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Research shows romantic ideal can lead to painful reality

Last week's column illuminated for you Dr. Ryan Brown's research regarding Culture of Honor and our beloved, and oft maligned, Southern heritage.

Thanks to the efficiency of Google Alert, from the moment that column hit press, he and I engaged in friendly debate. Whether or not I agree with him, I believe a man should have his say; thus I offered Dr. Brown the opportunity to tell you his side of the story. And y'all be nice. Bless his heart, it turns out he's an Alabama boy:

His response follows:

I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight about research that my collaborators and I recently conducted showing that states characterized as "culture-of-honor states" exhibit elevated rates of accidental deaths, consistent with our contention that one of the side effects of an honor ideology might be excessive risk-taking.

I have spent the last several years investigating the causes and consequences of what anthropologists and social psychologists refer to as "honor cultures," both in the U.S. and abroad. What I have learned is that people living in honor cultures exhibit a host of less-than-honorable tendencies in addition to excessive risk-taking, including elevated rates of homicide, rape, divorce, drunk driving, suicide and school violence, among others. These behaviors appear to be the unintended consequences of a cultural ideology that places defense of reputation (especially for men) as one of its highest virtues. That is the central feature of honor cultures, whether in the southern U.S., the lowlands of Scotland, or the Middle East (all places where a form of honor ideology exists).

To be clear, I am not claiming that everyone who lives in the South exhibits all of the features of an honor-based ideology. I grew up in Alabama, and I would rather live in the South than anywhere else, if only because people are more polite there. However, there is also a dark side to this politeness, as it seems to be a rather thin veneer of virtue in too many people who embrace the ideology of honor.

A Southern male is more prone than a Northern male to overlook a minor social trespass, but once a certain threshold is reached, the Southerner has a tendency to overcompensate, leading to the elevated rates of argument-based homicides that studies have shown.

Besides politeness, there are other positive aspects of honor cultures, including the greater tendency of people in honor states to have their elderly parents and grandparents live with them rather than live in a nursing home, and to engage in kinship adoptions. There are other positive features of honor cultures, such as the tendency of people in honor states to enlist in the military, which Ms. Adams rightly cites. However, most of the positive manifestations that we see also have a darker underbelly. The dark side of bravery is, for some, excessive risk-taking, and the dark side of "stepping up and defending what you hold dear" can be hyper-vigilance to insults and a readiness to escalate minor provocations into episodes of violence.

As a scientist, I go where the data take me, whether it's to pleasant or unpleasant places. Behaviors associated with honor ideologies are too frequently of the unpleasant type, sadly. My job, though, is to point out the facts, as best I can determine them, and my hope is that in shedding light on some of the darker aspects of my favorite honor culture, the better parts might shine through.

Warm regards, Ryan P. Brown, Ph.D., The University of Oklahoma

Another tidbit I learned about Dr. Brown: Not only did he grow up in Alabama, he grew up wearing Auburn blue and orange. But now employed by The University of Oklahoma, he wears crimson year-round. Another piece of proof that the universe has a way of straightening out everything.

Lucy Adams is the author of Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson. Direct any comments or questions for the good doctor to Lucy at She promises to forward your words to Dr. Brown.

Web posted on Thursday, September 15, 2011

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