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“Honor crimes”, honor, duyukta, culture, and more linguistic musings

November 5, 2009

Spending time in front of the keyboard last night, I ran across something else about “honor killings”. They’re depressingly common in some parts of the world.

The terminology used in English still confuses the devil out of me. Like “respect”, “honor” does an awful lot of duty, covering many different concepts. I ran across a very sensible description of what is meant in this case, at Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed:

Despite popular perceptions, the concept of “honour” as a pivotal force around which family and society are formed is by no means the monopoly of muslim culture. Research in Latin America, Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, Asia and the Far East, as well northern and sub-Saharan Africa, shows that patriarchal models of honour dominate cultural and social arrangements. The threat to women’s basic human rights and personal safety is severe in these environments, where perpetrators of honour-restoring violence neither see themselves as wrongdoers, nor as seen as wrongdoers by their society. . .

Honour crimes have been described as a “retrogressive patriarchal tradition”/. They are based on the idea that a man’s honour is predicated largely on his ability to control the behavior, especially sexual, of his womenfolk. Institutions that foster male domination and sexual segregation have accordingly become fundamental to the social order in such societies.

In a context that would be considered extraordinary outside of these communities, a father, a brother or uncle may be the perpetrator of femicide and not consider it a crime or anything other than the right thing to do. “This is my daughter’s wedding night and those people are pretending my daughter is not a virgin,” an Algerian father shouts to doctors at 3 a.m. in a hospital emergency room. “I want you to examine her and clear my honour. I swear if she is not a virgin I will kill her right now.” Loss of virginity, or perceived loss of virginity, brings permanent dishonour to an unmarried woman and her family. The only way to cleanse the family honour is to kill the woman.

Not surprisingly, that does not agree with any definition of “honor” I would ever recognize, much less use. While the English word covers an amazing variety of things, it’s quite a contortion to wrap it around that concept. IMO, we should not apply the word “honor” here, at all.

The “crime of passion” description more familiar to our (US and Western European) society is also a misnomer, except in the broadest terms. The perpetrators are letting some “baser passions” (as these cultures might still characterize them, archaic terminology or no) control their behavior to an insane degree. Similar concepts of “honor” are still involved, but are somewhat papered over. It’s no less ugly, for all that. “Vengeance” and “socially expected/excused piss-poor emotional regulation” cover both versions much better.

It’s interesting in a depressingly predictable way that this kind of “honor” is something only men have, and it is partly based on owning other human beings. If a woman can be said to have any of this “honor”, it’s completely determined by relationship to the men who own her and otherwise control her life.

I am trying to write about this calmly (she reminds herself).

In this type of situation, I have trouble seeing any real honor, anywhere. The men are behaving dishonorably on a regular basis, in the way they benefit from the social setup and profit off other people’s misfortune/misery before we even get to the “honor crimes”. I can think of few things that less embody any reasonable variety of honor than vengefully killing people you are supposed to care about. Even more so, when your society is set up so that these people are truly dependent upon you for their lives and welfare. That is abuse of the highest order. Not only do the men treat the women as things, they blame those possessions for getting “damaged”, “broken”, and “ruined”–and punish them for decreasing their own “value”. (Again, we are not exempt from a form of this in the US and Western Europe, as you can ask any rape victim.)

The women are living in a position in which it’s hard to have any honor or dignity as a lot of other people understand them, when they are rarely even viewed as full people. I’m not trying to take away their agency; that’s already been done better than I could ever manage, should I get some strange urge to further kick them while they’re down. One of the worst parts about the whole situation is the way “honor” is defined in a way that precludes other people having any of the “real deal”. They can’t have their culture’s kind by definition, and it’s also hard for them to develop the kind of sense of honor within themselves that actually helps people. Physical violence to enforce this setup adds insult to injury.

It’s no coincidence that Jack Forbes pinpoints around the Mediterranean (and somewhere in China) as where the wétiko psychosis arose in the first place. Jared Diamond has gotten lots of praise and a Pulitzer Prize for describing the same patterns from a very different (and nauseating) perspective, including a couple of other lesser focal points. Look at cultural influences on the clusters of places that tolerate “honor crimes” now.

To put it mildly, that passage helped me see that this is another case in which concepts and the sufficiently different words wrapped around them helped give me difficulties in understanding what other people are talking about.

