OPINION: Resolution #5 and the Spirit of the Social Code

I’m writing this piece to express my deep concern about the changes to the Social Honor Code that the student body passed at last Sunday’s Plenary. Resolution #5, intended to fight acts of discrimination on Haverford’s campus, altered the meaning of the Social Code entirely. While discrimination may be the most important social issue that Haverford faces at the moment, it is irresponsible to weaken the Code in an effort to resolve a single issue. I have quoted the new Social Code below, with the text that was added in Resolution #5 bolded.

“Our community’s social relationships are also based on mutual trust, concern and respect. We must consider how our words and actions, regardless of the medium, may affect the sense of acceptance essential to an individual’s or group’s participation in the community. We strive to foster an environment that genuinely encourages respectful expression of differing values in honest and open discussion. We recognize that acts of discrimination and harassment, including, but not limited to, acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, discrimination based on religion or political ideology, and discrimination based on national origin or English capability are devoid of respect and therefore, by definition, violate this Code. Upon encountering actions or values that we find degrading to ourselves and to others, we should initiate dialogue with the goal of increasing mutual understanding.”

As it stood until Sunday, the Social Honor Code was a sound guide for student interaction at Haverford. It encouraged careful consideration of words and actions, and supported dialogue as a means to foster understanding among disagreeing parties. Unlike the Academic Code, the Social Code was intentionally ambiguous. It could be applied equally well to drunken belligerence (see the abstract for Rip Van Winkle), confrontations about harmful language, and a wide variety of other social situations, both serious and mundane. The ambiguous nature of the Code was its strength- it governed, without preference, all social interactions at Haverford.

This resolution, however, has changed the Social Code fundamentally. Rather than a broadly applicable guideline for interaction, the new Code is a specific proscription against discrimination and harassment. While the original language of respect and mutual understanding remains in the Code, the use of the term ‘violate’ and the nine-item list now dominate the paragraph. By listing their specific grievances, the presenters of this resolution have made it very difficult to read the Code as anything but legislation against these nine varieties of harassment.

Arguments against interpreting the Code in this new light are fairly easy to construct. After all, the addition is only a single sentence, and one that bans acts “including, but not limited to” those listed. If it still covers all of the issues dealt with in the old Code, how could the change be bad?

Unfortunately, Resolution #5 frames the jurisdiction of the Social Code in a new and very different light. Students who have lived under the old Code recognize that this new version can still apply to any social problem that might arise at Haverford. Anyone reading the Code with a fresh set of eyes, however, will understand the Social Code as legislation about specific issues of harassment, not as an overall standard for conduct. A current student might be able to read around the new language and understand that “respectful expression of differing values” and “actions or values that we find degrading to ourselves and others” can apply to any action or value. A new or prospective student, however, will only understand the remainder of the Social Code as it relates to the list of banned acts. While it is nice to think that “including, but not limited to” protects the versatility of the Code, the amendment is worded so strongly that it overpowers the original language.

In particular, the phrase “by definition, violate this Code” represents a break with the meaning of the old Social Code. Until Sunday, the Social Code was not a set of laws that could be broken. The only way to violate the Code was to refuse the opportunity to reach mutual understanding through discussion. Unlike the Academic Code, suspected violations of which must appear before Honor Council, the Social Code encouraged students to seek one-on-one resolutions to conflicts, rather than relying on Honor Council to police violations. Under the new language of violation, however, the Social Code functions like the Academic Code. Rather than serving as a guideline for interaction and a standard for behavior, the new Code is a law to be broken. Resolution #5 is a rhetorically powerful stand against discrimination, but its strong wording comes at the expense of a broadly applicable Social Honor Code. The focus of the Code is now firmly on punishing those who discriminate and harass.

I have wrestled with my feelings about this resolution for the past couple of days. On one hand, issues of discrimination against minorities of many types are problems at Haverford that need to be addressed by the student body and by Honor Council. On the other, a Social Honor Code written as an anti-discriminatory treatise diminishes its effectiveness as a guide for all aspects of student life. This resolution has corrupted the intention of the Social Honor Code for an individual, if noble, purpose.

I don’t have a solution to this problem at the present. As a community, we need to address the concerns of those who raised and supported this resolution, but changes to the meaning and spirit of the Honor Code are not the appropriate means by which to address them. Until a solution to this problem that doesn’t change the meaning of the document is reached, however, I cannot vote to ratify an Honor Code that includes these changes. I urge all Haverford students to think carefully about this amendment and consider the implications of accepting the Social Honor Code as it now stands.

Correction 2/19 11:45 AM: An earlier version of this article included an incomplete paragraph, the result of a copy/paste error. The mistake has been corrected. 

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8 Responses

  1. Emily Berlin says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with this same problem. I think Bill did a great job expressing a lot of my concerns about this amendment. It does change the scope of the social honor code and focuses it on discrimination and harassment which are only two of many ways to violate the social honor code. That’s the reason I chose to vote against this amendment at Plenary.

