Honor Principle

Diversity and the Honor Principle

Eliza Hofkosh-Hulbert ’09

When discussing ways to understand and uphold the Honor Principle (HP), we often ask each other questions about hypothetical situations: Is it an Honor Principle violation to play loud music when my dormies might be studying? Is it Honorable to bring my ferret to class? Asking this kind of question is a good way to engage with the HP, which can otherwise seem either too amorphous or too simple to really wrangle with in our daily lives. But questions like these can also seem deceptively easy to answer with just a nod to the HP’s “reliance on individual judgment and conscience.” How do we create a healthy, self-regulating community if everyone’s individual understandings of Honorable behavior are constantly bumping up against each other? Don’t we all need to agree upon a standard of Honorable behavior if our ideal, HP-governed community is to function? In other words, if the HP is about not unnecessarily hurting or embarrassing each other, don’t we all need to agree on what behavior is hurtful and embarrassing? But we don’t.

This problem becomes especially important when we remember the diversity of experiences that Reedies come from, since those experiences have left us with sometimes very different understandings about what constitutes Honorable and Dishonorable action. Growing up in a particular class position, racial or ethnic group, gender, or educational situation (to name a few examples) can irrevocably shape our views of the world, which means of course that they influence both how we relate to people and how we go about trying to be Honorable. As Reed The Institution works to diversify its stereotypically white and class-privileged student body, our community is increasingly made up of people who bring very different backgrounds to the table. What’s more, our different backgrounds may or may not manifest themselves visibly to our dormies, classmates, and professors. This means that we can’t make assumptions about the kinds of experiences people have had, and leaves us with very little to work with in terms of imagining an all encompassing Community Norm of Honorable behavior.

One of my housemates told me this evening that she likes to think about Reed “as a community that takes care of each other and supports each other, and the honor principle as supporting that rather than just as policing individual behavior.” As she says, I think it’s important to remember that the HP is not just some vague moral barometer that allows us to think about individuals’ behavior in a variety of ways. Instead, as I understand it, the HP’s scope and potential interpretations are broad both because it’s meant to maintain a diverse and changing community, and also because it exists within a framework where a diversity of interpretation is both expected and welcomed. But what does that really mean, in a collective made up of so many individuals, identity groups, and subcultures? How do we really make it work, if we can’t always agree on what Honorable means?

My answer to this question is, in a word: communication. It means thinking outside of your own shoes, being open to differing opinions and to critical discussion. This is relatively easy for me to do when I can imagine Reed as made up of people who are more or less like me, who experience the world in the same ways that I do. While we may all be alike in some meta-spiritual sense, though, folks in my community come from places I don’t understand and think differently than I do. There are whole groups of my peers with whom I fundamentally disagree on lots of important and emotionally charged issues, either because of our different backgrounds or because we have different personalities on a more individual level. It can be hard to remember that these differences exist, what with all the talk we throw around about Community Norms and Reed Culture, as if they are static and all encompassing.  

Even the idea of A Reedie as some iconoclastic personality type sometimes inhibits my ability to keep in mind that some of the classmates, staff-people, and professors I interact with might be approaching the world with perspectives different from my own. But even when I can remember that this diversity of perspectives is our reality, how can I account for the needs and feelings of everyone, all the time? If I tried to do that, one might expect me to become cripplingly paranoid about accidentally offending someone and totally unable to function.

I don’t think the Honor Principle is about being perfectly aware of everyone’s differing needs at all times; that would be impossible, since there will always be people I don’t know and therefore can’t fully understand, regardless of how similar (or different) their backgrounds and personalities might be to my own. This is where the communication comes in, and where the HP provides for—even makes possible—a healthily self-regulating community that is also diverse in a multitude of ways. Because the HP is so open ended, it requires that we are constantly in dialogue with each other, constantly re-negotiating what being Honorable means to each of us. That doesn’t mean we ever have to agree. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that we won’t, at least not when it comes to the Hot Button Issue of the Moment, whatever it happens to be. I find this both maddening and totally liberating, in that it means we are never really done answering the big questions I posed in the beginning of this essay (like, What the hell does Honorable really mean?), and so we’re never really done learning how to make our community work.

It sometimes takes a lot of effort, but I love that the HP’s emphasis on communication allows me to make mistakes, maybe to accidentally offend people who see the world differently than I do, and then to listen and explain and hopefully come to a greater understanding of where they’re coming from. Once I have achieved that understanding, I try to hold myself accountable to trying on their perspective when I think about my place in the Reed community.