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Grant McCracken: Why We Need to Bring Back Honor

(Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England c. 1601)

I studied Elizabethan England as a graduate student. It was a society governed by ideas of honor, and I thought, ‘Wow. Maybe some of those ideas could be returned to usefulness.'”

On December 2nd, Olivia Malloy was joined by Grant McCracken, the Canadian anthropologist and author, to discuss his latest book, The New Honor Code: A Simple Plan for Raising Our Standards and Restoring Our Good, which will be released later this month. Dr. McCracken holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in cultural anthropology and is well-known for having served in prominent roles at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. In his discussion with Ms. Malloy, Dr. McCracken explains why he sees restoring honor as a prime objective for these times, how building consensus on the importance of honor can transcend political divides, and the origins of his interest in the topic.

What, exactly, are you proposing as the new honor code?

I’m suggesting that there is a light, portable moral code that we can add to our existing moral understandings of the world. There is great moral confusion and lots of skepticism about our ability to assert moral conditions or to insist on certain kinds of behavior. In that snow globe confusion of the moment, there is a residual moral code that comes from the rules that influence our roles. So, all of us have been assigned social roles in the world—we’re parents; we’re children; we’re spouses; whatever we are. Contained in those roles is a residue of rules that specify how you are supposed to act, with regard to your child, your parent, your spouse, your community. Those are a simple, clarifying set of instructions that can improve the likelihood that we will do the right thing. At this point—I guess I don’t need to say it—we look like a nation that contains people who are incapable of making even the simplest moral determinations. You look at people like Jeffrey Epstein, Larry Nassar, Lori Loughlin, or Charlie Rose, and you just think, “These people can’t have had any idea of how to conduct themselves in a moral manner.” 

How did you come to identify honor as the missing piece, as opposed to, say, respect or accountability, for example? Why honor?

I studied Elizabethan England as a graduate student. It was a society governed by ideas of honor, and I thought, “Wow. Maybe some of those ideas could be returned to usefulness.” And so, one of the chapters looks at honor in the Elizabethan period, and I tried to say how honor worked in that society to create good behavior. Some parts of that honor code are completely wrong for us. It was viscously hierarchical. For certain purposes, it was a bad moral instruction set. But, for other purposes, it serves us quite well. I think there are two faces to honor. There is that personal honor—the honorable thing you should do because that’s what you need to do to protect and define your self-respect. Without that self-respect, we are diminished creatures. But there is also the external honor. That is the honor that people in our community believe us to possess. That second kind of honor is something that we—to use a stock market metaphor—trade as an open exchange. We do things that bring us honor. I’ve got a guy who lives down the street who volunteers—I was astonished to discover—for a handful of things and has performed heroic acts of generosity and goodwill. He never gets any credit for this, but, in a more perfect world, that would be the open exchange. People would know about that; they would give him credit for that. That would be his external honor. 

In the book, you give such a thorough run-down of the history of honor, like you said, starting from the Elizabethan era all the way up to now. Can you identify for me some of those more pivotal events, when you think that our understanding or execution of honor shifted?

I think there came a moment in the 20th century when celebrity culture assumed greater and greater performance. There is some great work at MIT that I talk about in the book, where various elites had influence in North American culture. By the end of the 20th century, you can see that celebrities are now vastly more influential than clergy people, than intellectuals, than writers and teachers. They’re all being eclipsed by this thing called “celebrity.” And, as we know, some of that celebrity is actually created by acting in dishonorable ways. So that really puts celebrity at odds with honor. We also know that celebrity is such a powerful thing for people to possess. I mean, if you give people that simple choice (“Do you want to be honorable or do you want to be famous?”), not only will they say, “I want to be famous,” but they will trade away their honor to get fame. And that’s a bad place for us to be. 

So I think it may be possible, we could argue, that honor is something that, once people compromise it, they should be made to understand that they’ve lost honor—that they’ve lost our respect. Lance Armstrong doped his way to a medal and then accuses other people of having falsely accused him—or of having doped themselves. It seems to me that he ends up engaging in the dishonor that ought to cost him his ability to have any kind of standing in the public world. We know right now that he’s staging his comeback. It seems to me that we’re entitled to say, “No. I’m sorry, you’re done. You’ve exhausted our ability to treat you as a serious presence or moral actor.” So we’ve got two kinds of dialogues here. There’s the interior dialogue that says, “How do I have to behave to respect myself?” Then, there’s the exterior dialogue that says, “How do I have to behave to win the respect of other people?” I think it’s probably fair to say that that guy is shameless. There is no interior debate for him. But if we were to change the conditions of the world in which he lives and if we could have said before his bad behavior, “Listen, behave badly, and you’ll cost yourself your celebrity, cost you your standing, cost you your ability to be a pitchman for products,” he might not have behaved that way. We want to create a disincentive so that people realize that they have something to lose when they engage in bad behavior. That might work as a disincentive. 

So how do you see that fitting in with the explosion of cancel culture right now? Do you think that your honor code and cancel culture work in tandem or do you think that they are more nuanced and separate?

I think there are times when they go together. That is the expression of a real impatience that says, “Listen, you have behaved in ways that we find intolerable,” and we withhold the respect we might otherwise have had for them. Some cancel culture doesn’t seem to me to be so much of a moral judgment but more of a political one. Then, it is less clear to me that, in fact, we are actually prosecuting the case for honor. I think we might be prosecuting the case for ideology. It seems, to me, inevitable that we should find ourselves in a political universe that contains people who have political beliefs different from our own. That sheer fact of difference, it seems to me, shouldn’t be grounds for canceling. 

On the topic of politics, you wrote that honor is “the friend of the Right and the enemy of the Left.” Do you anticipate the depoliticization of honor in this current, highly politicized moment?

I guess what I was trying to say there is that, traditionally, the Left has looked at honor with trepidation. It feels like a moral enterprise that prompts people to embrace convention and orthodoxy. At the very moment, the people on the Left are insisting that you want a break from those conventions and that orthodoxy. So, I understand that the Left sometimes looks at honor and sees something that is confining—is diminishing—and, in fact, might send people in the wrong moral direction. I’m hoping that as we look for this light, portable moral code, there are some things that will rise to the surface. Queen Elizabeth was trying to run a steady course between the demands of the Catholic Church and the demands of the Protestant Church when it was a superheated world. Every turn of phrase was fraught with meaning. She said, “Look, there are things indifferent here. We don’t have to fight out every single detail on the grounds of Catholicism versus the Protestant point of view. Let us work with those. Let us work with the moral codes that work for both parties.” There are some things that will come down to ideological differences and those we can’t do much about. So, I think the bigger project here is finding that common ground in a moment when it feels like we’ve lost the very possibility of common ground. I think there are some moral simplicities that people on the Left and the Right should be able to sit down and agree upon. 

So, you describe honor as an addition to these other moral systems. Do you think that people—Americans, specifically—are ready to take on that challenge?

Yeah, I think they are. I think there is a growing impatience—or a growing nervousness—that we’re looking at a tidal wave of bad behavior. Look at a guy like Jeffrey Epstein and just think, “Why was this monster—” I mean, he’s Grendel! 

You had some incredible references to Beowulf throughout the whole book. I really loved those. 

Oh, thank you. You’d think that everybody would look at this guy—would see this guy for the monster he was—and they would exclude him from the public world. How is it that we couldn’t see who this guy was? How is it that we couldn’t exclude him from the public world? It just feels to me like there are so many bad people doing so many bad things. We need to make a bigger effort and do a better job of identifying the monsters among us. 

Well, Grant, thank you so much for talking with me today. 

My pleasure. Thank you, Olivia.

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