Ryan P. Brown, PhD, on How the "Honor Culture" of the Carolinas Affects KidsJul 30, 2021 12:00PM ● By Ryan Brown
The return to school each fall is always an exciting time. This fall, the annual rituals associated with this return take on added meaning after a year of COVID-based restrictions, not to mention the uncertainties that ongoing COVID concerns still pose for all institutions. Many social commentators are offering their insights into the complexities of educating kids in this new era. I thought I would add my own voice to this great cacophony of talking heads, with perhaps an unusual spin on the typical talking points.
I am a social scientist, and my expertise is on the social dynamics of what are often referred to as “honor cultures.” Honor cultures are societies that place a huge emphasis on the maintenance and defense of reputation. In fact, honor cultures tend to place this maintenance and defense at the very center of social life, and they proscribe very specific reputational concerns for men and women. Men in honor cultures want to be known as people who are tough, brave, and intolerant of disrespect—the kind of people you should take seriously and not trifle with. In contrast, women in honor cultures want to be known as people who are loyal to family and sexually chaste, not faithless and promiscuous. People who live up to these reputational standards earn honor, which gives them social value. People who fail to do so fail to earn honor or lose whatever honor they already had, and once honor is lost, it is difficult (if not impossible) to get back. Consequently, people in honor cultures take their reputations extremely seriously.
Honor-oriented cultures exist all over the world, including in countries ringing the Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East, and in Central and South America. Honor-related beliefs and values are also present to a heightened degree throughout the southern and western United States. Indeed, social scientists have long studied differences between US states in the South or West and states in the North, referring to the former as “honor states” and the latter as “dignity states.” In dignity-oriented cultures, I should add, a basic level of social value is granted to a person simply by virtue of that person being human. In other words, every person in a dignity culture has an intrinsic, inalienable level of worth and value that they do not have to earn and that cannot be taken away. To be clear, talking about all of the people in a state as being “honor oriented” or “dignity oriented” borders on gross stereotyping, and that’s not how social scientists think about these regional differences. Rather, such differences in cultural orientation reflect broad tendencies that research shows are relatively more typical of some parts of the US than in others.
OK, so what does all of this have to do with the return to school this fall? A great deal, it turns out. Research has demonstrated, for instance, that school shootings are about three times more common in the more honor-oriented states of the South and West compared to the more dignity-oriented states of the North, a pattern that is independent of other regional differences in socio-demographic factors (such as poverty, religion, and rurality). If there’s any good news in this data, it’s that the highest-risk month for people in honor states is February, so maybe we have some time before we need to start sweating too much.
Research also shows that people in honor states are more likely to experience severe depression and anxiety—arguably a result of living under the the demands of honor and the threat of somehow failing to do so. Ironically, honor states invest significantly fewer financial resources into mental healthcare, resulting in fewer mental health professionals working in these states and fewer mental healthcare treatment centers, compared to dignity states. This combination results in something of a perfect storm: greater needs for mental healthcare but fewer ways to deal with those needs. Even if they had better access to treatment, evidence suggests that honor-oriented people are less likely to utilize these resources (for themselves and for their children) out of fear of being socially stigmatized. Mental health needs, it seems, are a sign of weakness in the eyes of people bound by the dictates of honor.
What all of this means for people living in honor states (and research indicates that North and South Carolina top the list of honor states in the US!) this fall is probably apparent. Our children have suffered a great deal during the pandemic. Suicides among adolescents have skyrocketed during COVID, and drug-related coping is also, apparently, on the rise. But while mental health needs have been magnified by the isolation and disruption of the pandemic, the ability of kids to express their mental health needs has not necessarily increased. Culture has a way of perpetuating itself, and cultural norms that run as deeply as those of honor don’t tend to change much in just a year’s time.
Parents, invite your children to talk about what they need emotionally as much as they talk about what they need in their backpacks or gym bags. Listen to them, be open to what they express, and be willing to seek professional help when their needs exceed what you can address on your own, just as you would if your child were bleeding or limping from a visible wound.
This school year has the potential to be wonderful and healing as we return in-person to the classroom and as we re-enter our long-dormant social activities and sporting events. Let’s do our best to make it the best that it can possibly be without being overly bound by the reputational concerns of our shared honor culture. Our kids are worth the effort!
Ryan P. Brown is the Managing Director for Measurement at Rice University's Doerr Institute for New Leaders. He was a professor of social psychology at The University of Oklahoma for almost 20 years. Having grown up in Alabama of Scotch-Irish descent, he has spent almost all of his life in “honor states,” an experience which no doubt has motivated and supported his research interests. For more information and to contact Dr. Brown, visit http://www.ryanbrown-honorculture.com/about.