Codifying Honor

I first saw the topic discussed on Facebook by the gay son of a dear Mormon friend. It then flooded the mainstream press, including ABCCNNTime, and the New York Times. I am referring to the noisy and–to me, at least–disturbing public controversy about the honor code at Brigham Young University. The news unfolded after an off-campus protest on April 20 and the subsequent delivery to the BYU administration of a petition bearing 90,000 signatures; the protesters and the signatories were seeking amnesty from the provisions of the honor code for victims of alleged sexual assault.

The stories are numerous, but they share one common thread. BYU undergraduate Madi Barney, who started the petition, said she was raped after inviting a man into her apartment. Margaret Crandall reported she was blackmailed into sex after being stalked on the Internet by a man who found a “compromising” photo of her there. Brooke, who didn’t share her last name, admitted going voluntarily to the apartment of a male student with whom she had had a previous (allegedly coerced) sexual encounter and then voluntarily taking LSD–after which she charged him with rape. Each of these young women found herself being investigated for acknowledged (if not admitted) violations of the school’s honor code. Notably, each of them had agreed to abide by that same strict honor code as a condition of admission to the university.

This code is fully available in university publications as well as online at Church Educational System Honor Code. General principles are listed as bullet points enumerating the “moral virtues encompassed in the gospel of Jesus Christ”:

  • Be honest
  • Live a chaste and virtuous life
  • Obey the law and all campus policies
  • Use clean language
  • Respect others
  • Abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee, and substance abuse
  • Participate regularly in church services
  • Observe Dress and Grooming Standards
  • Encourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code

Running to more than 1,500 words, this document spells out meticulously the actions prohibited under the code. They include not only such general activities as homosexual behavior, gambling, and illegal drug use. The policies also forbid sleeveless or formfitting clothing for both sexes, earrings and sideburns below the ear for men, and hair “extreme in style or color” for women. These rules may be archaic, as charged by Brooke Swallow-Fenton, currently a candidate for the Utah House of Representatives. They may be “notoriously strict,” as charged in a Huffington Post article on April 19. But they are neither secret nor vague.

I was briefly, but ardently, a Mormon. I knew the rules of behavior, and I not only voluntarily, but joyfully, obeyed them. I didn’t smoke cigarettes or marijuana. I abstained from coffee, tea, alcohol–and even Coke and Pepsi. I never watched movies rated M or worse. I wore the prescribed modest clothing, went to sacrament meeting every Sunday, and read the Book of Mormon and the other church scriptures regularly. I said “crap,” but that’s about as far down the four-letter-word road as I ever ventured. I observed the rules of chastity by default.

Even then, however, I don’t believe I confused behavior with virtue or honor. Even then, I saw my parents as virtuous and honorable, despite their daily and unregenerate violation of at least six of the commandments I was gladly willing to obey.

Forty years later, although I still believe that adherence to rigorous rules of behavior can bring order and even sanctity into our often chaotic lives, I have long since joined my parents in their profligacy (and then some). Moreover, I have become less and less likely to believe that behavior has much to do with moral virtue or that codes of conduct are codes of honor. So prohibitions against alcohol and sex and sideburns, from my current perspective, seem both archaic and excessively (if not notoriously) strict.

Of course, conduct is easily codified. Although honor is not, Wikipedia contains a list of over fifty American universities that still maintain some sort of honor code or system, most of which are concerned with maintaining academic integrity. However, Washington and Lee requires what General Lee expected, “gentlemanly behavior,” although its student conduct system uses quotation marks around the phrase. And the plaque memorializing the honor code at Vanderbilt contains a quote from a onetime chancellor: “Today I give you two examinations, one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry for there are many good men in this world today who cannot pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good men in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty.”

My prized American Heritage Dictionary, 5th edition, iPhone app defines honor as “a sense of principled uprightness of character; personal integrity.” That latter term it defines as “steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code” and notes that through etymology, it means “whole or complete.”

Honor: This is the value violated by the yes-means-no women who have raised their strident whines at BYU. It’s not the LSD nor the clandestine invitations nor the compromising photographs published on the Internet that mark them. It’s the fact that they promised to obey a code of conduct when they accepted admission to the university, and they broke that promise. They compromised their personal integrity when they decided to judge others by a standard by which they were unwilling to judge themselves. According to my lights, these are infractions against the “moral virtues encompassed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Of course–and here is where the my possibly convoluted argument convolves again–obeying rules of conduct has benefits in addition to those I mentioned above. Damon Linker, who calls himself “just another atheist Jewish Catholic,” makes this case in his article entitled “In Defense of BYU’s Honor Code” (The Week Apr 29). Although he acknowledges that the one rape reported at BYU in 2014 is probably an underrepresentation of the true numbers, he suggests that there probably are far fewer rapes at BYU than at other universities–precisely because of the honor code. He notes correctly that campus rape strongly correlates with alcohol use and occurs at frat parties and in dormitories with lax rules–or none–about who comes and goes and when. And then Linker makes his startling summation:

If we really wanted to cut rates of campus sexual assault, we could do worse than remaking secular universities in the image of BYU: Ban or severely restrict alcohol consumption; firmly regulate Greek life; and impose rules designed to make male students behave a little less like sexual predators and a little more like Mormons.

Linker is too politically correct to say so, but I am not: Perhaps female students–even Mormon ones–should behave a little more like Mormons. If they don’t, then they might learn along with Madi Barney, Margaret Crandall, Brooke, and countless other self-styled victims of sexual assault that even in 2016, when there seem to be no rules at all, sometimes actions do have consequences.

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