What concepts covered by “honor” would I have been expecting?

It might help to look to Tsalagi again. I’m just a beginning learner, and the excellent dictionary put out by the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma is necessarily incomplete, particularly when it comes to less concrete ideas. So, I had to rely on a couple of dictionaries that other people have been kind enough to put online.

Looking into the question of “honor”, I found adalvquodi. Given that this is obviously from the same root as “honored” expressed as galvladi (famous or prominent), galvkawetiyu or galv (with more sacred connotations), I don’t think this is what we’re looking for. “Admire” can be expressed as galvquododi.

That doesn’t mean that Tsalagi has no way to describe “honor” as a personal quality.* I started out with my suspicions, but “honor” would indeed seem to be another sense of duyukta/duyukdv. I’m also having trouble finding a word for the proper sense of “respect”.

Besides the “balance, harmony, right living” senses, duyukta also covers a number of other qualities seen to develop out of them. We have the “honesty, honestly, truth” complex (rendered as duyu(yo)dv here, but there is quite a lot of pronunciation and transcription variation).

We also have the “dignity” sense, as expressed in the Tsalagi translation of Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights**:

Nigada aniyvwi nigeguda’lvna ale unihloyi unadehna duyukdv gesv’i.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

The “right living and conduct” sense of the English “honor” must also be encompassed. That is to say, you can’t have honor without also having all the other senses of the word duyukta; they do not exist independently.

Looking into this set of ideas, I couldn’t help but remember linguist Alexei Kondratiev’s series on Celtic Values, which I first read probably 10 years ago. At the time, I was paying more attention to my Gaelic heritage, both because of continuing White By Default social pressure and because it seemed more accessible, and was an Imbas member for a while. Alexei’s conclusion that “[w]hat emerges from this is a sense of honor and dishonor being very much defined by the community, rather than the individually chosen codes of honor that are more characteristic of our modern way of thinking” did not sit well with me at the time. Now, I don’t think my confusion was so much a matter of “modern” vs. “traditional” thinking, as from one of the areas in which the cultural influences clash. (Those are surprisingly rare, down to some confusing cosmology overlaps.)

Now, in Tsalagi, “saving face” expresses a different concept than it seems to in most English usages. I have also been confused by some of the things covered by the English phrase; now I know why.

Michael Garrett covers this well in Walking on the Wind: Cherokee Teachings for Harmony and Balance–which is all about duyukta, in its many senses, and I recommend it highly. Unfortunately, this book could use an index; I’m having trouble finding the bit I wanted to quote–and it’s hard to find just leafing through, the way themes tie together. It might be in one of the other books from the Garretts, for that matter.

He, no doubt, put it better than I will, but the emphasis is more on maintaining a consistent face–one that you can live with and be proud of–in the way you live and your dealings with others. It’s not so much “What do other people think?” as “How is my own duyukta, or lack thereof, affecting those around me? Am I living right, in myself and in the community?” I have no idea how one would express this concept in Tsalagi, though I suspect duyukta would also be involved here. This is another of the concepts that I am having trouble describing well in English.

One quote caught my eye, as very relevant: “Being in harmony means being ‘in step with the universe’; being in disharmony means being ‘out of step with the universe’.”*** That gives us duyukta as a base state, in mindboggling contrast to some of the pessimistic views of human nature and our relationship to the rest of the world with which we’re all too familiar. We each have the responsibility to maintain this state.

The myriad interconnected senses of the word duyukta are reflected in one phrase from a book description (And Her Father Cried): “What price has been paid for ‘Duyukta,’ (the straight and narrow path)?”

This is also echoed in the Stanley Brothers‘ “The price I have paid to live and to learn,” with “love for God” as English code for one sense of duyukta (“Son don’t go astray, was what they both told me. Remember that love, for God can be found.”). Yes, this has been something of theme for me, the past few years.

More related concepts: not phrasing things in terms of being sorry but in terms of not having intended to hurt the person. From my earlier post:

This is a very important distinction, which ties in nicely with my Nana’s slightly punning “I know you’re sorry, now what are you going to do about it?”…

OTOH, “I didn’t do that on purpose” covers the sentiment well, in cases where apology is actually appropriate. If I have inadvertantly done something which has harmed or upset someone, trying to fix the problem is much more appropriate than trying to gloss over it with by now largely meaningless words. “I’m sorry” will not help me find out what has hurt the other person, either. An apology over something one doesn’t understand does not really help either party.

