In the following, I do not mean to investigate the personal matters of Mr. Will Smith or Mr. Chris Rock, but instead want to show how honor and dignity interact in a way we may all be familiar with. If you wish to view the event (be warned, there are curse words spoken), you can see it here.
That Will Smith was excommunicated by the Oscar community should be no surprise. The joke that Chris Rock made was no affront to Jada Smith’s dignity; it was an insult to her honor. What might be surprising is that the rise of a culture of honor and respect hasn’t risen sooner.
Seeing a person perform an act in public leads us to question who he is. Something of the role and something of the identity of the person is revealed. When he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, Will Smith illustrated the conflict between two understandings of what it means to be an individual in the early twenty-first century. Individually, he stood at a crossroads between the cross-pressure of two roles: the Academy Award-winning actor, and the husband of a woman whose honor was insulted. This explains why he first laughed at Rock’s joke and then stood up for his wife’s honor by confronting Rock publicly. I contend that the public visibility of the events of that night offered a space in which the obsolete, dormant value of honor came into direct conflict with the modern and commonly held concept of dignity. Smith as a husband defended honor by slapping Rock, who dignifiedly impinged on honor. Who Smith is, in reality, is confused. If Smith lived in a world of honor, he would have established his identity primarily as a husband, and to identify as an actor would have been a turn away from himself. In the world of dignity, Smith was expelled because he had failed to emancipate himself from the role. Tellingly, he had won best actor for King Richard in large part to his ability to manifest honor on screen.
The concept of honor implies that one’s identity is importantly linked to institutional roles. By contrast, the contemporary conception of dignity suggests that identity is importantly independent of institutional roles. In medieval times, a knight would ride out to battle with the role signified all over him, from the armor all the way to the insignia; the regalia of the knight facilitated the honor of his identity. A naked knight in bed with, let’s say, a woman, is participating in a lesser reality. In the contemporary world of dignity, the social symbolism that governs the interaction of individuals is a disguise; the social symbolism hides his true identity. The naked man, to be precise, in expressing his sexuality in a world of dignity, represents himself truthfully. It is through the performance of particular roles that the individual participates in history. In a world of honor one’s identity is connected strongly to the past through ritualized behaviors. In the world of dignity, the tradition of a role is a succession of mystifications from which the individual must emancipate himself. While honor and dignity have different relationships to history, modern consciousness tends toward an ahistorical relationship.
I would like to focus on anthropological constants in the constitution of the individual. Individuals as we currently exist are not a total innovation or mutation of the human species. Like persons of antiquity, individuals are intrinsically social and partake of a reciprocal process with society through which their various identities are formed, maintained, and changed. Yet, individuals have considerable influence in building, dismantling, and re-shaping the world in which they live. Since my identity is always a part of a comprehensively constructed human world (the human artifice), there is a vast variety of ways in which identities are conceived and experienced. Each definition is individually-made, and lived, by individuals.
A reductionistic (overly simple) explanation of the transformation that has taken place will miss the point. Sociological inquiry shows many of the causal factors that have taken North American society from honor to dignity. Factors such as bureaucracy, urbanization, industrialization, the global internet, social mobility, the profound metamorphosis in the social contexts in which children are raised, and the technological drive of society will contribute to a more holistic understanding of the transformation from the widespread acceptance of honor to the acceptance of dignity as a foundational understanding of the relationship of the individual to the community. However, what seems the most telling is the deinstitutionalization and increasing subjectivity of the individual. Globally, the institutional hold of institutions on the individual is weakening. Institutional fabrics have become so incohesive and fragmented that they can no longer house the identities of individuals in the past ways the church or families may have. Business has generally sensed the gap in meaning that has accompanied the marginalization of the church and the fragmentation of the family; they offer wellness programs. They may be too late: deinstitutionalization is a loss of faith in any institution. Inevitably, the individual is thrown back on herself, on her own bare individuality from which she must dredge up the meaning and the stability that she requires to exist.
The isolated individual is entirely unsatisfactory. Precisely because of a person’s social character, stable identities can only emerge in relationships with stable social contexts. Therefore, there is deep uncertainty about contemporary identity; it’s an identity crisis if you will.
Honor’s obsolescence may now be understood more comprehensively. The home of honor lies in a world with relatively intact, stable institutions. It is a world in which individuals can, with subjective certainty, attach to the constitutive roles each one has, a relationship that not only advocates for a particular kind of individual but provides the moral anthropology of the individual herself. The disintegration of the institutions of church and family in the modern world has served to redefine identity against institutions that were seen as oppressive. The modern deinstitutionalization also served to make honor obsolete.
The relationship between an individual and her community, between her subjective identity and her objective identification through roles now comes to be experienced as a struggle. From the side of human dignity, institutions have ceased to be the ‘home’ of the self. Roles no longer actualize the self; instead, they become the sources of alienation. Institutions hide the self not only from others but also from the individual’s own consciousness.
What is left in the twenty-first-century identity crisis? Where can the individual hope to discover and find herself? Well, there is some worldly terrain where identities are both anthropologically known and advocated. The realms of significant others and close friends offer a place where this quest can find its meaning and its feasibility. Identity has ceased to be either objectively or subjectively given. The modern individual is in search of herself. But the most authentic resolution to the quest to discover ourselves as particular, unique, and important individuals, requires a home.
No nostalgia for the loss of honor will do, just as we see the mythology that the dignity of human persons is best understood in the liberation of oppressive structures. Both of these perspectives fail to do justice to the anthropological and ethical dimensions of the problem. It is clear that the unrestrained enthusiasm for the radical liberation of the self from so-called ‘repressive’ institutions fails to account for the anthropological conditions of the appearance of actual individuals. In other words, the demise of honor for the discovery of abstract dignity has been very costly. However, anyone reductively denouncing the contemporary world should also question whether the newly discovered concepts of human dignity and human rights ought to be included in that denunciation.
Chris Rock had the right to make his joke; Smith had the right to highlight the breach to honor that it entailed.