Teaching Honor in the Age of Deceit

Teaching Honor in the Age of Deceit

(Trinity First Year Students Sign the Honor Book Affirming Their Commitment to the Honor Code)

Honor Code.

Such an evocative phrase, redolent of solemn oaths and furrowed brows, scrupulous peers enrobed in the absolute certainty of Truth, and, thereby, Justice.  Military academies, Ivy League Universities, posh public flagships, and earnestly serious smaller colleges and universities all claim the ideal of the Honor Code as central to the mission of higher education, a means to educate students on the ethical and moral principles that are essential for academic integrity to thrive.

Our cherished Honor Code at Trinity has been the bedrock of our mission across 125 years:

“I realize the responsibly involved in membership in the Trinity community. I agree to abide by the rules and regulations of this community. I also affirm my intentions to live according to the standards of honor, to which lying, stealing, and cheating are opposed. I will help others to maintain this responsibly in all matters essential to the common good of the community.”

Of late, I have been wondering how Trinity or any university can uphold the ideal of an Honor Code as a teaching method in contemporary society.  Oh, sure, every college president probably had the same question in each era of public deception — as a college student in the early 1970’s, I was well aware of the manipulation of facts and Truth by successive U.S. presidents on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to the treatment of civil rights leaders to a third rate burglary called Watergate.  We were cynical about public lies told by politicians.  But we Trinity students of that age took the responsibility to sustain Trinity’s Honor Code seriously, cloaking ourselves in the righteousness of the Code and confronting each other on any hint of tendencies to gloss over the facts.  Back in that day the Honor Code was largely enforced by students with some gentle administrative oversight.

I remember a long weekend of argumentation with a classmate who was the Chair of the Judiciary, and I was the Student Association President, and we were wrestling with a case involving a classmate, also a student government official, who lied about smoking dope in her room.  The weed was a mistake; the lie was unforgivable.  We — two senior leaders of the campus — had the ability to sweep the case under the proverbial rug, but we knew that to do so would be …. dishonorable.  We quarreled all weekend about what form of justice would be suitable — impeachment? suspension? expulsion? Fortunately, before we could to a lot of damage, a higher power — the Dean of Students—  swept in to impose a suitable penalty that still allowed our classmate to graduate on time.  We reflected on the complicated idea that mercy can also be justice.

So quaint, those long-ago days of wrestling with minor infractions that could incur monstrously harmful penalties.  Did we learn about Honor because it was right, or because of the fear?  Perhaps a bit of both.

Which leads to the question of this moment:  does anyone really fear being dishonest today?  Are there any consequences for lies?  And how do we educators teach rising generations about Honor and Integrity as core human values when deceit and deception seem springboards to fame and power?

So, I come to Fox News.  (You thought this was going to be about Chat GPT?  That’s another blog…)

Evidence now on the record in litigation reveals that a number of Fox News personalities lied frequently and relentlessly about the results of the 2020 presidential election.  They promoted Donald Trump’s lies that he was the real winner, that the election was “stolen,” that voting machined were “rigged.”  The talk show hosts and news anchors on Fox News knew that Trump lost but they promoted his lies as facts.  They exchanged private messages among themselves that ridiculed Trump and his army of lying advocates and surrogates and hangers-on.

They knew it was all lies, but in public, on the television, with the power of broadcast “news” every day, they promoted the lies, they encouraged the deceit, they fired-up the “base” in ways that contributed to an insurrection that nearly destroyed our government.

And they all still have their jobs, their fame, their big salaries and celebrity status.

Why should Fox News celebrities fear to lie when they have received such handsome rewards?  They were more afraid of the wrath of Trump — the biggest liar — than of the consequences of their deceit on this nation.  They were also afraid of losing viewers.

In a particularly insidious twist, recently the new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy unilaterally released 41,000 hours of the January 6 videos of the insurrection to Fox News Host Tucker Carlson, perhaps the most deceitful player in the pack.  Carlson proceeded to pick out a few hours of calm moments amid the chaos and he broadcast those to support the claim that January 6 was really a peaceful protest.  Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger excoriated the “outrageous and false”use of the video and even the top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell agreed with the Chief.

Once upon a time there was the notion of shame — to be caught in a lie produced a profound sense of shame, something so powerful it led to resignations and withdrawals from public life.  I think Richard Nixon, once considered our worst president, must have felt some kind of shame on the day he resigned the presidency over his lies about Watergate.  He was not contrite, but he did express shame.