When I wrote about apologies before, I didn’t specifically look at the grovelling tone of “I’m sorry”, which is also inappropriate unless you’re working within weird power setups. If you’re operating in a proper state of mind (duyukta), you will not intend to hurt someone else in the first place. This goes along with the related idea of “walking above” pettiness and harmfulness, echoed in the Garrett title.

No, I do not have much truck with cultural relativism. If your culture is hurting people, something is very wrong indeed, and it’s just plain sick for other people to excuse that away. Treating other people as things is harmful and morally insane, and I am not going to pretend it’s OK. We’re all in this world together, like it or not. Sometimes I am tempted to take the view Twisty expresses in her Fuck Culture post, especially when I look around and see horrible things like arranged marriages–not to mention “honor killings”–excused in those terms. (ETA: I do not read that blog nor many other radical feminist ones anymore, what with the transphobia and universalism, among other things. Weeding through that stuff? More trouble than there is benefit, IMO.)

But, that’s also an unrealistically pessimistic view; not all cultures in all places in all times have been sick and destructive, crushing women as part and parcel of their sickness. As Barbara Mann and other American Indian writers in particular have pointed out, this idea has been foisted off on Western feminists deliberately, and for clear political reasons, from settler propaganda about the horrors of interracial rape (by “savages” they knew did not rape) onward: to normalize brutality and hierarchical social setups, and make us feel helpless and hopeless. “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” The same approach is used to normalize porn and the “sex trade” (if that is not a brain-breaking euphemistic construction, I don’t know what is), by flaming racists, and by the old Moral Majority and its more recent relatives. I’m not going to let the evilminded convince me that everyone else on the planet is just as fascinated with evilmindedness, no matter how important it is for them to believe it (and use it as justification) themselves. Whether it’s framed in terms of God’s plan or evolutionary imperative, it’s a crock of shit. We have the ability–and responsibility–to choose how we look at the world, and how that guides our behavior.

This also applies to “tribal cultures”, which are frequently scapegoated by the non-tribally organized. I touched on this in an earlier book review, along with some other culture-related themes. Evolution used as a justification gets more than one mention.

Instead of on the idea of culture itself, I place responsibility on the march and ooze of the wétiko psychosis. Not to mention all the nasty -isms that arise from it, and make people think that it’s only right to go around destroying your fellow creatures on however many legs (fins, pseudopods, etc.).


* Though Theda Purdue, and too many other non-Native “experts”, might well interpret it that way.

** Given the way in which the U.S. has approached this, you run across portions of the Tsalagi version a lot online.

*** That also reminds me of a fascinating series that used to be on the Clannada na Gadelica site, by Sítheag Nic Trantham bean Bochanan: Thinking In Gaelic (archived). And particularly of one observation in Part 2:

Abair gu bheil uisg’ ann!…(Say that there is rain in it!) What a downpour!
Tha gaothach ann!…(There is wind in it!) It sure is windy!
Tha mi ann an diugh… (I am in it today) I feel at rights with things.
Chan eil mi ann an diugh…(I am not in it today) I am out of sorts today.

So, on certain days, a Gael could be ‘in it’ as well as ‘out of it’. To be ‘ann’ one was at rights with things. The weather was almost always described as being ‘ann’ as opposed to the day being described as the weather. So, in English, ‘The day is windy.’ In Gaelic, ‘There is wind in it today!’ This idiom leads us to realise that the Celts a distinct feeling that they were existing in an environment that changed sometimes subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, but on many different levels. And most importantly that this environment that they were ‘in’ had its own agenda, of which they were but a small part. And if someone were not ‘ann’, then where were they? According to the interpretations, it could range from being out of sorts, to being ill, to being insane, to being dead.

So, yeah, more overlap.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2010 9:22 am

    Just one thing I want to point out here, about stigma and ableism and the baggage of certain words: I don’t think the word “psychosis” should be used to refer to this stuff.

