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The New Honor Code

A Simple Plan for Raising Our Standards and Restoring Our Good Names

Cultural anthropologist and thought leader Grant McCracken proposes a radical solution for our time of unprecedented scandal: a return to honor.

What used to be shocking has somehow become the new normal in our politics, workplaces, and universities. Sexual predators stalk interns at work and teenagers abroad. Parents try to buy a place for their kids in college. Pharmaceutical companies refuse to acknowledge the Opioid epidemic they helped create. Banks issue credit cards no one ordered, ruining the credit scores and reputations of thousands. It happens so frequently that we can no longer dismiss these cases as a few bad apples. Clearly, something in the system is rotten.

Most Americans are committed to morality. We share basic standards of decency. And yet, we’re becoming inured to scandal and shame, and hopeless about the possibility of change. What if we decided to fight it instead?

Grant McCracken has a solution—the revival of an ancient idea called honor. Once the moral compass of millions of people for hundreds of years, it has since fallen out of currency just when we need it the most. Grant looks at honor and dishonor as these are expressed in popular culture and at institutions as diverse as Harvard, PBS, and Wells Fargo. He offers practical guidelines for both organizations and individuals looking to restore moral order to their lives.

Chapter 1: Symptoms of an Honor Shortage CHAPTER 1 Symptoms of an Honor Shortage 1.1 The Harvard Soccer Scandal
The Harvard soccer scandal of 2016 took people by surprise. The men’s soccer team devised a so-called scouting report on the women’s team, a spreadsheet in which each woman was assigned a sexual position and her desirability ranked. The report called one woman the “hottest and most STD ridden.”1

Eventually this document found its way into the school newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, and all hell broke loose.

Drew Faust, president of the university, investigated and concluded that the “actions of the… team were not isolated to one year or the actions of a few individuals.”2 Oops.

Faust said that when she quizzed the members of the soccer team, they were “not initially forthcoming about their involvement.” This is Ivy League code for “when confronted, they lied.” Given an opportunity to do the right thing and confess their sins, these Harvard gentlemen choose to double down.

People hoped it might eventually serve as a teachable moment. But alas, no. When Rakesh Khurana, the dean of the college, was asked repeatedly by the Crimson to comment on the first outbreak of the scandal, he replied,

I was not Dean of Harvard College in 2012 and do not have knowledge of [the] particular email [in question], I cannot speak to the alleged conduct of these particular students.3

Alleged conduct? No knowledge? Was Khurana the dean or a lawyer? When presiding over a moral crisis as bad as anything Harvard had ever endured, he chose to duck.

But surely, people persisted, the team would come to its senses and apologize. And in fact, the 2016 team did send a letter of apology to the Crimson. But they also insisted that the letter run unsigned. The letter declares,

We wholeheartedly promise to do anything in our power to build a more respectful and harmonious athletic field, classroom, and Harvard community.4

Anything, that is, but take responsibility. Stand up and be counted is what a decent person would do. The apology was a “crocodile confession”—all lamentation, no accountability.

What’s even weirder is that the Crimson accepted the letter unsigned. Surely someone on staff protested, “An anonymous apology isn’t an apology! That’s not how apologies work.” The letter ran anyway.

It was as if the scandal were designed to shine a light into every corner of the school. A group of students acted like scoundrels. When confronted, they lied. When asked to comment, Harvard administrators ducked. When given the chance to confess their sins, the players refused. When push came to shove, the Crimson caved. Everyone acted badly.

You might say, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, this is just boys being boys. Lighten up a little. This is harmless fun.”

It was not harmless fun.

Hannah Natanson was one of the women who played for Harvard. She quit the team in July of 2017. She told herself that the scouting report did not enter into her decision. But a few months later, she noticed something.

[T]he joy I used to find in exercise leached out. Every time I stepped outside in tight-fitting athletic clothes, I became hyper-conscious of my body. I curated a catalogue of faults: my ankles (spindly), my thighs (fleshy), my stomach (protruding), my shoulders (broad and manly).

I found myself constantly wondering whether passersby were watching me run.

I began to go on shorter runs. Then I began to run less often. One day midway through junior year, I stopped running entirely. I started avoiding mirrors. I stopped looking down in the shower. I went on sudden, absurd diets, vowing to alternate fasting with all-vegetable meals—before breaking all my own rules and ordering Falafel Corner to The Crimson at 2 or 3 or 4 a.m. I gained weight.

Like almost anyone my age, I logged onto Facebook a lot. I clicked through photos posted by members of the men’s soccer team.

