The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. Sophia Wertz, ’20 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar in economics and international politics, won Honorable Mention for her essay, “The Peace/Violence Paradox: Honor in Different Light(s)” in response to the prompt, “What does it mean to live a life with honor(s)?”
“The Peace/Violence Paradox: Honor in Different Light(s)”
The year is 1966. In South Vietnam, 20-year-old Alfred Rascon, a Mexican immigrant to the United States, is serving as a medic in South Vietnam. Despite his age, his contributions to his platoon were nothing short of selfless and monumental. American troops faced a well-armed enemy force, and many near-fatal injuries plagued sergeants. Dodging bullets and grenades, and already critically wounded himself, Rascon barreled further into enemy gunshots to attempt to save his troops. Throwing his body into artillery fire, he protected sergeants on the brink of death and saved their lives. This cost him a bullet to his hip. As he was evacuated to a helicopter, a chaplain read him his last rites, convinced he was dying.
After a miraculous recovery in Japan, Rascon returned to the United States and became a citizen. He continued to serve – returning to active duty in Vietnam and reporting to a station in Panama. He worked for the government in a myriad of capacities and was eventually assigned to the Office of the Surgeon General, serving twice in Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 2000, he was awarded the Medal of Honor – the United States’ highest military award – for his courageous actions taken in military service.
The year is 2016. In Pakistan, Zeenat Rafiq was murdered in her family’s apartment at the hands of her mother, Parveen. According to the Associated Press, as neighbors rushed to help save the girl, her mother screamed from the rooftop: “I have killed my daughter. I have saved my honor. She will never shame me again.” Zeenat was killed because she defied her mother’s orders for an arranged marriage, which would soil her family’s honor in the eyes of many neighbors.
Tragically, this was far from an isolated incident. Sobering statistics from the Human Rights Watch reveal that 1,000 Pakistani women die in “honor killings” each year; that is, they die because their actions have brought dishonor to their families. The moral grounds which provide justification for such violence against women are couched under the pretense that women bring shame to their families through sexual infidelity (real or alleged), demanding divorce, and even being the victim of rape.
What is honor? How can it be used to both reward selfless action but simultaneously justify macabre and gruesome violence?
Honor itself is a concept so ubiquitous it transcends cultural and temporal boundaries, defining eras and peoples, yet it is difficult to truly know what is honorable. Like aesthetics and intelligence, honor is an abstraction which is both extremely personal and subjective. This is inherent in the very definition of the word – honor not only describes high respect or great esteem, but also adherence to a conventional standard of conduct. Herein lies the source of such a great disparity of actions done in honor.
The idea of what is honorable is based on fundamentally different ethical values, which are created and shaped by fallible people. The juxtaposition of the honor which awarded Rascon the military’s highest award with the honor which justified the murder of Zeenat is so striking because it demonsrates the stark differences between an American interpretation of honor with that of another culture. We are quick to applaud the work of Rascon on grounds of honor but condemn the actions of Parveen.
In no way do I mean to imply we should embrace violence to live honorable lives. I only seek to demonstrate the problem with basing one’s life purely on grounds of what is honorable. Therefore, I would like to amend the prompt.
What does it mean to live a life with honor? I do not think we will ever answer such a question in a way that is fundamentally concise. However, I believe that rather than striving to live an honorable life, we instead live a selfless life. Through our differences in the meaning of honor, we can recognize the inherent value in living a life to serve others.