Has Honor Become an Anachronism?

January 5th, 2012

By Dan Miller

A few quaint vestiges persist and others are salvageable.

In May of last year, I wrote an article about the University of Virginia Honor Code and charges that a student then about to be graduated from the School of Law had lied by writing a letter to the editor in which he claimed that the police had unlawfully harassed him. He “detailed a walk to his apartment during which two officers pulled him over without legitimate cause, mocked him, searched him, shoved him against the police car, and eventually followed him home.”  Following publication of his letter and a police investigation based upon it he recanted, stating “I wrote the article to bring attention to the topic of police misconduct…. The events in the article did not occur.”  The matter came to the attention of the Honor Council. We don’t know much about what happened next.

When I was a law student there (1963 – 1966) Honor Council deliberations were secret; they remain so.  Then, but not necessarily now, a student found guilty of lying, cheating or stealing had to leave the University promptly; graduation was out of the question and there were no exceptions. A small black bordered announcement appeared in the student daily following his departure announcing simply that a student, not named, had withdrawn because of an Honor Code violation.  According to an article at American Thinker,

UVA Law School Dean Paul Mahoney made … clear in a follow-up response to a previous AT article, the Perkins case is classified.

… internal disciplinary processes are confidential…. There will be no public statement of the existence of an Honor investigation (or any other disciplinary proceeding) unless the subject of the investigation chooses to make one.  In the event that an Honor proceeding or other disciplinary action is unresolved at the time of graduation, the subject is typically permitted to participate in the ceremony but does not actually receive a degree pending the outcome of the proceeding.

It appears, as noted in the American Thinker article, that the “gentleman” received a Juris Doctor degree from the University in 2011 and is now employed as a “legal intern” in Pennsylvania.

The Honor Code, strict adherence to it and the draconian consequence of violation when I was a student there made life at “Mr. Jefferson’s University” more congenial than it would otherwise have been.  Exams were not monitored and students considered cheating to be dishonorable and therefore unacceptable.  Statements of fact by one’s fellow students could be and were taken at face value and theft was so rare that bicycles, backpacks, books and class notes were commonly left about, secure in the belief that they would remain untouched until the owner returned.  Upon presentation of their U. Va. student ID cards, students’ checks were routinely accepted by local merchants.

How about the real world, the one where most of us now live? Are lying, cheating and stealing so common as to pass unnoticed or at least without comment (except when members of opposing factions do take notice and comment)? Often, it seems as though lying, cheating and stealing are among the perks we confer upon the Honorable Members of our Congress when we elect them.  Corporate and union officials often seem to be members of separate but equal societies dedicated to enabling the depredations of those Honorable Members as well as their own and those of each other.

A more recent American Thinker blog article suggests an Honor Code for elected officials, based on a military code of honor.  It suggests no means of implementation or enforcement.  Wouldn’t that be rather like the symbolic reading of the United States Constitution when our then new House of Representatives began its first session in 2010? How many listened attentively and thereafter acted behaved differently than in the past? Had the Constitution been read aloud at the beginning of the previous Congress, would ObamaCare and other at best highly questionable legislation have been enacted? Would Speaker Pelosi have made her memorable remark when asked whether ObamaCare was constitutional, “Are you serious? Are you serious?”

Business as usual

As long as business continues as usual, things are likely to get worse rather than better and an obvious question is, how can we change enough paradigms to make things better?  Under current paradigms, former Speaker Gingrich was badly out of line when he asserted that Governor Romney had “lied.”  Senator McCain

slammed Newt Gingrich Thursday for calling Mitt Romney “a liar,” accusing him of crossing the line of “something that we don’t do in politics.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to call your opponent a liar. That’s just something we don’t do in politics unless you certainly have some overwhelming proof,” said McCain on CBS’s “The Early Show.” The Arizona senator endorsed Romney on Wednesday in New Hampshire.

The former Speaker was not talking about innocent “little white lies;” he was talking about whoppers told to gain political advantage.  Mr. Justice Alito also did the unspeakable when he moved his lips and appeared to say “not true” during President Obama’s State of the Union address to the Congress. The context was the Court’s then recent Citizens United decision.

According to this article at Huff ‘n Puff, Mr. Justice Alito was substantively correct but what he did was in bad form.

Longstanding tradition holds that Supreme Court Justices sit silently during the State of the Union. Unlike the senators and representatives, they don’t stand up and clap for things they agree with. The Justices are supposed to stay about the political fray.

If Justices shouldn’t stand and clap when they agree, they shouldn’t nod vigorously and mouth their disagreement when they think the president is wrong. Staying above the fray goes both ways.

You know Washington has become way too partisan when Supreme Court Justices can’t even control themselves.

That perception is a big part of the problem. 

Truthful words spoken or only mouthed may indeed be in “bad form” because they can hurt feelings, because decorum is a good lubricant, because civility is cool and because we seem to want to shield elected and wannabe elected officials from impolite criticism. Which is more harmful to the nation?  Words such as “he lied” and “not true,” or the statements which are themselves untrue?

Falsely representing non-occurrences as though they had occurred is no less evil for a President of the United States who, for good or for bad, wants Supreme Court precedent to be obviated by legislation than it is for a law student who wants to fight racial injustice by fabricating non-occurrences and getting his fabrications published as fact.  In view of the vast powers the President already has, and the additional powers he seems determined to confer upon himself, most recently through “recess appointments,” it is far worse.

General Robert E. Lee

“Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one; the man
who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice.”

Despite the benefits of proper decorum, the benefits of adherence to objective truth are far greater and far more important. Yet when we hear our elected officials and those who seek to achieve that status lie (sometimes managing to contradict themselves in the process) we often try to dismiss their untruths as “merely politics.” Perhaps changing just that one politically ubiquitous paradigm could bring substantive changes for the better to the manner in which our political system functions.  When an elected or wannabe elected official lies, how about cutting him no slack but instead letting him, and others, know as politely as possible that we don’t like it even one little bit.

Dogs, who haven’t the ability to lie, try very hard to please us; they can sometimes deceive us because we don’t understand them very well, but they can’t lie.  They understand us quite well when we express disapproval of their actions gently but firmly. Politicians might rise to the same level if suitably encouraged. A small start, perhaps, but a necessary one and well worth trying.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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2 Responses to “Has Honor Become an Anachronism?”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Perhaps what’s missing these days is an individual sense that one should be honorable. It’s still there in some quarters, but in general the kind of dishonorable behavior that used to be shocking gets little more than a yawn today. Perhaps it’s a loss of traditional values (not religious values necessarily).

    I think the messages and role models we’re inundated with on TV and in movies have something to do with it — all values are mocked and derided. Moral equivalence overrides other considerations; no matter what someone does or thinks, it’s automatically assumed (by some) that it’s as good or valuable as anything else. Imagine being bombarded by all that crap when we were kids — we’d probably both be living in our parents’ basements, cohabitating with another guy, bathing monthly and toking daily, and occupying the local park.

  2. larry |

    We might be residing in the white house.

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