Some of them had graduated. They appeared to have moved to major cities. They had new jobs, girlfriends.

I remembered how, back in November 2016, some members of the women’s team had wondered whether the scouting reports would affect the men’s post-graduate lives. We asked each other, What will happen to them?

Nobody asked—aloud—what would happen to us.5

The scouting report was an act of violence.

The Twitter feed for the Harvard soccer team stopped abruptly on November 1, 2016, when the scandal hit. It started up again December 14 with a tweet pointing to an article on the official website of Harvard Athletics, Go Crimson. This article said, breathlessly and with no mention of the scandal, that the soccer team had given out awards for the 2016 season. In particular,

Senior Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu [was awarded the] Seamus Malin ’62 Award… given to the player that best demonstrates sportsmanship, love of the game and commitment to the university.6

Really. Apparently, someone on the team that took a hammer to Hannah Natanson’s self-esteem really believed in sportsmanship. Apparently, someone on the team that helped destroy Hannah’s gift for the game really loved soccer. Apparently, someone on the team that had just brought disgrace and ridicule to Harvard was really committed to the university. Just saying. Go Crimson.7

The Harvard soccer scandal is many things. It is a failure of nerve, dignity, judgment, and decency. It was a failure to protect Harvard women from Harvard men. Everyone was diminished—female players, male players, the sport, the administrators, the dean, the Crimson, its journalists, the college, and the university. When given a chance to stand up and be counted, almost everybody folded.

The cynical among us might say, “Harvard has always been a place of deep and abiding hypocrisy. It was never about building character. In fact, it was a place the rich sent their children to learn how to conceal bad behavior behind good manners.”

But this is an institution that has behaved honorably. Harvard sent nearly forty thousand students to fight in World Wars I and II. However, the soccer scandal didn’t offer much evidence of that storied decency. Harvard is probably the oldest institution in America charged with improving the morals of American youth, and at some point, clearly, it faltered.

Could the scandal have been prevented by a new honor code at Harvard? What if there was a culture that moved one of the players to speak out? “Guys, this is stupid, diminishing, and wrong. This spreadsheet dishonors us because it dishonors them. It has to stop.” In this more perfect world, team members would come to their senses and say, “Oh, right. What were we thinking? Sorry.”

The next question is the tough one: is it possible to build such a culture?
1.2 Wells Fargo and a Devil’s Bargain
Richard Kovacevich blew his arm out while playing baseball at Stanford, ending his hopes for a career in the big leagues. So he got an MBA and went to work for General Mills selling consumer goods.

Then Kovacevich moved to Citicorp and eventually to Norwest Bank, where he had his big idea. Why not sell banking the way we sell consumer goods? he thought. Kovacevich began calling Norwest’s banking services “products,” its branches “stores,” its bankers “salespeople,” and its clients “customers.”8

He also began encouraging his employees to cross-sell the products. Customers with one account were pressured to take out credit cards, mortgages, and loans, to make investments and buy insurance. “[Cross-selling] was his business model,” says a former Norwest executive. “It was a religion. It very much was the culture.”9

Kovacevich eventually became the CEO of Wells Fargo in 1998, where the practice took on new proportions. Wells Fargo was the nation’s biggest retail bank at the time, with more than six thousand offices. Kovacevich prepared to turn this immense network into a selling machine, in what he called “the ultimate team sport.” One of his colleagues called him “one of the most competitive people I have ever known.”10

And this is where Kovacevich’s experiment touched the life of Yesenia Guitron. Guitron was hired as a personal banker at Wells Fargo’s St. Helena branch in California’s Napa Valley in 2008. She was thrilled to get the job, and she read HR training documents with care, especially the Wells Fargo Code of Ethics and the Wells Fargo Team Member Handbook, in which the code was found.

By this time, Wells Fargo employees were deep into some dubious practices. They were opening online accounts for people who did not know how to use a computer. Most outrageously, they were opening accounts for people who did not actually exist.11

But even this doesn’t begin to describe the full corruption of the organization Guitron had just joined. Wells Fargo was opening accounts for long-standing Wells Fargo customers without informing them. Naturally, customers did not pay fees on accounts they did not know they had. Naturally, collection agencies came calling. Naturally, credit ratings were downgraded. And the bank that wanted to loan its customers money was now actively damaging their ability to qualify. All in all, Wells Fargo was a weirdly lawless place.

