The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Matter of Honour

In William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Don Pedro, the prince of Aragon, arranges the marriage of his friend Count Claudio to Hero, who is the daughter of their host, Leonato, governor of Messina. Things would have gone smoothly, and thus have been far too uninteresting to put into a play, were it not for the actions of the prince’s illegitimate brother John. Don John, who is bitter at the world and takes delight in ruining the joy of others, plots against the happiness of the couple. With the help of his attendant Borachio, he arranges it so that Don Pedro and Claudio witness what appears to be a secret tryst between Hero and a lover at Hero’s window after midnight on the night prior to her marriage. Fooled by these machinations, Claudio denounces Hero at the altar with the support of Don Pedro and Don John, then marches out of the church.

As this play is a comedy not a tragedy it all works out in the end, but in the immediate aftermath Hero faints, her cousin Beatrice assumes she is dead, and the devastated Leonato, who has believed the accusations declares:

O Fate! take not away thy heavy hand.
Death is the fairest cover for her shame
That may be wish'd for.
(Act IV, Scene 1)

In recent weeks the newspapers have been full of stories about people who obviously agree with Leonato’s sentiments but who have presumptuously assumed to themselves the role that Leonato assigned to fate. On June 15th of this year, Muhammed and Waqas Parvez pled guilty to the murder of Aqsa Parvez, who was daughter of the Muhammed and sister of Waqas. The murder had taken place in December of 2007 in Mississauga, Ontario. The reason, according to the murderers who had turned themselves in, was that she had brought dishonour upon the family by refusing to wear the hijab.

The murder of Aqsa Parvez was an unjustifiable atrocity and has been rightly condemned by virtually everybody who has commented on it. Perhaps, however, we should reflect upon the question of why this murder is so repulsive to us? Is it because our sense of justice is affronted by the idea that a trivial offense like immodesty would receive so disproportionate a penalty as death? Is it because the thought of a father and brother killing a daughter and sister offends our concept of how family members are to love and act towards one another?

Or is it because we as a society have lost all sense of honour and shame and are simply incapable of understanding those who still hold to those concepts, albeit in a warped and twisted form?

How exactly does our modern, liberal, society compare to societies whose culture encourages such things as honour killings? Do we murder our own children less often or more than they do? When we do so, do we at least do so for better reasons than they do, or for worse?

According to Statistics Canada there were 105,535 abortions in our country in 2002, 103,768 in 2003, and 91,377 in 2006. The numbers for 2006 are incomplete, as Thaddeus M. Baklinski reported for Lifesite last year. The numbers for BC, New Brunswick, and Manitoba were for one reason or another left out of the national total. (

In contrast, the United Nations in 2000 estimated the total number of honour killings per year to be around 5000.

Phyllis Chesler argues convincingly, in an article entitled “Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings” which can be found in the Spring 2010 issue of the Middle East Quarterly, that these numbers too, are far too low. However, even if we were to quadruple the UN’s numbers, the total number of honour killings in the world each year would still be less than a quarter of the total number of abortions in Canada alone.

Well, alright, but that’s just numbers, you may say. At least we aren’t barbarically killing the female members of our families to satisfy some outmoded sense of honour.

That is true. Instead of killing those who, however trivially, have done something to shame us, we murder our unborn children to satisfy our own selfishness. We have abandoned our traditional culture, values, and morality, which taught us to behave responsibly and with self-control, to honour the rules of our society, and to at least pretend to virtue even if we do not possess it. In the place of this traditional culture, we have adopted a modern liberal culture of individualistic self-indulgence. We are taught, not to control our sensual desires, but to give in to them, to let them dominate us. If doing so results in pregnancies that we are not willing to take responsibility for, we are told that the solution is abortion.

Who are the barbarians again?

Do not misunderstand me. Our crimes do not excuse the crimes of others, and killing a family member to preserve the families honour, is both a crime and a perversion of the concept of honour.

However, much of the commentary on these recent “honour killings”, even by many who call themselves “conservatives”, has taken the unfortunate form of “look how superior our modern, liberal culture is to these backwards traditional cultures who still believe in honour”.

Those holding such a viewpoint consider “honour” to be a thing of the past, something appropriate to feudal society, but which has been rendered obsolete by modern advancements in democracy, law, and recognition of human rights.

They are sorely mistaken. Society cannot outgrow the need for honour and its opposite which is shame. Human beings, being by nature social, do not live in isolation from each other, but in communities, in societies. To interact socially requires a common set of rules that is understood by everybody. Some of these rules are so important they are codified into law and enforced by the state. These are the rules against criminal behavior, i.e., behavior that harms others, their property, or society itself. Other rules do not properly fall within the jurisdiction of the state but are as essential to the functioning of society as laws. These rules, which include most traditional rules regarding modesty, sexuality, etc., are enforced by society through honour and shame.

Honour is notoriously difficult to define. It occupies the space between character and reputation. Character is the actual makeup of your heart and soul, your virtues and vices. Reputation is how your character is perceived by other people. Honour is related to both, but not quite identical with either. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle declares honour to be the reward society bestows upon virtue. A functional society will bestow honour upon individuals and families who display virtue, and will bestow shame upon those who display vice. Honour and shame affect standing in society and so people are encouraged to protect their, and their family’s, honour, by either cultivating, or at least pretending to virtue.

In the absence of honour, society’s only means of maintaining social control, is through the law. If the law seeks to enforce the rules that should be enforced through honour/shame you end up with an oppressive political and legal system. If the rules are abandoned altogether you get the kind of moral chaos that allows people to kill the unborn children who are inconvenient to their pursuit of sensual pleasure and consider themselves morally superior for doing so.

Traditionally, there is a time and a place, for wielding the sword in defense of honour. A soldier fighting for the honour of his country in warfare is one example. A man fighting a duel in defense of his own honour, or that of a lady, is another. In the one case the sword is used against the enemy’s of one’s country. In the other case it is used against one who has insulted one’s own, or a lady’s, honour.

The traditional culture we abandoned to embrace liberal modernism encouraged fathers and brothers to defend the honour of female family members by challenging those who insulted them, and forcing those who had wronged them to do right by them. It did not tell them to defend the family’s honour by turning the sword on female family members who shamed the family.

You do not wield the sword against your own family members to defend the family’s honour. To do so is murder, which is crime, rightly punishable under Law, by the Crown. Crime is a subcategory of vice, and the reward of vice is not honour, but shame.

So-called “honour killers” in murdering their family members, bring far more shame upon their families, than the women they kill did by the actions which provoked the “honour killing”. In this way “honour killing” is a perversion of honour.

Which, however, is the greater perversion? Honour killing? Or abandoning honour and virtue and morality altogether for a self-serving hedonism that allows one to murder one’s own unborn children in service of one’s selfish pursuit of pleasure?

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