    That being said, I also find it hard to argue against this amendment when I am not vulnerable to most of these attacks. Perhaps people who have felt this discrimination should be given a louder voice than myself- who for the most part hasn’t faced that much discrimination on campus.

    In the end, I don’t believe that the amendment will have a huge impact on combating discrimination and harassment because it does not solve the biggest problem: lack of confrontation on campus. Students are already aware that they can confront one another for acts of discrimination or harassment (I refuse to take seriously anyone who denies this fact) and I do not believe that this amendment will change that.

    • Bill Ristow says:

      Emily, I think that your point about people who face discrimination being given a louder voice in this discussion is important. It seems like it’s the heart of what Resolution #5 wants to accomplish.

      I thought a lot about the implications of my privilege while writing this article, and considered not publishing it for that reason. In the end, my opinion on the matter wasn’t formed from a desire to silence minority voices or diminish their experiences, so I published.

      I think that the changes to the Honor Code, especially a focus on mediation by Honor Council over individual confrontation, represents a big enough break with the previous Honor Code to be worth discussing. I’m glad that you enjoyed the article and hope that you continue the conversation about minority voices and the Honor Code with your friends.

  2. Elliott Schwartz says:

    Nice article, Bill. (But you might want to do something about the end of the sixth paragraph.)

    I can offer no definite proof, but I wonder if this amendment is part of a broader trend of attempts to legislate away discrimination. Is that possible? Maybe. Is it wise? I think not. I think there are more effective ways to get rid of discrimination, especially at Haverford, which is a fairly safe environment compared to the rest of the wide world.

  3. Miriam Hwang-Carlos says:

    In an ideal world, I would agree with you that the ambiguous nature of the honor code is a strength that enables the code to apply equally to all social settings at Haverford. In reality, this is not enough. It is unfortunate that we need to spell out that discrimination/harassment violates the honor code, but based on my own experiences at Haverford and based on conversations I have had with other students of color, we do need to spell this out. (I speak mainly of race here not to imply that racism is more important than other forms of discrimination, but because that is what I have more personal experience with.) The resolution adds to the honor code, not detracts from it. The code still applies equally to all of the previous situations, it just clarifies one implication of “trust, concern, and respect” that unfortunately needed clarification.

    I do not believe that the addition of this sentence will make future Haverford students believe that the honor code is solely anti-discriminary and does not apply to any other behavior. I hope that what the addition of this sentence does achieve is make students who face any form of discrimination feel that the institutions and structures of Haverford are on their side. Haverford can be a very alienating place to be anything other than white, and I hope that this resolution counters that alienation at least slightly for future students.

    I disagree that “a Social Honor Code written as an anti-discriminatory treatise diminishes its effectiveness as a guide for all aspects of student life.” Anti-discrimination should be a fundamental and explicit part of any guide for all aspects of student life. Discrimination is certainly a part of all aspects of student life for anyone who experiences it.

    • Ben Siqueiros says:

      As an alum of color, I’m sorry to hear that discrimination and harassment in all the areas listed in the amendment have risen to such a level at Haverford that students felt the need to codify them in detail before confronting them; not too long ago, it didn’t seem like that was the case at all. As much as I’d like to believe that spelling out what is right and wrong to Haverford (something that has usually been done by Customs) will improve the situation, I fear that it will do little to combat the worst problem that undermines the Social Honor Code: apathy, on the part of both the offenders and the offended. If no one bothers to use the safe space provided by Haverford and the Honor Code to use confrontation as a tool for understanding and growth, no amendment will help.

      -Ben Siqueiros ’12

    • Claire Dinh says:

      Hi Miriam! Though I believe Bill made really good points, I completely agree with you. Having been involved in conversations regarding race, gender and class difference as a part of Students’ Council, and as a woman of color, I believe this change is what we need right now.

      I know some students are concerned that we’ll just keep adding on more items to the list as time goes on, and that will somehow undermine the spirit of the Code itself. I’d like to remind everyone that our Students’ Constitution is a living document, and not all changes we make to it are set in stone. That is to say, we can add to and take away from that list as we see necessary. And if there does come a day when Haverford students no longer think we need to be explicit about what constitutes a violation of the Honor Code, I’m confident they will adjust the Code accordingly.

      But until then, we need to give more support to students who
      fall into minority groups and therefore, for whatever reason, find themselves being discriminated against. “Their” issues are “our” issues too, and so making that clear in a document belonging to all of us is also a way of affirming this point.

      Claire Dinh ’16

    • Edward says:

      Great points! I’d add that it not only provides the basis toward moving in the right direction, but it also shows intent and recognition of an issue important a lot of people of all backgrounds.

      Do I like it when friends with (any kind of social) privilege acknowledge it’s existence? Absolutely! Do I think it detracts from them? Nope. If dealt with sensibly, like it seems to be in the post above, it makes me feel more included and acknowledged.

      It is important to remember also, as a matter of institutional history, the struggle of other members in the greater family. I think about this when I read the prohibition of slavery in the U.S. Constitution.

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