In a Summer 2017 article in Vanity Fair, Bethany McLean itemizes still more dubious practices:

[E]mployees changed customers’ phone numbers in the system so, if they complained, no one could get in touch with them.… But the worst, [Ivan Rodriguez, Wells Fargo employee] says, was the shredding. In order to get a signature on an account a customer didn’t want, bankers would cut a signature out of an existing account, scan that through, and then shred the evidence.12

And then Wells Fargo told its people to shut up. “Management made it clear that no employee was allowed to complain about the unethical practices that were going on within the branch.”

And customers were not the only victims. The cross-selling cult at Wells Fargo also punished its employees. One manager had district managers “run the gauntlet” dressed in ridiculous outfits. Another tells us that those who did not make their goals were “severely chastised and embarrassed in front of 60-plus managers… by the community banking president.”13

The personal costs of this treatment were high. Wells Fargo bank manager Rita Murillo resigned in 2010, despite the fact that she did not have a job to go to and her husband was working part-time. The couple ended up losing their home. “?‘It all seemed worth the chance and the risk, rather than to deal with the mental abuse,’ Murillo said. ‘Just thinking about it gives me palpitations and a stomachache.’?”14

Guitron suffered, too. “[E]verything was so tense at work, and it was miserable to go to work. Now, just thinking about it and talking about it is bringing back [the] headaches.”15 Many Wells Fargo employees endured the bank’s behavior, but Guitron refused. Despite the fact that she was recently divorced and now the sole source of support for two kids, she complained to her supervisor, to the Ethics Hotline, to her bosses, and then to her bosses’ bosses. “It’s fraud, that’s what it is,” she said.16

But nothing happened. Well, one thing happened. Guitron got fired—for insubordination.17

It would be eight years before she got justice. In 2016, the Senate Banking Committee began to investigate. The New York Times, Reuters, and CBS gathered to cover the story and to interview Guitron, who, remarkably, managed to describe her experience with almost no trace of bitterness.

She won a public victory during the Senate Banking Committee meeting of September 20, 2016,18 when Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) referred to her by name. He tore into the man who by this time was the CEO of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf. “This was a systemic problem that you benefited from enormously, the bank benefited from enormously, and you are scapegoating the people at the very bottom,”19 Merkley said.

Within a month, Stumpf had been forced into retirement and relieved of $41 million of his compensation. Wells Fargo itself was fined a relatively paltry $185 million. It fired 5,300 employees.20 Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) called Wells Fargo a “toxic culture.” American Banker said Wells Fargo had a “propensity to bathe its brand in scandal.”21

In the end, the little guy won—sort of. Guitron was vindicated. Wells Fargo suffered reputational damage from which it will never fully recover. The Senate moved on to other things. The journalists packed up and went away. The world returned to business as usual.

But something is missing. Isn’t it? It’s still not clear whether Wells Fargo or its senior managers ever really acknowledged the disgrace they had brought upon themselves—or the pain they caused others. In that Senate Banking Committee meeting, Stumpf presented himself as a mild-mannered man eager to reassure the committee that the only thing he really cared about was fixing Wells Fargo. Not a charm offensive, exactly; more like milquetoast theater. He was agreeable to the point of obsequiousness, as if he believed an oil slick of deference would make the crisis go away. He blinked throughout Merkley’s attack, like a gentle boy being tormented by a schoolyard bully.

As you watch Stumpf, you might even find yourself lulled into a forgiving mood. Maybe Wells Fargo is not so bad after all! Maybe it was just a couple of bad apples! Maybe no one really knew! And that’s when, hopefully, you feel a searing pain in your cerebellum and think, Wait a second! Wells Fargo invented accounts for phantom clients and eleven-year-old children, all the while falsifying records to avoid detection and redress. This bank destroyed credit ratings, humiliated employees, and retaliated against those who dared criticize them. Wells Fargo was the West Coast bank without a moral compass. It was a monster by the sea, something that had crawled up out of the Pacific to feast on trusting Americans.

And at this point, we want a different Stumpf. We want him to express regret, remorse, and humiliation before the Senate Banking Committee. We want him to drop the servility and give us some indication he grasps that his bank’s behavior was lawless, abusive, and criminal—and that he, as the man at the top, is responsible. That’s key. You. Stumpf. Responsible.

But it can’t merely be a matter of theater. We need to create a culture in which the people in charge are personally and professionally diminished by the scandal. But in our current reality, an executive like him is tempted by a devil’s bargain. If he can just ignore immoral behavior, behold the riches that come: millions in salary, millions more in stock options, beautiful homes, private clubs, business jets, personal chefs, a life of absolute security, every little whim indulged.

