For more than a millennium, high- born Chinese girls hobbled along on three-inch stubs achieved through a painful process involving blood, pus, and putrefaction.
The girls, some as young as 4, screamed in agony. Still, footbinding continued for a millennium.
Then a 19th-century intellectual said footbinding made the Chinese appear ridiculous in the eyes of the world. His views achieved currency and the practice simply melted away.
In his new book, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen,” Kwame Anthony Appiah examines the roles esteem and shame played in halting once-sanctioned social practices such as footbinding, slavery and dueling.
We spoke at Bloomberg’s New York world headquarters.
Lundborg: How do you use the term “honor?”
Appiah: Honor is an entitlement to respect. It’s allocated to people by a code on the basis of rules that depend on who you are, so it’s very connected with identity.
You can share in the honor and shame of people with whom you share an identity. I can be shamed by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and I am. It’s what motivates me to think about whether we can do something about that.
Lundborg: Isn’t honor ultimately a moral pissing contest?
Appiah: Yes, it is. We use honor to reward all kinds of things. We honor great athletes, scholars and actors for their accomplishments, even if they’re bad people in other ways.
It’s part of what keeps us striving for excellence.
Lundborg: But there’s a dark side?
Appiah: If your society associates excellence with killing your daughter when she’s been raped, it will make you do that, too.
Lundborg: You say many Muslims regard Westerners as “bay ghairat,” or lacking in honor. How can we shame any Muslims if they think we have no honor?
Appiah: We can’t. There’s not much for us to do about honor killing.
We are in an impossible position in relation to many of these gender issues in the Muslim world because we’re thought of as enemies of Islam.
Lundborg: We’re not exactly free from gender issues in the U.S., though, are we?
Appiah: The center of the kind of homophobia we have in this society is the dishonoring of homosexuals. That’s what it’s about.
The shame that many young gay people feel that leads some of them to kill themselves is an interesting kind of shame. It shows how powerful honor mechanisms can be even against people who have some inkling that in fact there’s nothing morally wrong with what they’re doing.
Lundborg: They can’t tune out these views?
Appiah: As social creatures, our self-respect is tied up with the respect of others.
Power of Honor
Lundborg: Where would you harness the power of the honor code now?
Appiah: In domestic policy terms, there is something completely shameful about our current incarceration practices.
It’s a scandal that with 4 percent of the world’s population we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Lundborg: Where else?
Appiah: Another obvious place is to change the way animals, especially mammals, are treated in feedlots and places like that. Our descendents will look back and say, “How could you possible think this is okay?”
It will be more expensive to do it without cruelty, but that’s like saying cotton will be more expensive without free labor.
Lundborg: What about honor on Wall Street?
Appiah: Honor in the sense of the handshake and the deal is absolutely central to capitalism. This is Max Weber, the Protestant ethic, and that’s why the Dutch invented modern capitalism.
If you broke the rules, you wouldn’t just upset the person you made the deal with, you’d be ostracized by the entire community.
When the honor system is working, it can be much more important than the law.
Lundborg: Are Wall Street incentives a problem?
Appiah: As long as business is honorably conducted, the mere fact that people are getting a lot of money is not a bad thing.
It should only be regarded as a bad thing if their having it is associated causally with bad things. If the structure of incentives, including bonuses, motivates people to cut corners and so on, then we should rein it in.
To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. The interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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