in a moment’s folly. But also like trust, it’s a particularly valuable asset today because of the very scarcity of its nature in an increasingly uncertain world.
With our growing body of knowledge about neuroscience, addiction, and the relationship between mind and body, we have the opportunity to do a bit of rewiring. If we know our own weaknesses – our physical desires, our proneness to procrastination, our body’s chemistry and emotionality – then we can also circumvent them. Like the smoker, Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, who gathered his children together in 1980 and said, “You should never have respect for your father again if you see me smoke,” we can put constraints on ourselves to make us do what we actually want to do but can’t seem to manage with more freedom. Honour, or seeing ourselves as someone with honour and absorbing it into our identity, is an old-fashioned mechanism to do an incredibly modern thing – hack our selves.
Schelling, by the way, never smoked again.