One of the most profound similarities between the generally antagonistic cultures of the Antebellum white South and contemporary black culture is something that is also shared with the culture of Southeast Asia that I witnessed in my time in Thailand. In all of these cultures there is an extreme amount of attention and importance placed on the matter of face. To the extent that one has adopted a personal code of honor where one’s own place in this world is dependent on one’s public reputation, to be humiliated is to feel mortally wounded and thus absolved of any concern for those who have inflicted such a wound. It is of little surprise that those areas and those cultures where personal honor is of sacred importance are often very violent cultures, and that the politeness and gracious hospitality that one finds enshrined in the unwritten social codes of such areas are in fact a matter of self-preservation, because a well-armed society that is composed of classes of people willing and able to react in ferocious wage if they are dishonored or embarrassed will react in the most sensible way, by being polite to others so as to avoid at least one source of violent internal conflict.
It is of vital importance to know what motivates us and motivates other people. One of the most important aspects of success in life requires being able to motivate people who may not particularly care for us as people to act in ways that are beneficial, or at least not hostile, to us. This requires knowing and acting upon what motivates other people. Those who can be motivated by self-interest possess a lever that can be maneuvered if you can make it their interest to support that which is in your own interest. Those who are motivated by ideals can be persuaded if their values align with your own, to the extent that one can make common cause with them. Many people can be motivated powerfully by psychological factors, including desires for fame, the longing for acceptance and praise and affirmation, the desire to be part of a loving family of choice, to overcome past hurts and past slights, and so on. And while the cynical and callous can simply manipulate people through a knowledge of these motivations, it is far better to recognize such motivations as being the fuel for empathy and mutual understanding and warm fellow feeling with other people who, despite our many differences, are beings not so unlike ourselves.
Why does it seem as if this empathy and this outgoing concern with what motivates and drives other people is so rare? We live in a day and age where people of all kinds demand to be honored and respected and to have their personal choices approved of, and not merely tolerated grudgingly. Yet this demand to be respected and to be approved of does not come with a degree of recognition that other people have the same demands and requirements that we do. If we do not respect the beliefs and causes for which others are willing to sacrifice a great deal, even including their lives, we can hardly expect them to approve of the way in which we live our lives. And the same is true in reverse, as those who demand that we respect their own choices and their own identities will not receive such respect and honor unless they in turn respect us for our choices and identities and belief systems. To be sure, one would hope that people would be motivated by better incentives than the desire to avoid being killed for having uttered careless libels and insults and abuse, but such a motive of self-preservation is more than many people feel at present when it comes to matters of honor and reputation. At present people tend to feel little compunction about casual slander and the abuse of any temporary advantage, little caring about the permanent resentments and hostilities that result from such blunders. A prerequisite for civility is the recognition that public respect and at least the refraining from defaming others, regardless of how we feel about them in the blackness of our dark hearts, is to be preferred to justified violence being directed at us by those whose dignity is wounded by our rudeness and unkindness.
It requires little effort in the present day and age to be aware of the fact that every segment of the population of our present evil world is consumed with bitter hostility because of the way that we have been belittled and ridiculed and abused by others. Every color, every class, every single different identity group within society that can possibly be distinguished has deeply felt wounds that they wish to avenge upon those who have slighted them. A great many of these wounds have happened because people have been careless in their use of personal and social and institutional power in order to gratify their own longings and make them feel somewhat superior while being immensely without insight into the way that this behavior was seen and felt by others. We forget that when we seek to signal our own virtue, we signal vice towards others, and this signal, no matter how justified, will be felt as an attack which cannot be suffered in silence. Any attempt we have to seek privilege for ourselves, regardless of the label we call it, will be seen as an attack upon the dignity and honor of those to whom such privilege is denied. Any approval we seek for ourselves and those like us will be seen as an intolerable assault upon the dignity and worth for those whose ways are not approved of, for whatever reason. If we cannot be persuaded to be kind to others, let us at least beware of the fact that those whom we dishonor and those whom we vilify and those whom we cut and humiliate we turn into implacable and hostile enemies, and let us seek to create no unnecessary enemies. God only knows how many necessary enemies we possess, and that is more than enough for any of us to handle.