The word culture is derived from the Latin root colere (to inhabit, to cultivate, or to honour). In general, it refers to human activity; different definitions of culture reflect different theories for understanding, or criteria for valuing, human activity. Anthropologists use the term to refer to the universal human capacity to classify experiences, and to encode and communicate them symbolically. They regard this capacity as a defining feature of the genus Homo. Since culture is learned, people living in different places have different cultures.
Cultures of honour and cultures of law
One can contrast cultures of honour with cultures of law. From the viewpoint of anthropology, cultures of honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or government. In this situation, inspiring fear is viewed as a stronger strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.
Cultures of honour therefore appear amongst Bedouins, Scottish and English herdsmen of the Border country, and many similar peoples, who have little allegiance to a national government; among cowboys, frontiersmen, and ranchers of the American West, where official law-enforcement often remained out of reach, as famously celebrated in Western movies; among the plantation culture of the American South, and among aristocrats, who enjoy hereditary privileges that put them beyond the reach of general laws. Cultures of honour also flourish in criminal underworlds and gangs, whose members carry large amounts of cash and contraband and cannot complain to law enforcement if it is stolen.
Once a culture of honour exists, it is difficult for its members to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to retaliate immediately, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour this appears as a weak and unwise act.
Conceptions of honour vary widely among cultures. In some, honour killings of (usually female) members of one's own family are considered justified if they have "defiled the family's honour" by marrying against one's wishes, or even by being the victims of rape. These honour killings are generally seen in the West as a way of men using the culture of honour to control female sexuality.
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