Honor, Violence, and Threat Assessment: A Brief Note

Stephen White, Ph.D.
Summer, 2020

“If honor enables us to ‘make the best of our own lives’, the continual experience of dishonor makes it impossible to live well.”

Amy Shuffleton1

Does the concept of honor have utility for threat assessors? I have found the views of some contemporary philosophers and sociologists to be complementary to a psychological perspective on violent motives, both validating and broadly enriching violence risk criteria. Although often found in discussions of school shooters, the concepts of honor and dishonor are entirely relevant to other contexts – younger men facing limited prospects, or socially marginalized and unable to establish intimate bonds; middle-aged and older men, especially white males with lower levels of education, who are bitter and feeling besieged and powerless over cultural, political, and economic changes which have eroded their positive identities, especially as providers (Case & Deaton, 2020; Kellner, 2018).

This coming September, my colleagues, Reid Meloy and Phil Saragoza and I, will conduct a virtual workshop (details announced in this newsletter) that will address the alarming rise in extremist hate groups – anti-Semitism, anti-government, anti-immigration, racism and misogyny among others – and how to assess any violence risk posed by individuals who belong to such communities that now abound on the internet. One phenomenon we will discuss is how men are drawn to extreme beliefs, become immersed and rigidly fixated on them, and whether an individual will transition to the dark side of identification – developing a “warrior mentality” and becoming “a soldier to advance a cause or belief system” (Meloy et al., 2015). Consider thinking about honor, and specifically how dishonor, either gradually accumulated or acutely experienced, could add to our understanding of such transitions, and importantly, be a powerful motivator of violence.

Honor may be defined as adherence to a recognized standard of conduct, broadly implying strength and resilience, as well as mastery or the pursuit of some worthwhile endeavor. It is by definition relational and social – that is, you can’t acquire honor on your own. A man’s appraisal of his masculine identity depends on a community of “honor peers” qualified to judge whether or not he deserves the respect he claims or pursues. Furthermore, honor cannot be established permanently. More or less, as Shuffleton states, “masculinity …needs to be ‘re-issued’ by those in a position to judge a man’s masculinity” (2018, p. 504). What if a male is helpless to accomplish this? What if, for reasons to do with his own makeup or his inability to adapt to his changing world, he is now, in his eyes if not in the view of others, diminished as a man? The desire to preserve one’s honor has the possibility for undesirable outcomes.

Dishonor is a fall from grace, profoundly so if due to a clear act of moral wrongdoing – a failure to meet the norms of one’s social reference group, and a loss of face in that community. Dishonor may also describe the ongoing experience of being unable to sustain honor due to external forces – social, cultural, or political – beyond a man’s control. In either scenario the person is exposed as deficient. A loss of self, or a sense of a diminished self follows (Berger, 1983). Among the objective risk factors that come to mind, often earlier to appear, are isolation, depression, brooding anger, social and occupational failure, and suicidal feelings.

The natural emotional response to dishonor is shame – an unbearable socially-mediated emotion (Gilligan, 2003), and a risk factor that I always look for in my own case work. It is powerful because the sufferer cannot control or undo how he is perceived (or believes he is perceived) by the community sitting in judgment. Individuals of concern may not use the language of honor and dishonor, but those are the values they are referring to when they talk about being disrespected, rejected or ignored, and unworthy. Violence, psychologically, as James Gilligan has stated, is often an attempt to replace feelings of shame and humiliation with feelings of pride. Acts of violence may be attempts to restore honor, to be respected at last. As stated in the last sentence of the Isla Vista mass murderer’s long manifesto, “Finally, at long last, I can show the world my true worth” (Manifesto, 2014, p. 137). Little did he know that he would become the patron saint of the now growing Incel movement.

By entering an extremist community, however superficial and a hodgepodge of ideas the belief system may be, an aggrieved male gains a new group of negative honor peers on the internet to validate his feelings and offer a potential alternative for demonstrating mastery and “strength,” clothed in moral outrage. In the extreme, the demands of restoring or preserving one’s honor makes sense to someone committing a “senseless” killing. Attackers who survive become the anti-heroes who have completed “the mission” on behalf of the cause. Others, likely more bent on revenge for being shamed, may decide that it remains impossible for them to live well. To choose suicide only, however, is an insufficient and weak response. A number of authors have noted that the suicidal boy or man who chooses violence is seeking a status-enhancing, masculinity-restoring departure (Keller, 2018; Newman et al., 2004; Shuffleton, 2018).

Thinking about the quest for honor and the pain of dishonor as these experiences unfold in the arena of human relationships and belonging – that matter or should matter to all of us –  may underscore how powerful the drive to destroy others and oneself can be if one has failed, been left behind, ignored, or disrespected – whether in a sudden storm of rejection and unbearable humiliation, or over the course of time in one’s life.

We hope you will join us in September as we address the risk assessment and case management strategies for dealing with those who see violence fostered by extreme beliefs as a legitimate response to their personal dilemmas or to a changing world.

1 Shuffleton, A. (2018). Gender as a factor in school violence: honor and masculinity. In H. Shapiro (Ed.) The Wiley handbook on violence in education: Forms, factors, and preventions (p. 507). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

References

Berger, Peter. 1983. “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor.” In Revisions: Changing Perspective in Moral Philosophy, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre, pp. 172-181. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Case, A., & Deaton, A. (2020). Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton University Press.

Gilligan, J. (2003). Shame, guilt, and violence. Social Research, 70, 4, 1149–1180.

Kellner, D. (2018). School shootings, societal violence and gun culture. In H. Shapiro (Ed.) The Wiley handbook on violence in education: Forms, factors, and preventions (pp. 553-68). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Manifesto of Elliot Rodger. (2014). My twisted world: The story of Elliot Rodger. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/05/25/us/shooting-document.html?=0

Meloy, J. R., Mohandie, K., Knoll, J. L., & Hoffmann, J. (2015). The concept of identification in threat assessment. Behavioral Sciences & the Law33(2-3), 213-237.

Newman, Katherine S., Fox, Cybelle, Harding, David J., Mehta, Jal, and Rother, Wendy. 2004. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books.

Shuffleton, A. (2018). Gender as a factor in school violence: honor and masculinity. In H. Shapiro (Ed.) The Wiley handbook on violence in education: Forms, factors, and preventions (pp 503-517). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.