The new BBC short-run series Time 1 is a dark, painful, and compassionate look at aspects of life in prison. In the first episode, one of the significant scenes showed Daniel, convicted of murder, meeting with the parents of the young man he had killed. The parents wanted to forgive despite their grief and anger; more than that, they wanted to understand why Daniel had killed their son Gerard.
The story Daniel tells them is heartbreaking (SPOILERS FOLLOW). He was shouting drinks for his friends at a pub; when the bartender put three beers on the bar, Daniel picked them up to carry back to his table, taking a quick sip of one. Only it was the wrong order: Those three beers were for another group, and now they insisted that Daniel buy a replacement for the beer he’d sipped from. Daniel had only £1.20 left and was ashamed, so he refused. One of the men in the other group–Gerard–challenged him to pay or else ‘settle things outside.’ Gerard was about Daniel’s size; Daniel reckoned they would go exchange some punches and put the whole thing behind them.
What he didn’t know was that Gerard was a boxer, and the fight became more of a beatdown. Finally, desperate, hoping to stop the assault, Daniel pulled out a knife. He wasn’t thinking rationally, of course, but he hoped that it would make Gerard back down. It didn’t. And he could have backed down. But he was ashamed again. And then Gerard was dead.
The parents listen to all of this with agonized expressions. Finally, Gerard’s mother says, “You did all of this to avoid losing face.” Daniel nods. “That’s unforgiveable,” she says.
The study of culture has come a long way from the days of “individualism versus collectivism”; one of the most exciting new perspectives on culture is “cultural logics,” the notion that cultures reflect bundles of norms and assumptions that are all about who or what defines “a ‘good’ culture member.” One of the most common logics is honour logic. You may have heard of honour cultures–places like the US South, or the Middle East–known for behaviours such as duels, protecting their reputations for strength and integrity even to the point of violence or personal loss.
Honour cultures can look irrational, even mystifying, to those who follow other logics. Honour logic can lead to decisions such as beating one’s sister for the crime of being a rape victim, which violates any number of “good culture member” principles in the eyes of people who follow other logics. But there’s an internal coherence to the honour logic.
And it’s this: You can’t rely on others to be sure you’re protected, or to look after your interests. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. You do your best to build a strong reputation and gain respect. You’re a good host, you’re generous, you’re respectable. But someone will inevitably step to, and test you, and try to find your weak spot. If that happens, it’s bad. If other people see, it could be devastating, especially if that someone actually bests you. You could lose everything, because everything depends on your reputation. If you’re weak, you’ll be shunned, cut out.
And what kind of weakness matters? Not being able to protect yourself or your family–physical weakness, financial weakness, yielding to an attack. Or lacking integrity–being exposed as a cheat or a fraud or a liar.
So the merest flicker of a challenge must be met with vehemence. Before it gets out of hand, before you can’t beat it back, you must answer that challenge, demolish the challenger. And let me stress: This isn’t just in the person’s head. What makes it a culture is that this logic is shared with others. That means that it’s a genuine risk, and the response imperative is just as real.
Let’s get back to Daniel. He’s out with his friends, being generous though he’s down to his last two quid. He’s challenged by Gerard, which threatens both his image of strength and the exposure of his empty wallet. At each point where retreat might be likely, something discourages that retreat: the crowd in the bar; his friends, watching; Gerard’s taunting and physical domination. Daniel knows that he’s taking one step after another, all leading in a direction he doesn’t like–but away from one he can’t even consider. He doesn’t just want to save face. In his mind, the situation is existential.
Is his response right, or justifiable, or even defensible? No. No. Of course not! But if we want to do more than blame or be angry at people like Daniel, we must try to get inside their worldview, and understand what looks like logic and imperative to them.
My response to Daniel in that scene wasn’t anger or contempt; it was sadness, that he was trapped in a worldview that left him a sense of having no choice but to keep taking one step after another to the point of killing another human being. He couldn’t see other paths; and the path he was on was like a tunnel, filling in behind him as he moved forward. We can punish people all we want; until we open the pathways and help people see them, we’ll keep having Daniels in the future.
Sorry that the show can only be viewed at that link from the UK! We paid for a one-off viewing through Fetch here in Australia. ↩︎