American Homicides & Honor

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.

Privilege, Opportunity, Character, Honor

United is Senator Cory Booker’s story of his time living in Newark, New Jersey and the start of his venture into politics. The son of IBM business executives who overcame racial obstacles to find success in the business world, Booker grew up keenly aware of the challenges that people face on their journey through life, and he received down to Earth advice and support from his parents. Booker’s parents, despite their wealth and success in the business world, always remembered the struggle and fight of those who came before them to create the opportunities they enjoyed, and they made sure Booker understood the ways in which he had benefitted from the actions and decisions of others.


In his book he shares a quick message from his parents, “Privileges and opportunities say nothing of character and honor, they would tell me. Only actions do.” His parents taught him that social position and that a person’s socioeconomic situation at birth are not what define them, but rather actions are what make us who we are and who others understand us to be. For Booker’s parents, character is enacted in our actions, and honor is demonstrated by the way we live.


The quote from Booker’s parents reminds me of three quotes that I recently wrote about. In his book, Come Back Frayed, Colin Write states, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.” His idea of actions aligns perfectly with the message from Booker’s parents. Having privilege and opportunity means nothing if our actions are not in alignment with the message we try to present to other people. We may be able to fool ourselves by telling others about our character and about what we want to do, but ultimately, our actions reveal what is truly important for us and demonstrate our true character.


On opportunity Ryan Holiday writes, “If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities  that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.” The idea in Holiday’s quote stretch beyond the lesson of Booker’s parents, but still connect through the idea of actions and opportunity. Booker’s parents did not simply accept the status quo in their pursuit of career success and the lifestyle they wanted, but instead they made deliberate decisions to drive toward the future they wanted. The opportunities they experienced were open to many, but they put forth true effort and lived in a way that made the most of the opportunities presented to them.
The final quote that comes to mind from Booker’s parents also comes from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, and is a quote he uses to express the importance of our actions:


“The great psychologist Viktor Frankle, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
    In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.
    Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question.”


What builds our character and our honor, in the eyes of Viktor Frankle is not the outcomes of our lives that we often drive toward, money, nice things, a powerful career, but rather the actions we take to reach those end goals. The opportunities and privileges we are born with are nothing if we cannot make unselfish and creative decisions that we can act on in dedicated and masterful ways. Through action that is beyond ourselves and designed to put others first we can show that our honor and character are priorities in our life, and we can use the opportunities we experience to build something greater than ourselves and the situation we are born into.