My four years at Davidson College in the late 1970s came with a level of freedom that did not exist in high school. I am not talking about the personal freedom you obtain when you leave home and become the co-master of your own dorm room. No, I am talking about the freedom (and responsibility) that come with living in a community where you are trusted by those in authority to do the right thing, without having to be monitored to do so.
On the Davidson College website, you will find the text of the Honor Code. The Honor Code deals which such things as cheating, stealing and lying and with reporting others who do so. But it also is a guide to a broader way of thinking about how one should live their life as a responsible member of a community of diverse individuals.
The Code is described in part this way: “The Honor Code that governs Davidson’s social and academic life demands commitment to the highest personal and community values. The essence of the system is set forth in the Honor Code, with the Code of Responsibility broadening those tenets to encompass all aspects of life within the college. Far from being mere pen-and-ink statements, the Codes are a declaration by the entire college community – students, faculty, staff, and alumni – that the honorable course is the most just, and therefore the best. By forming a basis for campus life, the Honor Code engenders an atmosphere of openness and mutual trust”.
I like the words, “the honorable course is the most just” and the Code engenders “openness and mutual trust”.
Unfortunately, there is not much mutual trust in the debate on Amendment One. What is a “fact” to the opponents is a “myth” to the supporters. What is a “threat” to the supporters is an “are you kidding me” response by the opponents.
Missing from this back and forth is a discussion about how one can use honor and by extension, ethics, to approach controversial issues in our society. Until recently.
In this regard, I was proud to read in The Charlotte Observer the text of a recent speech given by new Davidson College President Carol Quillen, entitled: “Living ethically without judging others”. Arguably, her speech makes points that are imbedded in the spirit of the Davidson Honor Code.
President Quillen wasn’t writing about Amendment One, nor was she taking a position on the topic, at least not directly. To do so might show a preference for the opinions of one set of graduates over another. And yet, her message is one worth considering as you think about what is right and what is just when it comes to Amendment One.
Here are some of her remarks:
“What does it mean, in a pluralistic society, to treat others ethically? This is harder than you think, because in a pluralistic society, people do not agree on what is right and what is wrong. They do not agree on how to dress, eat or pray. They do not agree on how to raise children or how to structure family life, or on who should have sex and when, or on appropriate roles for men and women”.
“You could surround yourself with people like you. This is a choice Americans are increasingly making. As national debates become increasingly polarized, we as individuals live, work, and worship in ever more homogeneous communities. We seek out as neighbors and friends others who vote, think and pray like us. This is comforting, but when we choose to live like this, we do not learn how to deal with those who are different”.
“To respect the human dignity of other persons, we must be open to points of connection with them. This means we can’t start out from litmus tests. We can’t say, “Buddhism is too complicated,” or “She’s a creationist and obviously can’t be reasoned with,” or, “they are immigrants, I won’t understand them,” or “I don’t interact with lesbians.” It means we take some responsibility for learning about traditions other than our own, so that we do not use ignorance as a veil for bigotry. And respecting human dignity means we have to nurture the various and sometimes contradictory parts of ourselves that open us to others”.
“Of course we will disagree. But if we genuinely respect the awe-inspiring dignity of all human beings, and if we together seek the limits to our freedom that the dignity of others establishes, then we always remember that even our deepest convictions might be wrong. When we remember this, we tread slowly and deliberately, we treat others who are different with respect and our extraordinary nation can flourish in peace”.
President Quillen’s message is a powerful one. Take it with you to the ballot box on May 8th. No one will be looking over your shoulder. There will be an honor code in force.
Before you cast your vote, don’t cheat yourself by being uninformed on the issue. With your vote, don’t steal something precious from someone you don’t know. After your vote, continue to live your life with honor.