The awarding of the Nobel peace prize to Al Gore today caused me to reflect on two different understandings of honor that are floating around in our contemporary culture.
To me, Al Gore represents the kind of honor which is rooted in his own private sense of self. It is inward-looking. When, for example, Gore conceded the 2000 election to Bush, he acted in a way that was no doubt painful when considered from the perspective of his public life, but which his inward sense of honor told him was right.
For some, his concession forever branded him with the stigma of a "loser." (Who can forget the bumperstickers and signs we saw during that time saying "Sore/Loserman"?)
I felt that, on the contrary, we witnessed, on live TV, a true act of patriotism; whether right or wrong, Gore made his decision based on what he believed was best for the country at the time. Gore's honor is strongly associated with the idea of integrity.
Consider another kind of honor that competes with Gore's. This other honor requires the vigorous and constant defense of a person's public image. Justice Clarence Thomas makes clear in his recent book that he believes that great harm was done to his honor in the Anita Hill controversy. He carries his bitterness with him even today. But what harm could possibly be done to his honor if he simply carried himself in a dignified manner, acted as he saw fit, and told the truth? Justice Thomas' idea of honor -- traditionally heralded as "a man's sacred honor" -- is strongly associated with reputation.
The tension between these two conflicting ideas of honor -- one based on integrity and the other based on reputation -- lies beneath many of the cultural skirmishes we see playing out in our national debate. The media promotes reputational honor above all else -- because this kind of honor requires an active defense on the part of those who feel their's is under attack, and that helps ratings.
As a result, most TV talk programs (spanning the political spectrum from Bill O'Reilly to Keith Olberman) present everything as a debate between opposing sides. One side says something shocking, and the other side defends itself.
In our private lives, however, many people continue to cherish the idea of a quiet, private sense of honor based on integrity. We tear up when we hear stories of dedicated parents who provide for their children, without any recognition, in the face of enormous hardships and even humiliations.
This cuts across both political parties. Republicans and even the religious right do celebrate integrity-based honor when they see it in a working family who quietly cares for the poor in their charity work. The left celebrates honor based on integrity when they see someone working for an unpopular cause such as ensuring a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, despite the protesters outside the door.
Both also celebrate the kind of honor based on reputation: members of the Republican Party, reflecting the values of the Old South, talk of facing down opponents almost as if they wish to fight a duel -- as Limbaugh did last week when he called for Harry Reid to act like a "man" and to come on his program to discuss the "phony soldiers" comments personally. Democrats celebrate honor of this kind too when they vaunt Hillary's "experience" over Obama's naivete. What is naivete but sticking to your own sense of what is right in the face of tough odds (in other words, showing integrity)?
As a father, I hope to teach my children to value the kind of honor that Gore shows. I sense that it starts, for Gore, with childhood, for this is the reference for our most closely-held sense of identity.
My sense is that the other kind of honor, the one based on reputation, starts not in childhood but in adolescence. It recalls our first victories and embarrassments among our peers. It is suggestive of high school shenanigans.
Reputation is a poor substitute for integrity.