February 24, 2011

Cowboys and Outliers

Book club last night. We read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. What a fabulous book! I love ideas ~ that’s why I love TED, the website that highlights ideas. In fact, Malcolm has a fabulous TED talk about spaghetti sauce that you should immediately shirk work to watch!

Malcolm’s detractors have accused him of dumbing things down, of stating the obvious, of not being “academic” enough, of logical fallacy, and of focusing too much on anecdotal evidence. To that I say pshaw! Yes, he’s not academic ~ that’s his charm. He has the amazing ability to take fascinating academic research (giving the people full credit) and then telling a great story about it, simplifying it all in such a way that it strikes most readers as, dang!, why didn’t I think of that before. Fascinating stuff. I have ordered ALL his books.

But what I wanted to talk about today is one idea out of Outliers from Chapter 6, Harlan, Kentucky, “Die Like a Man, Like Your Brother Did!” He begins the chapter by describing a family feud, much like the Hatfields and McCoys, in Harlan, Kentucky. Generation after generation, relatives shoot and kill other relatives of Howard and Turner clans. Malcolm’s contention is that this is an example of a Culture of Honor. Cultures of Honor take root in marginally fertile areas with herding societies, like Scotland and Ireland and Greece and Italy and the Basque region of Spain. The idea is that farming is a cooperative society, while herding is much more singular, and a herdsman has to worry about an animal being stolen and is under constrant threat. He’s aggressive (and it is a “he”) and he can’t be seen as weak. Reputation is everything. The people who settled this area of Kentucky are of Scotch-Irish descent, and plus they live on marginal land, thus keeping the tradition alive. (Middle Eastern countries who stone to death women who have been raped, which besmirches the family’s honor, is also a prime example. Another example is the Godfather movies, which I’ve been watching almost obsessively lately.)

What really struck me was that this was also my life, to some extent, growing up on a Western ranch. The Myth of the Cowboy is very much a Culture of Honor. All you have to do is read a Western to get that. And people who live in the West who revere the cowboy naturally take on a culture of honor. In fact, there’s a huge movement right now about ethics and values called Cowboy Ethics, based on the books of James P. Owen. I think the State of Wyoming just adopted it as law. (Here’s a video about it - very moving, but troubling too for me.) Ranching in Wyoming is a marginal proposition because we have such little rainfall and therefore so little vegetation. We’re a herding culture, as far as ranching is concerned.

I think I’ve mentioned on this blog about our family’s feud. The story as I’ve heard it goes like this: When my grandfather passed away in the 40s, my dad and my uncle became partners on the ranch. Now, the ranch could barely support one family much less two. And, the story goes, that my dad was my grandfather’s favorite and my uncle was my grandmother’s favorite, and because my grandpa died, my uncle had the run of the place. He very much wanted to be John Wayne, the Culture ~ dare I say Cult ~ of Honor. So in the 80s my family decided we wanted no part of it and tried to split the ranch. What followed was the family feud, much like the Hatfields and McCoys, between my family and my uncle’s family. No one was ever shot and killed, true, but it came close. People were beaten up, dogs were shot, people tried to run over other people with cars, things like that. My dad and my brother-in-law, I’m convinced, died because of the stress of it all (my dad from cancer and my brother-in-law from a massive heart attack). Today, none of my side of the family ranches, though my brother dabbles.

Yes, there’s a huge upside to Culture of Honor. It’s about an ideal, about being a good ethical person, about having personal pride when you don’t have much else. However, there’s a huge downside too. It justifies might makes right (see the Johnson County War) and the oppression of minorities and women and many other things. It glorifies violence. Human life is worth less than honor.

I can’t help but focus on the downside. A Culture of Honor is a man’s world, and being female means you ain’t worth spit. Women try many ways to find worth in this culture. Some submit and wholeheartedly shoulder the mantle of second-class citizen and their identity is solely derived from the men in their lives and from their children. Religion fits nicely with this vision. However, other women try to rebel. They may become promiscuous (sexual power), they may try to be men (because men innately have power and worth), they may turn themselves inside out trying to find ways to have worth. How many times have you heard the descriptions of pioneer women? Tough old broad. Mind of her own. You wouldn’t know that she wore dresses when she was young. Could give birth and then go out and feed cows. Etc., etc. Often, they’re described by their masculine traits.

(FYI There are only two women in Malcolm's book.  One richest person in the world who gets ONE LINE, and then Malcolm's mother, who gets the epilogue.)

And what about if you’re a minority or if you’re gay? Another identity that fits nowhere in the puzzle.

It’s so great when you come across an explanation, a tool, that fits so well with your experience of life and explains things in a new way!

Question of the Day: Did you grow up in a Culture of Honor?


Ken Olsen said...

Well said, Tamara, on many levels. The Culture of Honor is an interesting phrase, obviously part myth, part legend, and now very much a marketing slogan (if Wyoming is making it so official).

As you peel back the layers in this post, you aptly demonstrate that the mythology hides a lot of pain, a lot of struggle and a lot of injustice.

I can't wait to read your memoir. (no pressure)

Elin said...

I love Ted Talks too! And thanks for directing us to Malcolm Gladwell's video. I'll save that for later. ;)
My favorite is the 'The Trouble with the Geniuses'I,II. You'll clearly see the power of persuasion. I'm glad that you're open to say that it's fabulous, I really think so too.