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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.