By Corey Wolf
In 1865 Asa McCoy, a former Union Army soldier, was murdered after returning to his home in Kentucky after fighting in the Civil War. It would be the first murder in the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud that lasted for 30 years, resulting in over a dozen revenge murders, the governors of Kentucky and West Virginia threatening to invade the other’s state, a doomed Romeo & Juliet style interfamily romance, and a court case about a pig.
The national press ate it up, with many in the Northern states confused about how these culturally distinct mountain people thought killing members of the opposing family was any form of justice. Today, we are seeing a repeat of this confusion.
Recently another round of “fiery but mostly peaceful” riots erupted in response to perceived wrongdoing by law enforcement officers. This time, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, protestors lashed out in violence in response to the shooting of a black suspect that resisted arrest. Much of the violence has left Northern Heritage Americans confused. The suspect was a rapist who resisted arrest while reaching into his car for a weapon. Did those who took part in the destruction genuinely feel justified? Or did they want to have fun? Something else?
The confusion many Northern Heritage Americans are experiencing may be due to a lack of appreciation for other cultures. The typical Northern Heritage American is of a “dignity culture” while the typical African American is of an “honor culture.” Thus the rioters and their neighboring Northern Heritage Americans are not of the same culture and cannot see eye-to-eye. Examining each culture’s origins and values goes a long way towards explaining today’s current state of antagonism, the confusion of the Northern Heritage American, and points to a violent future.
“Honor” cultures developed in environments where clans had to be strong in order to defend their transportable wealth. Think sheep in Scotland and Sicily, and camels in Saudi Arabia. If someone steals one of your sheep, you (or someone in your clan) need to respond with great force to act as a deterrent to other potential thieves lest all your sheep are stolen.
As Malcolm Gladwell notes in his book Outliers, the herdsman is “under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals. He has to make it clear through his words and deeds, that he is not weak.” Who can the herdsman trust the most? Blood relations, his kin and clan. Your clan helps you protect your sheep, and in return you provide protection to your clan. The individual becomes one feather of a larger bird. And since the individual is subsumed by the clan, vengeance may be directed at the opposing clan. In order to mitigate the risk of losing all your sheep, in honor culture erring on the side of caution means assuming the worst and attacking those you perceive to attack you. You may not be liked, but your sheep will be safe.
The macro effects are that if a McDuffie steps on the toes of a McMurray in a bar, a McMurray will assume the worst and punch a McDuffie, causing a McDuffie to kill a McMurray, and so on, possibly for generations. In sum, honor cultures lead to drastic retribution for perceived wrongs, wherein said retribution can be directed at the opposing clan, and clan grudges last generations.
By contrast, dignity cultures tended to come from areas where people grow plants, leading to different presumptions. Again from Mr. Gladwell, “the survival of a farmer depends on the cooperation of others in the community.” You need to be friendly with your neighbors so they will help you build a barn. And further, a farmer does not need to worry about someone attempting to harvest and abscond with all his snow peas in the moonlight.
This leads to a culture where if a Smith steps on the toes of a Johnson, Johnson will apologize for being in the way and offer to help re-shingle the house of Smith.
These different cultures in our country largely come from different waves of immigration from different parts of Great Britain. The Northern states largely had immigration from dignity culture Puritans and Quakers from East Anglia. The Southern states and Appalachia had immigration including from honor culture Scotts-Irish. Thomas Sowell writes that these Scotts-Irish passed their culture to black slaves leading to modern day African Americans being honor culture people.
Thus, the prevailing culture of the Northern Heritage American has been one of “dignity” as it relates to morality and justice. If individual A is wronged by individual B, the matter is taken up by the court system and individual B’s tribe or “group” isn’t held in contempt by individual A’s group. This dignity culture avoids conflict, acts proportionally to a known perpetrator of a known wrong, and lets bygones be bygones.
And with the injection of honor culture African Americans into the north, we have a culture clash. The two groups wildly disagree on how, or even if, events in the past should shape the future (revenge vs letting bygones be bygones) and what the basis of society is (clan vs individual)
Though difficult for the Northern Heritage American to understand, honor culture African-Americans seem to think of themselves as a clan (and who think that all whites are in the opposing clan). They further think that since some of the “white clan” were slave owners 200 years ago, it is appropriate to seek revenge against members of today’s white clan.
Layered on top of this, the two groups believe different origin stories. The Northern Heritage American believes they are carrying on a tradition of the Founders who loved liberty. African Americans by contrast believe their ancestors were living an idyllic life in Africa, then evil white men came and put them in chains and shipped them in crowded boats to America, where the evil white clan continued to be evil to them.
Essentially African-Americans see themselves as the McCoys, whites as Hatfields. And the Hatfields have had a 400-year head start in the blood feud. And it’s best to make up for lost time.
The average Northern Heritage American is blind to this dynamic because he does not think of himself as a member of an exclusive clan. He either thinks of himself as an individual or as an American, and assume everyone else, including African-Americans, has the same self-conception.
But, the Northern Heritage American thinks, even if they were a clan, shouldn’t African Americans recognize that the ancestors of the Northern Heritage American fought on the side of the Union, freeing the slaves? Risking their lives to defend moral principles of another people seems like the ultimate proof of being a good person. Even so, the Northern Heritage American thinks, it was those dastardly Southern whites who kept being mean to the freed blacks, necessitating the Northern Heritage American to one again go South to fix things.
The Northern Heritage American thinks the Civil Rights era solved everything. By erasing laws treating African Americans as second-class citizens, they were now free to be individuals, just like the Northern Heritage American. They also view affirmative action as intended to be a temporary measure meant to convey how magnanimous they are. There was even a black president! That shows that everything is equal.
In contrast, African Americans see the Civil Rights era as the White Clan’s admission of guilt, and that until they have inflicted suffering greater than they perceive their ancestors went through, nothing will be “even.” Until there have been 50 African American presidents, there will be no equality, they believe.
Northern Heritage Americans, interpreting the actions of African Americans through their mental filters of the dignity culture, are confused, and increasingly feel betrayed. Many are now thinking, “We made ourselves second class citizens for the past 50 years, for the sins of those ‘bad whites’ in the South; if anything the blacks should be thanking us for us freeing them from slavery and giving them preferences.”
Many honor culture African Americans meanwhile appear incensed that the White Clan have the temerity to continue to exist. In their view, the first chicken has just started to come home to roost. There are thousands more to come.
If cultures take a long time to change (as it seems is true), then we are in for a long slog.