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Why Confrontations Fail: What the Code Demands of Us

[Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author]

The scene at the end of plenary, in the aftermath of the one anonymous Ford Form commenter’s thought, was a really interesting microcosm of the issues we have on campus and with the Code.  Confrontation is the mechanism that the Honor Code has for meeting out justice. Specifically, the goal is restorative justice. The Code states in section 3.04:

“Our community’s social relationships are based on mutual trust, concern and respect….Upon encountering actions or values that we find degrading to ourselves and to others, we may initiate dialogue with the goal of repairing the damage that our actions or words may have caused while also encouraging the restoration of trust.”

In discourse around the Code, we generally focus on certain types of behavior. Specifically, “racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, tokenism, cultural insensitivity, discrimination based on citizenship status, discrimination based on religion, and discrimination based on national origin, accent, dialect, or usage of the English language” (section 3.04), focusing on how we can stop such behavior on campus, and encouraging those harmed to confront the individuals responsible. This is, obviously, critical to the goals of the Code. The problem is that we often prefer to try to silence and quash language and behavior contrary to the Code when members of the community go about it in ways that are themselves incongruous with it. Why? Because we are supposed to treat ourselves, one another and the community with “trust, concern, and respect” (3.02). The Honor Code and confrontation aren’t about giving people the forum to air their grievances against their classmates, for their highly problematic, and harmful language/behavior. It is about reaching “mutual understanding by means of respectful communication” (3.01). The response to that post on the Ford forum was not this.

The Honor Code asks us to believe violations of the Code as made in good faith. Even though someone is not treating you in ways that conform with our stated community values, you still are expected to treat them with trust, concern, and respect. We need to start by assuming that the behavior does not come from a place of malice, whatever the person said or did. The Honor Code treats every violation as a teachable moment. Maybe this is unfair, asking too much of marginalized groups on campus to bear the burden of educating others, and that’s why the changes to the Code enacted last spring are so important. They provided more avenues, like through Honor Council or the Multicultural Liaisons, for confrontation in a comfortable and easy process that can operate in line with the Code. Still, even if this expectation is unfair, as the Code currently stands, it is what we are supposed to do. We all signed it in order to attend,  and the vast majority of the community voted to ratify it this weekend.

I think is fair to say that Haverford as a community believes in the restorative power of dialogue. This is certainly something I agree with. I came here knowing very little about identity. I knew about poverty, and I could see an obvious racial dimension, and I knew about the L and G of LGBTQ+. Anything beyond that, I honestly thought was mostly people seeking attention. The only thing I did understand was asexuality, because I identify as asexual. I never lumped myself into the LGBTQ+ community before, so I didn’t do any research beyond that. I know, not great. It did not take very long before I learned that I was severely misinformed, to put it mildly. I think Customs really helped me learn the truth. My hall and Customs team treated my ignorance with kindness and respect, and that helped me become who I am today.

Changing people takes time and patience, and in many ways feels like a sisyphean task. But, we as a community can’t be satisfied just by calling out behavior that we deem racist, classist, ableist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc. The Honor Code tasks us with doing more. So what does any of this have to do with the scene at Plenary? It is necessary to condemn the ideas and language of  the anonymous submitter, but in doing so we need to actually confront them. Regardless, what we did was against the spirit if not the language of the Code. What the submitter suggested was both problematic and absurd. The problem is, denouncing this person without engaging with their thought process, the reasons why they came to believe what they believe, and attempting to educate them on the inadequacy and hurtful nature of their suggestions left us as a community in the same place we started. Maybe even further away from our goal. The Honor Code asks a lot of us, but the goal of any confrontation is to educate community members and to build a more united campus. What happened at Plenary changed nobody’s mind. The room cheered at the anonymous submitter’s denunciation, and individuals who were at all sympathetic with any of his ideas or who felt solidarity for any reason were alienated from the community. Maybe that’s great, but then we are not really following the Code either. At the end of the day, we try very hard to provide avenues for those individuals who violate our community values to return to the community, provided they have learned their lesson and change their behaviour. The goal of confrontation is to reach a mutual understanding, and after such harmful behaviour, we should have confronted him.

Although, the Ford Form was anonymous, but the response assumed he was listening, so we could still have addressed him directly. I know it is a little crazy to hear me critiquing a response given by the Honor Council Co-Chairs, but I think this a lesson that everyone forgets, and we can all get better at. In my mind, the Honor Code is asking us to go beyond just what the person said/ did. Instead it compels us to ask why they did it, and why they believe that what they did was within the realm of acceptable conduct. If we all followed the ideals laid out in it, we would have basically created utopia beyond all of the issues outlined in the Code. Even if we got to the point that anyone would be comfortable confronting anyone else, we would still only be part of way there. If we don’t follow the rules of confrontation as we’ve defined them we will be failing to live up to our own expectations. We won’t be successful because the same problems will keep cropping up again and again and we won’t change minds, and we won’t be building a better tomorrow for anyone. I’m not saying that confrontation is about meeting bigoted values half way, quite the contrary, but the goal of the Honor Code and confrontation is to foster sympathy across difference. I know that the Honor Code, as I have interpreted it, is asking a lot of people.

The problem is, by asking that work to be done by someone else, even if by all rights it should be on them to do, will succeed only if that person is willing to do the work. A lot of problematic ideologies are built on denial of the root causes of inequalities. People want to pretend confederate monuments and the flag are about something other than slavery, or that fearing LGBTQ+ individuals is biblical and not simply a fear of difference. It is on all of us to call out violent language and behavior, both on campus and in the world at large. I think the same is true here. We, as Haverford students, are all in a position of educational privilege merely by being at Haverford College, and that places a significant burden on us. If we are not putting in the work to change the world. To make it a more just, safe, and equitable place, then who is?

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[Correction: An earlier version of this article cited quotations from an out-of-date version of the Honor Code. The article has been updated to reflect the Code available at].

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