Throughout much of human history, societies were governed by the few — and not the many. This means that relatively few people decided the laws that governed the rest. What happens as a result is simple: A few crazy individuals might be granted the ability, through nothing more than high birth or random chance, to implement changes to society that could echo for millenia. And they have. How does this happen? Almost universally, it happens through law.
One author notes: “One can contrast cultures of honor with cultures of law. From the viewpoint of anthropology, cultures of honor typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or government.”
Those of us who live in developed 21st century countries might believe that only anarchy can result from a community that functions without any higher authority, but that’s not necessarily true. Although nomadic tribes had innumerable methods for doling out punishment, it should be noted that many simply adopted the mob mentality: when you stole from one person, you stole from everyone. And how do the people you stole from fix that problem? They delete you from the family (brutally).
The author continues: “In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of your person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Seven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.”
In other words, revenge may have been an appropriate and sensible response for crimes committed by nomadic communities. And that history is important to understanding why honor killings are still committed today, when society has almost universally transitioned from nomadic communities to agricultural and even industrial communities. The trick is getting people to understand that the reasons for their actions are not necessarily relevant to today’s society. Thus far, that has proved difficult for legislators to achieve.