Law, Society and Film: Unforgiven’s Call to Substitute Honor with Dignity

This paper calls attention to “honor” and “dignity” as two fundamental, antithetical values, both firmly rooted at the heart of social orders and legal systems in the contemporary western world. An antithetical analysis of these concepts has long been suggested, in an anthropological context, by Pierre Bourdieu (1966: 228); I argue for its relevance to contemporary western societies, their cultures and laws. I suggest that honor that manly basis for behavior codes in cultures throughout history and around the world, is incorrectly misjudged and underestimated as an archaic, irrelevant remnant of antiquity; it is thus improperly neglected and ignored in socio-political rhetoric as well as in the legal context. Dignity, on the other hand, though officially hailed and embraced by national and international authorities around the world, is mostly left unspecified and amorphous. It thus remains ineffective or, worse, a potentially manipulatable basis for arbitrary decision-making. I believe that comparatively viewed as fundamental yet potentially competing, adversary, fundamental notions, honor and dignity emerge as two antithetical bases of two distinct value systems. Such comparison will enable us to better detect and understand the persistence of the honor-based value system in western societies, cultures and legal systems; it will further make it possible to contemplate a shift to a different, dignity-based one.

Examining the manifestations and implications of western legal systems’ underlying honor-based values, and suggesting their replacement with alternative, dignity-based ones, is a monumental task. In this paper I merely wish to outline the described line of thought, and offer a preliminary “taste” of its gist. For this purpose, I prefer to not refer to any particular legal system, looking, instead, to culture. Following a basic, antithetical presentation of “honor” and “dignity”, I look to a single contemporary film, and read it in a manner that, I believe, demonstrates the theoretical, jurisprudential, “law-and-society” argument presented above. More specifically, I read Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as revealing the honor-code that underlies social and legal norms, calling to substitute it for dignity-based ones.

Concurrently, this modern day, immensely popular western exposes the true face of the honor-based value system at the heart of the western film genre; further, it subversively undermines this value system, replacing it with a dignity-based one. In so doing, the film calls on to “real world” social and legal systems to follow in its footsteps and apply the same critical analysis and reformative activism to western law and society at large.

The reading of Unforgiven offered in this paper demonstrates the workings, scope and nature of the study of “law and film”. In this sense, the paper offers an exploration this novel, evolving type of scholarship, suggesting how “law-and-film” is a sub-genre of “law-and-society”. Let me say a few words about “law-and-film” for the uninitiated. While law is a system of organized power, commercial film is constituted by the economics of pleasure. Nevertheless, law and film are two of contemporary society’s major discourses, two prominent vehicles for the chorus through which society tells and creates itself Law and film both create meaning through storytelling, performance and ritualistic patterning, envisioning and constructing human subjects and social groups, individuals and worlds. Each is a dominant social discourse constituting “imagined communities”. Furthermore, films, much like judicial decisions and legislative rhetoric, can – and do – constitute communities (of viewers) that are often engaged in judgment, “legal-like reasoning”, the pursuit of justice, and self-creation- through-judgment-and-justice. Judgment is often an activity not merely portrayed but actively performed by films, together with their (constructed and/or actual) viewers; it is often a function of film’s constitution of a community-of-viewers and its engagement in social constitution of primary values, institutions and concepts.

An interdisciplinary approach to these two disciplines is, thus, potentially fraught with intriguing insights. Indeed, over the last decade, the combination “law and film” has been increasingly visible in lectures, law-school course titles, academic conferences and popular culture websites.

 “Law-and-film”, a sub-category of the evolving “law-and-culture” perspective, can be seen as a recent offshoot of more established and familiar interdisciplinary scholarly genres, particularly “law-and-society” and “law-and-literature.” Still in its nascent stages of development, law-and-film scholarship eludes precise “scientific” definition and cannot yet be characterized by a distinct methodology or worldview. Law-and-film scholarship does, however, reflect certain shared fundamental assumptions regarding the central role of law and film in society. The connections, similarities, and analogies that can be drawn from these two discourses – and their respective socio-cultural functions – engender unique insights that can be gained from an integrated analysis of these two spheres. Writers who explore this new field emphasize different aspects and interpretations of this common ground.

My own work in the field reflects an understanding of “law-and-film” that comprises three fundamental premises: that some films’ modes of socio-cultural operation parallel that of the law; that some films perform viewer-engaging judgment; and that some films contain popular jurisprudence. The study of films’ performance of these functions, is at the heart of my study of law-and-film. In reference to the three basic premises, law-and-film studies may sometimes be distinguished on the basis of their primal focus, and labeled accordingly as examining “film paralleling law,” “film as judgment” and/or “film as jurisprudence.” Law-films, films that treat legal issues as their subject matter, often operate in two or three of these dimensions, offering a complex and powerful combination of these cinematic-legal functions. Their study may often require an integrated examination of two or all three of their cinematic-legal functions.

This paper’s study of Unforgiven is in line with the said theoretical framework. Having presented this framework in detail elsewhere, here I rely on it, while demonstrating its workings and further exploring it.