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Conflict Transformation and Honor Cultures in Romeo + Juliet

Romeo – the most impulsive and misguided romantic hero in the history of Western literature – has much to teach us about the way conflict unfolds, how we resolve disputes in the absence of a strong central legal authority, what family means, and what dangers lurk when inexperienced peacemakers try to negotiate peace in “honor cultures.”

Because most of the English-speaking world honors the rule of law more than the strongman’s dictate, we often recoil from the type of tribal violence that expresses itself in cultures like the one in which the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet unfolds.

In both plays, a cycle of escalating violence is set into motion by a casual insult. In Romeo and Juliet, a member of the Capulet family makes a rude hand gesture in the direction of a group of Montagues.

Tony and Maria’s star-crossed fate begins with an exchange of insults choreographed by Jerome Robbins, set to music by Leonard Bernstein, and put into words by Stephen Sondheim.

Honor Cultures

As social science popularizer Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book Outliers, people descended from herding cultures such as those that flourished in the Mediterranean where Shakespeare sets his scene depended for their safety upon the creation and maintenance of publicreputations for violence.

As Gladwell explains,

A herdsman is off by himself [and] is under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals. So he has to be aggressive: he has to make it clear through his words anddeeds that he is not weak. He has to be willing to fight in response to even the slightest challenge to this reputation – and that’s what a “culture of honor” means. It’s a world where a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth.

Members of honor cultures meet outsiders with a suspicion so finely tuned that violent retaliation follows slights that rule-of-law cultures can safely ignore. You’re rude to my sister. I call you a boor. You brandish a knife. I grab my gun. You lunge. I shoot. You lie in the street, blood pooling around your head, and I flee for my life.

Disrespect for or Absence of a Robust Rule of Law

Your brothers watch you die. They break into my father’s house and kill my uncle. Now we have a family feud, a gang war or tribal border skirmish that will continue in escalating cycles of violence into generations not yet born.

Which brings us back to Romeo, and his American counterpart Tony in the 1960s musical West Side Story. In both plays, much is made of the warring families’ contempt for the law.

In Romeo and Juliet, the law is the Prince who chronically complains about his subjects’predictable refusal to follow his edicts. In West Side Story, the law is personified by the hapless Officer Krupke, a racist clown who is as disrespected by the Sharks as he is by the Jets.

In fact, the gangs’ contempt for Krupke is the only point on which they agree.

Read the full post here.

Part II of this post, Why Untrained Peacemakers Fail is here.

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