What Does It Mean to Be a Patriot?

"Every good citizen makes his country’s honor his own, and cherishes it not only as precious but as sacred. He is willing to risk his life in its defense and is conscious that he gains protection while he gives it." 

—Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was born and raised in the Carolinas. He practiced law in the western part of North Carolina, which later would become part of Tennessee. His work as a fron­tier lawyer helped him rise politically, eventually being elected as a representative of Tennessee to the new U.S. Congress—a shining example of a common man rising above his inherited station in life to the high­est levels of social influence.

However, it was his skill as a military commander that brought Jackson true fame. His military service began at the age of 13, when he fought in the American Revolutionary War against the British. He went on to serve in the Tennessee militia and fought against Chief Tecumseh in the War of 1812 and, sub­sequently, against Tecumseh’s Creek Indians, when he com­manded the likes of Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. Indeed, his victories during the War of 1812, especially at the Battle of New Orleans, may well have been the single most important factor in elevating him to the office of President 16 years later.

Alongside the respect he earned on the battlefield, Jackson also acquired a reputation for retribution against those who opposed him. Indeed, not only did he have multiple politicians and judges arrested for condemning his dec­laration of martial law after the Battle of New Orleans, but he also had six of his own men shot for the same “crime.” It seems that, in Jackson’s mind, to speak against him was akin to treason. And trea­son is not something easily countenanced by those who embrace the cultural ideology of honor. For Jackson, a personal betrayal and a collective betrayal were emotionally equivalent, for his country’s honor was fused with his own.

Jackson’s concept of honor derives from a system of beliefs, values, and social scripts associated with what social scientists call “honor cultures.” Honor cultures exist all over the world, but they are especially prevalent in countries throughout the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and in Central and South America. In honor cultures, reputation is everything, so people in such societies will do almost anything in defense of their reputations. Men in honor cultures strive to achieve a reputation for being tough and fearless, and for being utterly intolerant of disrespect. Women in such cultures strive to acquire and maintain reputations for loyalty and sexual purity. An affront to a woman’s honor is simultaneously an affront to the honor of every man in her circle, and honor-oriented men respond to honor threats—whether personal or collective—with aggression.

For historical reasons, people living in the southern and western United States are more prone to embrace the beliefs and values typical of honor cultures than are people living in the northern U.S. Consequently, dozens of studies over the last 25 years have shown that southern and western American states tend to exhibit elevated rates of all manner of honor-related behaviors, including argument-based homicides, school shootings, excessive risk-taking, and even suicide. An honor-based mentality is independent of education, religion, political party, and social status. Honor can infuse the worldviews of anyone, from working-class roughnecks to presidents of companies or countries.

President Jackson’s honor-orientation is reminiscent of the mental­ity of many sports teams in honor-oriented regions of the United States that view opposing teams as enemies, and whose fans cel­ebrate their teams’ victories as their own. In honor cultures, the honor circle connects the individual to the collective in an almost familial way. The honor circle becomes a “band of brothers,” an extension of the self.

Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you got up one morning and went through your normal routine—shower, make the bed, greet the family (preferably after the first cup of coffee). As you crack open the newspaper, you are met with an alarm­ing headline: The Statue of Liberty Has Been Attacked! You scan the first page for details, sloshing your coffee on the paper in your earnestness. The attack, it turns out, was the work of terrorists from Afghanistan, possibly linked to Al Qaeda. Their viciousness claimed the lives of more than 250 people, many of them tourists, and more than a few of them children. Adding insult to injury, the head of Lady Liberty had been blown off by the attackers, its twisted and charred remains lying in disgrace at her feet.

Would all Americans rally as one nation in response to a foreign attack on one of the most beloved symbols of our democracy? Or would cultural ideologies surface leading some to respond with greater malice than others?

How would you feel if this were to happen? Would partisanship disappear in such a moment? Would all Americans rally as one nation in response to this threat, this national outrage, this foreign attack on one of the most beloved symbols of our democracy? Or would cultural ideologies surface and guide people’s interpreta­tions and responses to the attacks, leading some to respond with greater malice than others?

This is the very question that Collin Barnes asked in a study sev­eral years ago, along with Lindsey Osterman and me. We posed a scenario like the one just described to a sample of nearly 200 white men from around the United States. Besides measuring these men’s endorsement of the ideology of honor, we also measured a variety of other characteristics, including their lev­els of religiosity, conservatism, and other personality characteristics that have been shown in previous studies to predict responses to intergroup conflict.

After describing the terrorist attack against the Statue of Liberty (and presenting a fictitious picture of Lady Liberty with her head blown off), we asked these men a set of questions to gauge their mental states and feelings in response to imagining this event. First, we provided them with space to write about their thoughts and feelings for as long as they wanted to do so. We later had a pair of judges (who didn’t know anything about our study’s purposes) read these open-ended responses and code them for their levels of hostility and anger. Next, we presented our study participants with four additional scenarios designed to be much more ambigu­ous than the attack on the Statue of Liberty. Let’s call these the stranger-danger scenarios. One of these scenarios, for instance, read like this:

You are standing in line at the post office when a dark-skinned man dressed in Middle Eastern garb walks in carrying a large, seemingly unmarked package. He is breathing hard, sweating profusely, and keeps looking at his watch.

We asked participants to read each of these four ambiguous scenarios and to rate how suspicious and threatening the person in the scenario seemed to them. These responses were designed to capture participants’ levels of vigilance to danger. Last, we asked participants to rate their support for severe interrogation techniques, even if those techniques cause lasting psychological or physical harm, as well as their support for America’s “war on terror.” We designed our measure of support for the war on ter­ror to be rather extreme, in part to see how far people might be willing to go in their responses to perceived national threats. For instance, in one item we asked whether people believed it was appropriate to engage in “preemptive attacks on countries that are suspected of harboring or supporting terrorists.” In another item, we asked whether respondents believed that the United States “should use nuclear weapons to defend its interests” against terrorists.

The results of this study were remarkable. Across all the mea­sures described, participants with strong honor ideology scores expressed greater hostility in their open-ended responses to the fictitious terrorist attack, as well as greater suspicion and vigi­lance in response to the ambiguous stranger-danger scenarios, and more support for the war on terror. In other words, men who endorsed the ideology of personal honor also appeared to feel a sense of collective honor threat after imagining an attack on a pre­eminent symbol of America, and they were more willing to sup­port a policy of preemptive strikes and even nuclear retaliation after contemplating this fictional attack. The nation’s honor was their honor, and it was sacred. Those who violate what is sacred must pay with blood.

Adpated from Honor Bound: How a Cultural Ideal Has Shaped the American Psyche by Ryan Brown, Oxford University Press. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Brown, R. P. (2016). Honor bound: How a cultural ideal has shaped the American psyche. Oxford University Press. (Link)
  • Barnes, C. D., Brown, R. P., Carvallo, M., Lenes, J. & Bosson, J. (2014). My country, my self: Honor, identity, and defensive responses to national threats. Self & Identity, 13, 638-662. (Link)
  • Barnes, C. D., Brown, R. P., & Osterman, L.L. (2012). Don’t tread on me: Masculine honor ideology in the US and militant responses to terrorism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38, 1018-1029. (Link)
  • Osterman, L. L., & Brown, R. P. (2011). Culture of honor and violence against the self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1611-1623. (Link)
  • Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview. (Link)