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notions of dignity - Ilya Shlyakhter (notestaff) - letters to editors
July 18th, 2005
06:16 am


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notions of dignity
What Motivates Suicide Bombers?

There are many ways to achieve dignity. You can invent things and take pride in your inventions. Or you can dominate others by force and feel temporarily superior. Which of these ways is most glorified by our culture?

In the ''Iliad,'' dignity meant getting your fair share of the loot. You would hope we had come a long way since then, but apparently not.

We need to work toward making it self-evident that dignity lies in creating things, not in being king of the hill.

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(12 comments | Leave a comment)

Date:July 27th, 2006 10:21 am (UTC)

a related column

A recent related column by John Tierney:

July 25, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Another Man's Honor

To Hezbollah, there is no such thing as “collateral damage” from its missiles. Israel keeps telling the world that its army aims only at military targets, but Hezbollah doesn’t even pretend to. Its soldiers proudly fire away at civilians.

These terrorists consider themselves men of honor, and unfortunately they are — by their own definition. We in the West can call them barbaric, which they also are, but they’re following an ancient social code, even if we can’t recognize it anymore.

The best guide to this code is James Bowman’s new book, “Honor: A History,” which is not a quaint collection of stories about dueling noblemen in Heidelberg. If the obsession with defending one’s honor seems remote now, it’s not because the urge has disappeared. We’ve just forgotten how powerful it is.

In the West we’ve redefined “honorable” as being virtuous, fair, truthful and sincere, but that’s not the traditional meaning. Honor meant simply the respect of the local “honor group” — the family, the extended clan, the tribe, the religious sect. It meant maintaining a reputation for courage and loyalty, not being charitable to enemy civilians. Telling the truth was secondary to saving face.

This “tyranny of the face” continually frustrates Westerners trying to understand the Middle East. When I interviewed villagers in Iraq, I discovered we usually had separate agendas: I wanted the facts, but the villager wanted to avoid embarrassing either of us. So he would tactfully search for the answer that would both please me and not dishonor his family.

When American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Western television viewers were astonished at the sight of the Iraqi information minister steadfastly denying that anything was going wrong. But it made sense from a traditional honor system. The only thing worse than being defeated is the shame of admitting defeat.

He was just following the strategy of Sir Lancelot when the knight was accused of adultery with Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. Everyone, including Lancelot, knew the accusation was true, but Lancelot insisted on fighting his accusers — and after he defeated them, he proclaimed that his victories proved his innocence. He had saved face; therefore he must be honorable.

Lancelot’s strategy, as Bowman explains, ultimately didn’t work because his traditional view of honor was going out of fashion, made obsolete by the influence of Christianity. Instead of might-makes-right, Christianity preached turning the other cheek. Instead of according special honors to an elite class of men, it preached egalitarianism and love toward strangers. It emphasized inner virtue, not outward glory.

The result was a new honor system in the West, chivalry, that was an uneasy combination of Christian virtues and knightly violence. Eventually, with the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie and democracy, the system evolved into what Bowman calls honor-by-merit, epitomized by the Victorian ideal of the gentleman who earns his reputation by working hard, playing fair, defending the weak and fighting for his country.


Date:July 27th, 2006 10:23 am (UTC)

Re: a related column


The problem today, as Bowman sees it, is that the whole concept of defending one’s honor has been devalued in the West — mocked as an archaic bit of male vanity or childish macho chest-thumping. But if you don’t create a civilized honor culture, you risk ending up with the primitive variety.

“The honor system in Arab culture is the default honor system, the one you see in street gangs in America — you dis me, I shoot you,” says Bowman, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “We need a better system that makes it honorable to be protective of those who are weaker instead of lording it over them.”

When you’re confronted with an honor culture like the one in the Middle East, there are two rules to keep in mind. One is that you are not going to placate the enemy with the kind of concessions that appeal to Western diplomats. “Hezbollah is fighting for honor, to humiliate the enemy, not for any particular objective,” Bowman says. “Israel has no choice in what it’s doing. Nothing short of victory by either side will change anything.”

The other rule is that you’re not going to quickly transform an honor culture. The Iraq war was predicated on the assumption that democracy would turn Iraqis into loyal citizens with new civic virtues. But for now the old loyalties to tribes and sects still matter more than any universal concept of justice. The men would rather have honor than peace.
Date:July 28th, 2006 02:27 am (UTC)

emailed reply #1

From: "Oren Ziv" (odz2101ATcolumbiaDOTedu)
Sent: Monday, July 18, 2005 3:03 PM
Subject: NY Times
In response to your letter in the Times today, I might comment that
a fair share of the loot was not what dignity was in the Iliad;
rather the story hinged upon Achilles' relinquishing of material
pleasure for dignity. Hannah Arendt speaks to this more complex
Greek notion of dignity.
This isn't simply a trivial point, but, really, a lot has changed
since then. The material and the moral were not so divided. Today,
increasingly, dignity seems to come into contradiction with the
Perhaps, if you look at it this way, terrorism is an attempt to
bridge the two. In any case, the screwed up workings of the
ideology of terror are far more complicated than a man like
Friedman will/can acknowledge; it serves us little to underestimate
our enemy. If you are interested, some stuff has been written on
Arendt and terrorism, not that I necessarily subscribe to it.
Oren Ziv
Date:July 28th, 2006 02:28 am (UTC)

