Another Perspective

Fighting Words

Zinedine Zidane would probably have preferred to be called a terrorist.

By 7.18.06

Send to Kindle

The controversy surrounding French soccer star Zinedine Zidane's head-butting of the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final has thrown up few defenders of the French star. Yet his retaliation for the Italian's presumably obscene taunts against his mother and sister would once have seemed as "normal" as Mr. Materazzi claims such provocative insults are now. Today, the demands of honor seem merely quaint to us, though they were matters of life and death to our grandparents. That's because, for the last 30 years, we have been living in a "post-honor" society. The words are those of a Pakistani scholar, Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed, who comes from a world where honor, albeit in a very different and primitive form, is still alive and well, and a feature of everyday life for millions.

Western honor evolved, under pressure from Christianity, into something quite different from anything to be found in the Islamic world. The notion of chivalry, for example, as an exaggerated respect for women (later women and children) is unique to the Western tradition and has no counterpart in other honor cultures. But, West or East, honor has always included the idea, raised to a first principle, that men must be jealous of their reputation for courage and women of their reputation for chastity, or fidelity. Imputations against either are "fighting words." If you don't believe it, try calling a man a wimp or a woman a slut. The insults demand a response in a way that their opposites do not. There's no comparable shame to a woman in being a wimp, nor to a man in being a slut.

Of course there was once, generations ago, much more to the Western honor culture than this. The Victorian idea of the gentleman was a sophisticated if unstable amalgam of elements of primitive honor, social class-consciousness, classical history and literature, medieval legends of chivalry and their Romantic imitators and Christian ethics. But that honor culture began to unravel in the wake of the traumatic experience of the European powers in World War I. Among the social forces at work in the dismantling of the Western honor culture have been feminism and psychotherapy. Their collaboration is what has ultimately produced the headline to an article about the Zidane affair by Mary Ann Sieghart in the Times of London: "Walking away from insults isn't wussy, it's mature."

This is the classic feminine response to all that masculine nonsense about trying to look tough, whether by competition (violent or otherwise) with other men or by refusing to show emotion. Now that response has come to be the unisex, default point of view for post-honor society. The trouble is that at some level we men still feel that it's both wussy and mature -- and that the maturity of a non-violent response never quite wipes out the wussiness of it.

For every man, deep in his heart, feels that it is shameful not to reply with force to imputations against his own courage (or truthfulness), or against the chastity or fidelity of his wife, mother or sister. Because this is only a reflexive reaction and unschooled by the now-moribund honor culture -- and because fighting is scary and often leads to injury or legal consequences -- he will normally swallow it and congratulate himself on his "maturity." But he will also feel terrible about this, and secretly regard himself as less of a man for showing such weakness. This secret masculine shame -- and the additional shame of feeling it in spite of the culturally imposed acceptance of its "immaturity" -- is invisible to women. Yet it lies at the root of many of the phenomena of post-honor society, from sporting conflicts to the decisions of our leaders about how to respond to an enemy's attacks.

Zinedine Zidane's Algerian background may be responsible for his relative lack of inhibition or guilt. "I tell myself that if things happened this way, it's because somewhere up there it was decided that way," he said. "And I don't regret anything that happened. I accept it." Early reports had suggested that one of Mr. Materazzi's taunts might have included the word "terrorist." But in the Arab honor culture "terrorist" is at least as likely to be seen as a compliment as it is an insult. That's why jihadists are so often seen to rejoice when they have hacked off the heads of helpless captives, or blown up women and children in their suicide attacks. If you're a terrorist, you're likely to regard it is honorable to be as terrible and as terrifying an inflicter of terror as possible.

We're hardly likely to be able to understand that, however, so long as we pay our cultural deference to the idea that what Zinedine Zidane did -- or, say, what Israel is now doing in Gaza and Lebanon -- is merely immature. Whether it is or not, it's the way of the masculine world from time immemorial. We're unlikely to change that merely by the official adoption of a feminine approach to the male sense of honor.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.