Shame-less-ness is a clear characteristic of the current Age of Deceit.  So far as I can tell, not one of the people responsible for the lies that inflamed the mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 have expressed any shame over their responsibility for spreading lies that undermined our Democracy and resulted in deaths, injuries, widespread fear, destruction of both physical properties and emotional security for those immediately involved and those who watched in horror.

The lies that have oozed through the last six years since the 2016 election continue to spread like the stench of a farm’s open cesspool across the political landscape of our nation.  Today we see outlandish lies told by governors and politicians about everything from books in libraries to the content of curricula to the very historical foundations of our country.  The ultimate goal is the dumbing-down of the American population — ban books so the children cannot read the truth of our history, learn about other ways of life, develop free and independent ideas about how to construct a good society.  Whether the lies deny the truth of our history or foment insurrection by calling the last election fraudulent, the fact of the intentional and irresponsible deceit of major media personalities and the politicians to whom they pander is reprehensible in the ways that the lies distort reality and undermine the ability of the citizens of this nation to come together in peace and harmony to build good communities of care and simple justice for all.  Keeping everyone angry, fearful, agitated and suspicious of each other is straight out of the authoritarian playbook; divide and conquer using lies as the cleaver.  History repeats routinely.

Even as recently as today, we now see lies spewing like so much toxic dust across the ruins of the Silicon Valley Bank, collapsed suddenly, violently and completely as a result of a perfect storm of risky financial decisions at a time of economic stress, Federal Reserve decisions to hike interest rates to try to control inflation, all enabled by the last administration’s rollback of rules designed to prevent bank failures.  But instead of examining the facts, some politicians and pundits, including those on Fox News, have brought the “culture wars” now to financial reporting, falsely and with malicious intent blamed the SVB failure on what they call “woke” ideas — ideas like Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) considered to be good business practices for corporate boards, and practices known as ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) as tools to evaluate investments.  It’s a flat out lie to blame a bank failure on the practice of equity and justice in hiring and selection of board members — but some of the more notorious commentaries suggested that the presence of several women, one Black person, an LGBTQ+ person and two veterans on the SVB board caused the bank to collapse.  [When you hear someone spew that nonsense, ask them to explain the collapse of Lehman Brothers that triggered the Great Recession of 2008.  And we’re not talking about “woke” brothers!]

Surveying this landscape of destructive deception, what can we educators do to refocus our students on the importance of simple honesty, care for the community, upholding the pledge that simply says I will not lie, cheat or steal — and I will help others to live the same way.

We cannot give up, we must renew our commitment to teaching about Honor every single day.

We cannot shy away from the ugly examples, and in fact, we should use them as teaching tools.  Let’s hold up the shamefully deceitful behavior of Fox News as one example of how media should not behave — and yes, find similar examples in all media because Fox is not alone in promoting lies as a way of keeping and gaining audience share.  Be ruthless in calling out all media who put profit over truth.

We must teach our students the difference between a legitimate opinion based on facts and a bias based on falsehoods.  I may disagree with someone who says that care for environmental sustainability should not be part of corporate decision-making; respectful disagreement is what we need to teach all the time.  But there’s a big difference between the opinion that sustainability should not be part of corporate life versus the person who claims that the climate crisis is a hoax, which is blatantly false.  What is disturbing about the degradation of political discourse across the last six years is the conflation of principled disagreements about policy choices with wholesale distortion and denial of the basic facts about the issues we face.

We must teach our students that respect for human dignity is essential in all matters.  A posture of respect, welcome, hospitality and inclusion for others who are Black or Latina or LGBTQ+ or Muslim or Asian or Female or Jewish or Impoverished or Differently Abled is not “woke” but morally right and expected as a fundamental premise of life in a society that supposedly exalts freedom.  Every major religion upholds the principle of respect for human dignity as a matter of what Catholics and Christians call social justice.  No one can claim to be “pro-life” while mocking, disparaging, holding others in contempt because they are different from the white Christian stereotype.

We must lead our students to wrestle with the conflicts and choices at stake to ensure a healthier society in the future.  Walking away from the integrity challenge concedes the future to the authoritarian who uses the lies to reshape perceptions of reality for their own power.  Attentive students of history can cite the many examples from ancient to modern times of the demise of societies that allowed the tyrants to flourish because of the fear of confronting the lies.

The Honor Code is essential to our fight for justice.  Let’s recommit to the principles of honor and integrity each day — and let’s never hesitate to call out the lies and deceit that undermine our way of life.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.