Southern Discomfort

A Southern cultural code of honor—a relic of a pig-herding past—lies behind high rates of violence.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on November 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


Bump up against a Northerner, frost the slight with an insult, and he's likely to toss it off with a shrug or a laugh. Not so a Southerner. You're likely to awaken anger and to prime visions of violence.

An insult has different emotional meanings for Northerners and Southerners, finds a University of Michigan researcher. And that, he says, makes the South a hotbed of homicide.

All the violence stems not from some intrapsychic source but a cultural code of honor born of a pig-herding past, claims Richard E. Nisbett, Ph.D. It's the legacy of Scotch-Irish settlers who brought with them the tough defensive stance herders the world over assume to protect their livelihood from rustlers.

It's long been claimed that the South and western regions settled by Southerners are more violent. Even de Tocqueville couldn't help noticing. Nisbett's detailed analysis of homicide rates from FBI files demonstrates that they're not only higher in the South, but highest in small Southern towns and cities and rural areas, especially the hills and dry plains appropriate for herding.

For small cities, homicide rates are three times higher in the South than in New England, Nisbett told the American Psychological Association meeting in Washington, D.C. In subregions such as the Texas Panhandle, the homicide rate is five times that in the similar terrain of Nebraska.

The data dispute time-worn explanations of such difference -- the heat, poverty, or the legacy of slavery. instead, they point to cultural factors, as do mounds of historical and anecdotal evidence.

For example, there's a documented preference for violent activities and rough pastimes that are legal or socially condoned -- from more hunting licenses per capita to college football player production to use of corporal punishment in schools. Attitude studies show that Southerners are more opposed to gun control and in favor of whatever war the U.S. is fighting and of spanking as a discipline technique.

In scrutinizing national opinion surveys, Nisbett found that white male Southerners don't endorse violence in general -- but in three specific ways: for protection, in response to insults, and in the socialization of children. Asked whether a man has the right to kill to defend his home, 36 percent of Southerners say yes, versus 18 percent of Northerners.

But the clincher came in the lab. Nisbett and colleagues devised a clever strategy of insult that was not terribly personal. When put to the test, Southern males reacted with anger (85 percent), Northerners with amusement. And given hypothetical scenarios, they got angrier in response to possible provocation and then responded more violently to later insults.

Southerners, concludes Nisbett, are highly sensitive to provocations that can be interpreted as insults. "By virtue of the emotional meaning that the insult has for him, the Southerner is more likely to display anger in situations where escalation is dangerous, and is more vulnerable to thoughts of violence in those situations"

That is, for him the best self-defense is a violent offense. What worries Nisbett is that 'cracker' culture, rooted in long-ago rural economic necessity, is now spreading to urban working-class America because it adds a romantic dash to everyday life.