    Putting aside the fact that word language isn’t the basic building block of how our brain perceives and conceptualizes things, I still think “psychosis,” even in word-thought, is a word that’s basically got no meaning, other than as an insult (though an insult that’s sanctioned by Very Important People In Charge, like many other psych labels). I mean, it is not even used consistently by the people who claim to have a scientifically proven definition of it, although the common thread seems to be “we don’t like your behavior; therefore we’ll convince ourselves something is wrong with your brain as an excuse to punish you.”

    But popularly it’s used to imply a person is dangerous, violent, amoral, incapable of controlling themselves.

    And I know (if my reading comprehension isn’t utter crap tonight) that that violence and amorality are what you mean by it, but at the same time, even if you’re applying those connotations to cultural ideas and attitudes that deserve to be regarded as violent and amoral, that also connects that violence and amorality with everyone else who has ever been labeled as psychotic or having a psychosis for any reason, by anyone. And while some of those people are people who were mentally and morally unbalanced by sick cultural attitudes, and some of them are people who knew exactly what they were doing and had no “break with reality” as it’s popularly conceived of in this society, others of them are… people who received the label for rebelling, covertly or overtly, against many of the sick beliefs and attitudes that encourage violence and immorality. Or just not fitting, in whatever way, into the culture that encourages those things, unable to fit neatly into the models of life experience it insists on.

    And that can include everything from people who had spiritual experiences that weren’t acknowledged or encouraged by the dominant culture, and had no one to turn to to help them understand and work through them, to people who are considered to move and use language in the “wrong way.” People who were just Not Right by the dominant culture’s standards of it, even if that not-rightness resulted in them being more able to perceive the things about it that are sick and amoral, even if they didn’t know how to respond to those perceptions. Could be and has been applied to people like me, like us, even– we’ve definitely known plurals who were told they were “psychotic,” or labeled with “thought disorders,” which seems to be a nicer version of the same thing. And while I admit I personally avoid contact with psychiatry whenever possible, and have no idea what the typical psychiatrist would label me as (particularly since that internal-culture thing Julian mentioned in another post is pretty fundamental to my own morals and how I perceive the world), I kind of get the feeling I don’t want to know at all.

    So… while I agree with the need to have words for certain things, words for pointing out the destructiveness of what’s considered “normal,” using the word “psychosis” for it isn’t any better than using the word “autistic” to describe someone’s callous behavior. Or “crippled” to describe an inability to do something (as in “the government crippled our rights”), or… etc, etc. I guess my point is, many people who get the label “psychosis” slapped on them, from what we’ve personally seen, are people who are thinking and perceiving in the ways that the dominant culture needs most, as its conscience, its antidote, its wake-up call. They threaten it, so they have to be labeled dangerous and unstable and bludgeoned into submission somehow. (And while I don’t want to get the official label, I’d hope to be a part of that wake-up call in some way or another, like to think this society would label me for being one of those unstable crazy forces that threaten it but that have what it needs to listen to, but the exact details of it are really hard to talk about in public.)

    • urocyon permalink
      April 4, 2010 3:40 pm

      I don’t have the spoons right now to write a full reply, but hope I can do so later. (The same with your earlier comment on another post–lots to think about. 🙂 )

      With this, I’ve been following Jack Forbes’ terminology (from Columbus and Other Cannibals, in particular), and he didn’t seem to be using “psychosis” in the common sense (other than “separated from what some other people consider reality”, with connotations of harmfulness.) “Moral insanity” is also applied, also in the sense of separating yourself from the rest of the universe in a way that ‘s dangerous and harmful to you/other people/the environment/etc.–basically, seriously unbalanced in some of the ways this post mentions.

      It’s a metaphor based on stories from multiple cultures, which were already highly metaphorical: people overcome by an apparent illness which turned them into dangerous cannibals (kind of like vampires), totally contrary to their previous behavior. Adodaroh, as described here, is one example.

      I haven’t been entirely comfortable with those terms, either, but haven’t yet figured out a better way of expressing the concepts in English. I suspect Forbes ran into some similar problems. At the time he came up with that terminology, I don’t even think Dawkins had come up with memes yet; if so, the concept hadn’t spread beyond evolution. I’ve been trying to think of a reasonable-sounding alternative involving destructive, highly contagious memes. Which is what Forbes was describing, without having that word to use.

      “Psychosis” isn’t one of my favorite terms, either, especially given the way it continues to get applied. Some good points there!

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