The other day, someone asked me why Basques have such fiery tempers. My answer was, “Because not everyone knows how awesome we are, but everyone should, and it pisses us off.” I was joking, of course, because not ALL Basques are awesome. But this is a question that has plagued me for years.
I am reading a book called Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell, and in it he describes how some people are prone to success and why. There are many sociological and physical reasons, mainly wealth, opportunity, and intelligence. At one point, Gladwell discusses the odd situation of family feuds in Appalachian country in the 1800s (think McCoy-Hatfield). He describes this phenomenon as a “Culture of honor.” This is what he has to say on page 110:
Cultures of honor tend to take roots in highlands and other marginally fertile areas, such as Sicily or the mountainous Basque regions of Spain. If you live on some rocky mountainside, the explanation goes, you can’t farm. You probably raise goats or sheep, and the kind of culture that grows up around being a herdsman is very different from the culture that grows up around growing crops. The survival of a farmer depends on the cooperation of others in the community. But a herdsman is off by himself. Farmers also don’t have to worry that their livelihood will be stolen in the night, because crops can’t easily be stolen unless, of course, a thief wants to go to the trouble of harvesting an entire field on his own. But a herdsman does have to worry. He’s under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals. So he has to be aggressive: he has to make it clear, through his words and his deeds, that he is not weak. He has to be willing to fight in response to even the slightest challenge to his reputation – and that’s what a “culture of honor” means. It’s a world where a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth.
In other words, we are bad ass because we have to be.
All kidding aside, this passage actually set off a mental light bulb. Being raised in a culture of honor explains so much to me. Such as the idea of fairness and what is right. For some reason, I take fairness VERY seriously. This probably has to do with the fact that my father and mother took it seriously when my sister and I were growing up. If they gave her $20, I got $20 and vice versa. Same with clothes and food. (The line was blurred quite a bit when I was a senior and she was a freshman, because I thought she should have to wait to so many of the things I had to wait to do, like date. They thought of it as, well, you can, she needs to be able to, too. See? Fairness.)
In my adult life, I am like that, without even trying to. I try to be fair at work, at home, and with family. If I send Mom a card for Mother’s Day, you bet Dad is going to get one. I get very angry if I think something is unfair and I will do my best to 1) bring attention to it, 2) make sure it is rectified, and 3) make sure it never happens again. Diplomacy is NOT in my genes.
Another thing this brought to mind is defending what is mine. Which is not to say that I do not share or am not giving. But if I think someone or something is encroaching on me or my property (or my family and friends), I am going to get upset. And probably start a fight. If I think the lane of traffic I am in is MINE (and it is because I AM IN IT) and you cut me off, I WILL road rage against you. I will wave my middle finger in the air, outside the window if at all possible, and scream at you, because you are being unfair and not obeying the rules that everyone else has to obey. And you are inconsiderate. And I do not like inconsiderate people.
“He has to be willing to fight in response to even the slightest challenge to his reputation – and that’s what a “culture of honor” means.” This passage hit me the hardest, not only because the words “slightest challenge” totally reminds me of myself, but I keep hearing my dad’s voice in my head: “I have a reputation to uphold around here!!” Just one more inate, annoying Basque habit that is, literally, bred into him through thousands of years of evolution. How can one little woman defy that, I ask you?
All of that being said, I know that being Basque, to most of us, is to be proud and honorable. That is what we represent to each other. If it means we are a loud bunch of fighters (one person’s terrorists are another person’s freedom fighters!), then so be it.
And, PS Tracy: The Scots are also a Culture of Honor.