Honor-Shame Dynamics in Western History
Date: 14 - 16 June 2018
Convenors: Richard Landes (Ramat Gan, ISR), Jörg Wettlaufer (Göttingen, GER)
From June 14-16, 25 participants were privileged to join together in an extended discussion of honor-shame dynamics in society and history. The discussions covered both interdisciplinary, conceptual, and theoretical issues – definitions, evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis, anthropology – and historical ones – changing attitudes towards matters of honor and shame in Western history from antiquity to present. We took as a working definition of an honor and shame culture one in which public opinion and law expected, even required that blood be shed to preserve or regain honor.
At all times, participants were aware of the deep problems related to language/translation of emotions terms and shifting semantic fields over historical time. On the one hand, the issues of honor and shame were clearly important transculturally and can be described as cross-cultural bio-cultural processes; on the other, the particular cultural embedding and transformation of honor-shame culture in the West mostly by religion and education has worked against such cultures of vengeance and honor-shame driven conflict resolution in Modernity. The internalization of norms and values has been successfully propagated for a long period of time in Western History and deeply modified the concepts of honor and shame in those societies to a point where these concepts seem to play no longer a role in public life and culture. Theories like the civilizing process of Norbert Elias or shame-guilt dichotomies of Ruth Benedict are not able to fully explain these shifts and developments while they still provide valuable insights through their collection of material and the rich discussion that has emerged in reaction to teleological concepts of cultural development.
One of the most developed subjects in the broader topic concerned the use of shame in punishment, which flourished in the Middle Ages and early modern periods, but tended to fade, starting in the 18th century. This pattern raised a much larger issue of how societies understand crime and punishment, how law courts replace self-help justice (revenge), and what kind of anthropology' lies behind various techniques of punishment.
Yet another topic that gained clarity and definition from the discussions concerned the role of honor in establishing hierarchy and aristocratic dominion. Indeed, legal privileges often center around issues of honor – of both the individual and of the community, including exemption from humiliating punishments. One of the key topics identified for further investigation concerns the definition of tribal vs. hunter-gatherer bands and the issues of hierarchy.
A look at the American South in the 19th and 20th centuries offered a striking view of an honor-shame culture in transition, where duels had evolved in such a way as to minimize bloodshed (bleach the blood of the shamed soul) and instead tested a man?s resolve to put his life in danger. Duels then offered occasions for both men to survive and prove their honor and often resulted in friendships.
Overall, the richness of the topics, the problems of definition and cross-cultural comparison, and the implications for historical understanding of the motivations behind both individual and collective behavior gave the proceedings a sense of a preliminary probe, rather than anything conclusive. Indeed, many of the younger scholars expressed a great deal of interest in integrating these issues into their research, while more senior ones seemed to appreciate them as ways to organize previously unconnected material. We ended with an extended discussion of where to go forward from this initial three-day gathering. A detailed Program is available at: http://digihum.de/shamestudies/conferences/bielefeld-2018/
Matthias Buschmeier (Bielefeld, GER), Saskia Fischer (Bielefeld, GER), Ute Frevert (Berlin, GER), Kerby Goff (University Park, USA), Kenneth S. Greenberg (Boston, USA), Adrian Haret (Wien, AUT), Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin (Tel Aviv, ISR), Jan Frode Hatlen (Dragvoll, NOR), Jamina Vesta Jugo (Göttingen, GER), Satu Lidman (Turku, FIN), David Nash (Oxford, GBR), Konrad Otto (Göttingen, GER), Anna Parkinson (Evanston, USA), Ulrike Pastoor (Schloß Holte-Stukenbrock, GER), Lisa Sancho (Dijon, FRA), Meinolf Schumacher (Bielefeld, GER), Bénédicte Sère (Nanterre, FRA), Daniel Lord Smail (Cambridge, USA), Catalin Taranu (Bukarest, ROM), Florian Zeilinger (St. Barbara, AUT)