Friday, January 6, 2012

Southern discomfort

Despite having lived in Virginia for more than twenty years I still don't really get the culture here. When people started driving their pickup trucks with the tailgate down it seemed obvious to me that this was an obnoxiously aggressive act--if you rear-end a truck like that you and/or your vehicle will come off very badly. Then I found out that people do it to make their trucks more aerodynamic and therefore fuel-efficient. Which is a good thing, and not so obnoxious after all. So I was wrong.

On the other hand, there is a certain amount of aggression in the culture. Not only do lots of people hunt deer and other animals, quite a few boast about it, for instance with bow-hunting decals saying "I'm a real heart breaker!" Not to mention some of the Confederate pride stuff  that spills over into angry defiance. Of course most people here are not hostile rednecks (far from it), but some are. But perhaps this aggression is the dark side of a culture that, though mysterious to me, is not really so bad taken as a whole. Maybe it's all part of an honor culture.

At least that's what I started to think a couple of days ago when I spent part of the morning reading over a draft syllabus for a course on honor and reading part of a paper on honor as a warrior code. From this paper (by Dan Demetriou), which I can't find online, I discovered both this website and this quotation from Pierre Bourdieu:
There is nothing worse [according to the Kabyles of North Africa] than to pass unnoticed, like a shadow. Thus, not to greet someone is to treat him like an object. ... The challenge, on the contrary, is the highlight in the life of the one who receives it.
I wonder whether this is related to the fact that in this part of Virginia people typically greet each other when they pass, even if they are strangers. It's usually a friendly greeting, but it sometimes feels grudging or wary, as if the alternative might be a Wild West shoot-out. There is supposed to be a tradition of violence and feuding in the American South, which is supposed to come from years of fighting over territory and livestock around the England-Scotland border (see here and here, for instance). So it would make some sense if Virginians greeted each other as an alternative to insulting silence. Just a theory. But I like the theory because of the historical aspect, which also came up at a New Year's Day party I attended with some people from near Richmond who said their accent was supposed to come from the far North of England. It didn't really sound like it to me, but it did sound unusual.

Anyway, the website Honor Ethics looks worth checking out. As well as Dan Demetriou, its contributors include two people I know and respect: Jim Peterman and Lad Sessions.


  1. For some insight into the Virginia culture, I recommend the chapter in David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed on the migration from England to Virginia. Fischer looks at the four main migrations from England to the New World, each of which had its own unique population. If I remember correctly, he describes the migration to Virginia as consisting largely of "second sons," i.e., sons who were not going to inherit the land and title from their fathers. So, they went to Virginia to make their way. Thus, the colonists in Virginia were a class of "gentlemen."

  2. Thanks, I'll have to check that out. That book seems to be cited a lot by people who write on the subject, but I've never read it.

  3. FYI, the tailgate-down boosts fuel-efficiency concept has been reported as a false premise. There is apparently a bubble of air created when the tailgate is UP, which the oncoming air rides over, thus making the truck more aerodynamic. The effect of course varies with speed, make and model.

  4. Thanks, Jack. I wish more people knew about this--I'd feel safer driving behind them.