Opinion: The Honor Principle is Dead. Long Live the Honor Principle.

Content warning: Discussion of sexual assault

Maybe I’m just a fool for thinking the college’s keystone policy would show its face in times of strife. Maybe I should expect nothing more from the institution that didn’t shovel for days after the paths were covered in snow. Maybe we should all be considering Reed as a for-profit business rather than the utopian intellectual commune it often veils itself as. And yet every time I hear a survivor’s story, hear about the sheer number of people who have come forward, hear the unwavering professionalism behind the most recent useless resource email, I wonder what we could have done right. And simultaneously, how Reed’s Honor Principle, one of the founding principles of the college that continues to be discussed to this day, could not apply here. The Occam’s razor of this situation is that the policy of accountability we’re supposed to be famous for is being swept under the rug in favor of dousing Facebook forum fires. In essence, I have but one question for the college: If not now, then when? If we’re not allowed to use the method we’ve agreed upon as a community to hold each other accountable now, when unspeakable things are happening, then what’s it supposed to do? And of course, that’s a leading question. If not in full force now, then there is no Honor Principle. There is not a time it applies. The Honor Principle is dead, and it has been for some time.

It should be noted, before going further, that there is a mutual acceptance of knowledge at play here. If you lack that knowledge, then allow me to clue you in slightly. There are survivors on campus who have been harmed, almost certainly by other individuals on campus. To dispute that fact would be to dispute the stories I’ve heard from the people who have lived them. And unless you’ve somehow got empirical evidence from an investigation that hasn’t happened, I’d caution pushing any further. Though if you do still dispute this fact, I will meet you in the middle and say, genuinely, person-to-person: go fuck yourself. Second, there is little to none being done for these survivors. As far as I know, with knowledge from my position as an employee of Residence Life and the numerous emails Reed has sent, there is not an investigation in place, and if there is, the goal is not accountability. All this alone feels quite bizarre—no one is truly untouchable, right? If only there was some system of community accountability the college put in place a hundred years ago we could call upon… 

The Honor Principle was written in 1919, and has since been interpreted by a long line of distinguished, extremely boring history and philosophy professors. The Honor Principle is undoubtedly the deadest horse on Reed’s campus. Many interpretations come across as painful, pregnant attempts to give the Golden Rule just a little more meaning. Honestly, the most valuable interpretation of the Honor Principle is Peter Steinberger’s 1998 speech as the Dean of Faculty. Paraphrasing, of course, Steinberger notes that Reed’s most famous policy document is a doctrine of unfreedom. Most doctrines describe rights which are inherently freedoms within which you are allowed to operate. A right is simply something no one is allowed to prevent you from doing, in essence a guaranteed freedom. But as members of the Reed College community, we don’t have rights. There are no protected freedoms, realms in which operation will always go unprevented or unpunished. Instead, we have an “obligation as a community to assess and evaluate one another’s behavior in order to determine to what extent it is honorable.” Instead of placing actions in the realms of protected or persecuted, we individually examine those which have an impact on the community. Of course, as Steinberger concedes, we are not solely members of the Reed community. We are law-abiding citizens who have the rights granted by the jurisdictions they exist within. From a top-down perspective, action must be taken at every level until individuals are truly accountable. The theory is that in many cases all we’ll need is the Honor Principle. And in an instance in which the harm is great enough to lend itself to examinations of its legality and official investigations, there is all the more reason for the community to vigilantly follow the proceedings and decide if the individuals’ actions were honorable. You may already be feeling the irony adjacent to this sentiment. Again, as far as we know there are no investigations. And unless Reed chooses to pressure survivors enough to relive their trauma, there will not be an investigation.

Steinberger writes that “an Honor Principle system cannot work unless its members are, at one and the same time, scrupulous in restraining their own behavior, careful and cautious in evaluating the behavior of others, and principled and even severe in dealing with behavior that is, in the end, judged indeed to be dishonorable.” Some may argue we have not done what the principle demands of us. There’s been no successful investigation, but have we even tried? What is graffiti in the face of a blind institution but wet paint? And have we given anyone their just desserts, their day in court? But the Honor Principle isn’t a tool of accountability for the institution. It is a defining document for the community surrounding the institution. And as members of that community, whose voices—cries for justice and accountability—have gone entirely unheard, we can only assume that Reed became deaf to our cries quite a while ago. There is no Honor Principle. It’s a piece of Reed’s aesthetic and a roundabout way to pretend accountability is ever in the hands of the community.

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