Of Beards and Honor

Today I throw my hat into the ring of discussion surrounding BYU’s Honor Code. A discussion that may be overdone, but as a thoughtful BYU student I feel like I should weigh in. Partially because I think that a lot of the discussion goes past itself, with little actual dialogue. Hopefully, I can help bridge some gaps, spark some thought, create a little stir, or not totally tire out this topic.

My thoughts returned to the Honor Code as I was sitting in a chapel in Edinburgh, Scotland, having not shaved for a couple weeks, waiting for Elder Holland to arrive. I started feeling a little anxious that he would call me out, find out I was a returned missionary AND current BYU student and reprimand me for my scruff (he spoke at the MTC when I was there and said that he would punch any one of us in the nose if he saw us in the future with a beard or dreadlocks and found out we had served a mission).

Anyway, my nose was not punched, so no worries, everyone. Although, that would make for an absolutely fantastic story. I have a few thoughts that are all related to the Honor Code, and each could potentially be its own post, but we’ll keep them together for now.

RIGHT TO CRITIQUE

Often discussion concerning the Honor Code is rebutted with an assertion to the effect that all students signed the Honor Code and that if they don’t like it they should go somewhere else.
Yes, all BYU students agreed to and signed the Honor Code. That does not absolve them of the right to critique the Honor Code. Suggesting so is akin to suggesting that as a US citizen you should just follow all the laws and if you don’t like one then you should move to a place that has laws you do like (which some people may use, but is ludicrous).

In fact, who better to suggest changes to the Honor Code than the very students that are subjected to its edicts every day? Who else knows the real impact and weight of the Honor Code? In fact, the Honor Code had origins in the student body, so why not have changes come from that very same place?

Also, disliking some things about BYU does not equate to the entire institution lacking value. Particularly as a religious body we should understand that some people may have felt divinely inspired to come to BYU against the wishes/thoughts that they had AND chose to do so, following God, even if they (I) grumble a bit about it every now and then.

PURPOSE OF THE HONOR CODE

What is the purpose of the Honor Code? Is it to create a clean-cut, relatively uniform-looking student body? Is it so that some tricky dude can kill off all the students by drawing chalk circles around them and having them give their word that they won’t step out? Is it to create an environment that fosters easy keeping of the commandments? Is it to remind students to keep their word and to be honorable people?

I guess, I’d probably articulate the purpose as a means of accomplishing BYU’s motto “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.” The Honor Code should enable learning and prepare students for a lifetime of service to God, their respective communities and their fellow humans (not necessarily in that order). I think there’s value in having an Honor Code, although it loses some of that value when it’s enforced, or even reputed to be enforced, through secret police, tattle-telling and anonymous tips. For me, inherent in the idea of an Honor Code, is that you agree to live it on your honor, meaning that it’s between you and God. Is that so crazy?

Yes, there may be some more rule-breaking if that was the case, but I feel like there wouldn’t be that big of a change. Those that are going to break the rules are going to break them. But the environment would be healthier if it was really up to the students to be honorable. At least, I think it would be.

DRESS AND GROOMING

First things first, let’s acknowledge that God does care about appearance. Not in a sleeve-length-clean-shaven-or-not-tightness-of-pants sort of way, but in the sense that your appearance does reflect aspects of who you are and God cares about that.
Now, that being said, I’m not sure how valuable the dress and grooming standards are in the Honor Code. I don’t know if following the set of guidelines really brings you closer to God. I think it’s safe to say that the Dress and Grooming standards are at least somewhat (if not entirely) arbitrary. If they were totally divine they would be the same for all Church universities, which they are not.

Some specifics: bring on the beards. I’ve been sporting a mustache for 18 months or so and it makes little sense to me why that’s acceptable, but a full-beard is not. Is hair on my chin less holy than on my upper lip? Beyond that, beards are no longer the symbols of counter-culture/drug use/hippies that they were when the beard ban was instituted, so let’s make a change.
Allow extreme hair styles. Or at least explicitly define what an “extreme” hair-style is. The ambiguity is way too open for abuse by Testing Center staff, close to the only people that enforce (and therefore interpret) the Honor Code.

Or, just chuck this section altogether.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

My bias is probably known by the title that I gave this last section, but I think that’s the best way to phrase it.

I’m referring of course to the current policy that if a student enters BYU as a Mormon, but is disfellowshipped or excommunicated or resigns his/her membership while still a student, they are immediately kicked out of the university. However, any other religiously affiliated individual is free to change their faith with zero consequence to their academic standing.

Yes, I understand that BYU is a private religious institution and has the legal right to do this. But the legal right to do something does not make doing that thing right.

Besides the hypocrisy that seems evident in asserting religious freedom to inhibit the religious freedom of another, this creates an environment that is incredibly antagonistic towards doubt. If a student begins to question their faith, the last person they will talk to is their bishop because that person could cause their entire academic life to unravel. In effect the current system strips local units of any supporting ecclesiastical authority, leaving students that are experiencing faith crises/transitions to find comfort/solace/understanding in other doubting and questioning students, online communities, non-BYU students, etc. I’m not trying to diminish the value of those means of support as they have been invaluable to me in venting my frustrations, doubts, questions, etc.

Students feel forced to lie (aka be dishonorable) to remain protected by the Honor Code. That’s a problem. For the most part these students want to abide by the rules in place and want to follow God, but are unsure about what that path looks like and are left without the guidance of an ecclesiastical leader to help them figure it out.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I guess I feel like the Honor Code has become somewhat pharisaical—well-intentioned and designed to build a hedge around the law to ensure that no one would transgress, but it has shifted to a tool of judgment that becomes worshipped in and of itself rather than drawing us closer to Christ.

I signed it and do my best to follow it. Except for shaving, which I do regularly-ish, but have been less regular, while I’ve been in England. Yet, I still feel twinges of guilt. Should I feel guilty for not shaving, when I agreed to shave? It’s silly and I think an inane rule, no one’s enforcing it out here across the pond, but I still feel haunted by the spectre of the Honor Code. Would growing a beard cost my soul? (a somewhat hyperbolic and absurd sounding question, but rooted in something true, that eats at me)
I’m all for Honor. I just don’t think it’s in the beard (or lack thereof).

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2 thoughts on “Of Beards and Honor

  1. This was marvelous. Especially the part about the chalk circles and the tricky dude. I am almost tempted to copy this, paste it into an email, and send it around for signatures at BYU before passing it to the administration. But I will avoid such blatant plagiarism. So I will just say this: I agree with nearly everything here. Especially religious freedom, the right to critique, and beards. Enforcement and some sort of dress standard I am a bit more ambivalent about, as it is a church school, but I agree that we must be wise (read: not pharisaical) there. Fascinating.

    – Abe

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    1. Thanks Abe! Writing the bit about the chalk circles and the tricky dude was enjoyable. I needed to work a reference (or two) to that quote and was quite pleased with that result–glad you enjoyed it as well.
      Feel free to send it around for signatures (it’s only sort of plagiarism if you have the author’s permission, right?).
      Yeah, the dress standard isn’t a huge deal for me and I think if it was established as a distinct entity, necessary for access to certain campus services, but not viewed as part of the Honor Code I would take less issue with it. It just seems far too easy to judge unrighteously with the Dress and Grooming Standards linked with the Honor Code, but if other measures were taken to reduce the pharisaical mentality/possibilities, I could get on board with that.

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