Honor & American Homicides

The United States has more guns and more homicides than many other WEIRD countries. Compared to Europe in particular, the United States has much more gun violence, gun deaths, and murders in general. Peter Singer offers one plausible explanation for this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Pinker writes, “In Europe, first the state disarmed the people and claimed a monopoly on violence, then the people took over the apparatus of the state. In America, the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms. … In other words Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.”
The argument that Pinker makes is that Americans maintained their weapons because they never allowed government to become strong enough to take their weapons away. Americans never fully gave government the sole authority to use violence. Americans have retained the idea that they should be able to use violence to protect themselves if ever needed. In an almost mythical manner, weapons and defensive violence have been enshrined in the United States.
However, having weapons and placing defensive violence in a special place is not the entire explanation for higher rates of murder in the United States that Pinker offers. Pinker suggests, especially in the South, that the United States has also maintained a culture of personal honor. In such a culture, any slight against the individual needs to be avenged so that the individual’s honor is not damaged. Pride, family heritage, and displays of strength and power are important in such a system, and must be upheld (it is fitting that the biggest movie franchise in the United States is the Avengers).
The way this translates into more homicides is not through direct murders for individual advancement or gain, but through murders following individual fights. Pinker writes, “southerners do not outkill northerners in homicides carried out during robberies, only in those sparked by quarrels.” Southerners are far more likely to turn to violence, and accept violence, when it is a response to aggression or a slight against an individual. Honor, it turns out, is a dangerous force and idea that leads to more homicides surrounding frivolous slights.
I don’t think Pinker’s explanations fully capture or fully explain why homicide rates in the Untied States are higher than in other WEIRD countries.  I do think they demonstrate different aspects of the United States which contribute to greater uses of violence. When combined with ideas about racism in the United States, extreme positions of inequality, lack of social safety nets, and some capitalistic aspects of our economic system, I think Pinker’s considerations are very important. Violence is not fully owned by the state because our population won’t allow the state a full monopoly on violence. Many parts of the country still cling to honor cultures that tacitly encourage violence – especially in self-defense or preservation. As a result, the murder and violence potential of the Untied States is higher than many WEIRD countries, and that shows through in the data.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.