In one of the oldest black churches in the United States, a massacre on June 17, 2015, has shaken the nation. The attack, which took the lives of 9 people, took place after a Wednesday night Bible Study held at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, apparently perpetrated by a 21-year-old White man named Dylann Roof. What, if anything, can understanding the cultural ideology of honor teach us about why this attack occurred?
The facts of this case are still being revealed, but from what has come to light so far, it seems that the ideology of honor, or “the honor syndrome,” is likely to have played a role in this shooting. Here are several relevant examples:
1. Dylann Roof was from a small town in South Carolina, a state that tops the ranks of honor-oriented states in the US. Small towns in honor-oriented communities tend to magnify reputation-centered honor dynamics, according to social science research on homicide, suicide, and excessive risk-taking. In small towns, “everyone knows your name, and everyone knows your shame.”
2. Speaking of shame, the scrawny and shy Dylann Roof was 21 but didn’t have a job, had dropped out of school around the 9th grade, and lived variously with his parents or out of his car. Thus, he was far from a picture of success, a reality that easily threatens the masculine ideals for men in honor cultures. Prior research on rampage shootings in the US reveals that shooters are typically young men whose masculinity has suffered a serious blow prior to the shooting, through bullying, social humiliation, or romantic rejection. A disproportionate number of these mass shootings take place in small communities in honor-oriented states.
3. In honor states, people have better access to guns than almost anywhere else in the world. This access enhances the damage they can cause once they decide to inflict harm on others (or themselves). Dylann Roof reportedly planned to kill himself after killing people at the church, which is a common motif in rampage shootings. That he did not do so immediately after his killing spree probably reflects the fact that he spent more time preparing to kill others than he spent preparing to kill himself (it takes time and preparation to overcome the natural instinct to preserve one’s life, which is why so many suicidal people make multiple, small attempts at suicide before working up to being able to finally take their own lives).
But why target Black people? What does the ideology of honor have to do with racism? On the face of it, nothing. The ideology of honor does not, in itself, predispose people caught in the embrace of the honor syndrome to exhibit any particular prejudice, other than prejudices against those who fail to live up to the ideals of the honor code. However, when honor ideology is paired with racism, the two can make almost as powerful a combination as honor and religion (which is also not a natural coincident of honor). Like religion, racism defines who is “us” and who is “them,” or what social scientists refer to as our ingroups and our outgroups – the social groups with which we define or contrast our identities. What honor ideology does is compel people to distrust and dislike outgroups, and it further justifies honor-oriented people in displaying aggression toward outgroup members. Indeed, such aggression against outgroups can bring honor to oneself and to one’s honor circle, the ingroup. According to witnesses, Dylann asserted to his victims that “You are raping our women and taking over our country,” claims that, however misguided and ridiculous, reflect severe threats to honor for those who live according to the honor syndrome.
Some evidence suggests that Dylann Roof had previously contemplated a very different massacre at a local mall. Thus, his targeting of a Black church may well have been as much a matter of convenience as anything else, although evidence also suggests that he had adopted a strong racist ideology in recent years. Perhaps he would have been content to assert his “manhood” by killing random shoppers instead of Black church-goers. We may never know.