Re: emailed reply #1

it's true, share of loot was just proxy for "proper
recognition of his contribution", and it's that
recognition that meant a lot -- not the material
goods. still, it struck me how they're taking it as
self-evident that conquest is the highest calling;
sure, what do you expect of warriors, but the greeks
chose to subscribe to the warriors' values by making
this particular tale central. and it just seems that
today, there should be so many more avenues for
self-expression, and yet so many people still take it
as an axiom that finding an enemy and dominating them
is the highest calling.

how is terrorism "an attempt to bridge the two"?
Date:July 28th, 2006 02:29 am (UTC)

Re: emailed reply #1

From: Oren Ziv

forgive me for my tardy reply. I was waiting on a friend to remind
me of a book he once referred me to.

Faisal Devji is writing on the Muslim suicide bombers, he is at the
New School. Have you heard of Hannah Arendt (not to condescend, but
your website implied that you had a mostly mathematical background)?
I believe he applies, rightly or wrongly, her critique of the modern
condition (the human condition) to that situation. Something along
the lines of the metaphysics of terrorism.

here's a link to his book, i believe:


Although I wouldn't suppose you have time for a lengthy back and
forth over such matters, Arednt's language is useful for defining
the modern world - her work, I believe, is the last or latest in
the great dialog of political theory which emerged from plato's


Date:July 28th, 2006 02:35 am (UTC)

emailed reply #2

Dear Ilya Shlyakhter,

I googled your name after reading your letter
to the editor in the NYTimes on 7/18/05 (after you
sent it 7/15/05). The letter resonated with me and I
felt its message communicated an idea of peace (your
focus on creativity not king of the hill-ness).

I would like to quote and mount it on a 12x16
wall mounting for the Epidemic Peace Imagery
project. Would this be ok with you?

The webpage giving history and progress of the
project is http://www.geocities.com/epidemicpeaceimagery/

Best wishes,

Russell Gardner
Date:July 28th, 2006 02:39 am (UTC)

Re: emailed reply #2


I mounted it using Photoshop on a 12x16 inch print
that features an Assyrian bull picture that I took at
the Louvre in June. It's not an Iliad reference but
testifies independently to the aggressive social rank
hierarchies of the just-prehistory era in the near

The paragraphs are arranged in two columns on either
side of the bull which is center position. Can send a
jpg of what it looks like if you wish. It was printed
on an Epson 2200 using Velvet Art Paper. I plan to put
it under glass.

Best wishes, Russ

and here is the result:

Date:July 28th, 2006 04:34 am (UTC)

a related column by thomas friedman

from On the Eve of Madness by thomas friedman:

I sat at a swank rooftop restaurant the other night with some young Syrian writers and listened to a discussion between a young woman dressed in trendy clothes, talking about how she would prefer to see Israel disappear, another writer who argued that Nasrallah was an Arab disaster, and an Arab journalist who described the “pride” and “dignity” every Arab felt at seeing Hezbollah fight Israel to a standstill.

When will the Arab-Muslim world stop getting its “pride” from fighting Israel and start getting it from constructing a society that others would envy, an economy others would respect, and inventions and medical breakthroughs from which others would benefit?

[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2006 12:58 pm (UTC)
Будах неловко засмеялся.
- Да, я вижу, это не так просто, - сказал он. - Я как-то не думал
раньше о таких вещах... Кажется, мы с вами перебрали все. Впрочем, - он
подался вперед, - есть еще одна возможность. Сделай так, чтобы больше
всего люди любили труд и знание, чтобы труд и знание стали единственным
смыслом их жизни!
Да, это мы тоже намеревались попробовать, подумал Румата. Массовая
гипноиндукция, позитивная реморализация. Гипноизлучатели на трех
экваториальных спутниках...
- Я мог бы сделать и это, - сказал он. - Но стоит ли лишать
человечество его истории? Стоит ли подменять одно человечество другим? Не
будет ли это то же самое, что стереть это человечество с лица земли и
создать на его месте новое?
Будах, сморщив лоб, молчал обдумывая. Румата ждал. За окном снова
тоскливо заскрипели подводы. Будах тихо проговорил:
- Тогда, господи, сотри нас с лица земли и создай заново более
совершенными... или еще лучше, оставь нас и дай нам идти своей дорогой.
- Сердце мое полно жалости, - медленно сказал Румата. - Я не могу
этого сделать.
[User Picture]
Date:September 29th, 2006 05:54 am (UTC)

a related article by judith warner, and related discussion

Ilya Shlyakhter Powered by LiveJournal.com