Honour and shame

Honour and shame are interlinked. Sometimes they are two sides of the same coin.


Khaled Ahmed April 17, 2012

Pakistan is in the grip of honour and parliament has become its guardian. Only tragedy will follow. French statesman and political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) preferred virtue to honour. The operatic principle of a coercive state is honour; the operatic principle of democracy is virtue. Honour is primal; virtue is civilised.

Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) thinks the “last man” has now achieved his destiny because he no longer feels compelled to defend his honour in a liberal democracy. The “first man” that he located in Plato’s Republic died in order to defend his honour. Tragedy was created in this quest for honour.

Honour is felt by the state as sovereignty. This is where the primitive feeling of honour finally rests. If the state is internally weak, it can hardly defend its external sovereignty. In consequence, it feels dishonoured. Fukuyama in State Building: Governance and World Order in the Twenty-first Century (Profile Books 2004) writes:

“Weak governance undermines the principle of sovereignty of which the post-Westphalian international order has been built. It does so because the problems that weak states generate for themselves and for others vastly increase the likelihood that someone else in the international system will seek to intervene in their affairs against their wishes to forcibly fix the problem. Weak here means a lack of institutional capacity to implement and enforce policies, often driven by an underlying lack of legitimacy of the political system as a whole” (p.129).

Honour and shame are interlinked. Sometimes they are two sides of the same coin. In Urdu, ‘sharm’ (shame) can stand in for honour. The English word ‘honour’ has no known root but has come from Latin. In French, a derivative from honour, ‘honte’, can stand in for shame. But in English, ‘honesty’ is derived from honour.

Shame is taken to mean something negative, but in Urdu ‘sharm’ is actually ‘honour’. It is only when someone loses shame that he becomes dishonoured. The negative meaning is developed from the common usage of feeling ‘sharm’ or the sense of (lost) honour. Urdu ‘sharminda’ is negative and also means unclothed, as in ‘sharminda-e-maani’ (revealing the real meaning). Shame is also “nang”, which is close to nanga (naked) in Urdu. In English, shameless would indicate that ‘shame’ itself is not negative.

In Arabic the word ‘haya’ is ‘shame’, and honour is derived from it. Arabic etymology traces it from ‘hayy’ (to expand or contract). One of the names Allah is Hayy (He Who Gives Life). One sense is that whatever contracts to the touch is alive. Arabic ‘hayat’ is life but ‘hayyat’ is ‘snake’ because of its movement in contractions. When you feel shame, your muscles contract. In Hebrew, ‘khoot’ means muscle, but the word for shameless is ‘khootspah’. This has come into English as ‘chutzpah’ meaning a kind of brashness akin to courage.

‘Lajja’ (shame) in Sanskrit seems to be cognate with ‘lag’ (touch). It is possible that the feeling of shame was a muscular reaction to touching. The English expression ‘touching’ (causing emotion) carries the same implication. The plant touch-me-not is called ‘lajawanti’. It is quite possible that Sanskrit got its word for shame from physical sensation, just like Arabic.

Honour leads to extreme action. It seldom hurts the powerful but hurts the weak man who feels it. In the world of states, the weak state feels it more and expresses it through an obsession with sovereignty. As Montesquieu first found out, honour is the trait of the less civilised. Honour is embedded in irrationality; Montesquieu equated virtue with rationality.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2012.

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COMMENTS (10)

PakistaniStrategist | 9 years ago | Reply

So, can we say that Ejaz Haider is a man of honor, Khaled Ahmed a man of virtue? All of the ghairat brigade loves Ejaz Haider's 'strategic analyses' but few show up on Khaled Ahmed's pages where you have both real scholarship and virtue.

socialist | 9 years ago | Reply

i cant help thinking about Galileo who compromised his honour in the perception of an ordinary man but in the long run contributed to the civilisation by virtue of his reason.had he kept himself mired inthe primitive morality the path of civilisation would have become longer!

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