Saving Face

The Corruption of Honour

(c) Steven Lee

The American Novelist Douglas Preston believes that the strange case of Amanda Knox was ‘all about honour, reputation and the saving of face’ (Guardian, October 5th, 2011). Amanda Knox, along with Raffaele Sollecito, recently had her conviction for murdering Meredith Kercher overturned. She spent 4 years in an Italian jail for a crime she did not commit, even though the evidence strongly implicated a small-time crook called Rudy Guede. ‘Strange case’ is an appropriate term, given the flimsiness of the evidence, the sordid nature of the murder and the bizarre media frenzy over ‘Foxy Knoxy’ and her alleged adventures in sex.

Neither Knox nor the finer details of the legal case are of interest here. What is of interest is Preston’s apportioning of the blame onto, for want of a better term, Italian culture – more specifically, the importance of the Italian concept of face, la faccia. Preston argues that, for the chief investigator to admit to a grave miscarriage of justice in such a high profile case, would have risked reputation-destroying public humiliation, not only for him but for the Italian police and judiciary. The act of losing face, and the shamed reputation it would surely bring, was more than enough cause to put honour before truth.

Preston may or may not be right with his analysis of such a complex case. He is right, however, to view the saving and losing of face as a powerful driver in social and political affairs. At the same time, he is wrong to suggest that ‘face’ is a uniquely Italian or Mediterranean characteristic. Southern Europe does not have a monopoly on the concept, with variations of la faccia existing in many, if not all, cultures. The prevalence of this powerful force should give pause for reflection on what is normally considered a fairly benign and even positive human/cultural characteristic. In short, far from being an anthropological curiosity, the need to protect honour and reputation can corrupt
life as much as enhance it.

By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.