Let’s replace the devil’s bargain with an angel’s threat. Forgive (or ignore) the corruption in your company and you can no longer look at yourself in the mirror. You can no longer live with yourself. You have destroyed your personal sense of dignity. You will now scorn yourself the way you scorn others. In the angel’s threat, self-respect matters just as much—sometimes more—than the respect of others.

Ideally, we would build a culture that threatens the CEO with the loss of his self-respect and his social respect. The first moment the CEO detects the scent of scandal, he would say, “Hold everything. The reputation of my bank is in jeopardy. More important, my reputation hangs in the balance. And you don’t pay me enough to compromise my self-respect. Whatever this is, it has to stop.”

Create a culture like this and honor rushes in.
1.3 The Case of Charlie Rose
Charlie Rose used to be my hero. He started his eponymous PBS interview show in 1991, while Johnny Carson was still on the air. Occasionally, on The Tonight Show, a guest would say something a little bit obscure, and Johnny would look to the camera and say, “I did not know that.” This was greeted by rapturous applause from the late-night audience, as if not knowing was witty or winning. Charlie Rose found a way to smuggle ideas into this world.22

But there was nothing heroic about the man Sophie Gayter, a former staffer at 60 Minutes, encountered. Ms. Gayter says Charlie Rose groped her buttocks as they walked down an office hallway. She remembers,

People said what they wanted to you, people did what they wanted to you.23

It’s a haunting line. So bleak, so fatalistic, so Soviet. And so head-hurtingly ironic. A man of ideas stalking young women in Manhattan hallways.24

We know what was supposed to happen. Inevitably, a TV show brings together seasoned producers (mostly men) and youthful journalists (often women). Generally speaking, the playbook was clear. The producers were supposed to lead, offering instruction, support, and professional courtesy. They did not stand in loco parentis (in place of parent). That moment had passed. But they were supposed to guide and educate. Their role was not parental but maybe a little avuncular (uncle-ish). Over and above this standard managerial package, the producer, at his or her discretion, might add a “We’re rooting for you, kid” solicitude. And that’s it. This is as far as the producer could go.

Call it the “roles and rules” model. The producers had a role. And at any given moment, a producer could consult this role to determine the rules of conduct. What role have I been assigned in my relationship to this young woman? That of producer. Check. What rules govern what a producer owes to a journalist? Guidance and advice. Check and check. And if I want to involve myself a little more deeply in this career, what more can I do? Offer career guidance in the form of navigational advice and moral support. Check, check, and check.

Groping a woman’s buttocks? This was an obvious violation of the role and rules with which Charlie Rose was charged. Simple, really. Pretty obvious, actually. And apparently a complete mystery to Charlie Rose.

There’s no question the “roles and rules” approach to morality is imperfect. Many people fail to live up to it. Many, no doubt, use it as protective cover for bad behavior. But in its purest form, it gives clarity. You know what to do.

These days, people seem to have no clue what to do. It’s as if every relationship, even professionally, starts from zero, with both sides asking, “Okay, how are we going to play this?”

How disgracefully dumb. This is what culture is for. It codifies roles and rules. It captures good and decent practice, and passes it along from one generation to the next, precisely so that every human twosome doesn’t have to start from zero.

What the hell happened? How did we drift this far out of our shipping lanes? What happened to honor? Stay tuned to find out.
1.4 Lance Armstrong: The Nerve of This Guy
Consider this reflection on the career and reputation of Lance Armstrong, by the British journalist Barry Glendenning:

In an interview with the BBC in 2015, Armstrong described his behaviour over 15 years, particularly his treatment of “a dozen or so people” whose characters, reputations and careers he attempted to destroy in a bid to save his own as “totally regrettable and completely inexcusable.” Adding that he had apologies accepted by a few of those from whom he sought forgiveness, he conceded he couldn’t keep apologising forever: “We all want to be forgiven. There’s a lot of really, really bad people that want to be forgiven that will never be forgiven and I might be somewhat in that camp.”25

Armstrong admits that his behavior was “completely inexcusable.” When you corrupt a sport, when you steal honors from athletes who don’t cheat, and when you seek to destroy those who object to your behavior, you are engaged in behavior that is completely inexcusable. So high marks there, Mr. Armstrong.

Armstrong also admits there are “really, really bad people,” that he “might be somewhat in that camp,” and that this might make him someone who “will never be forgiven.”

Right again. There appears to be a flicker of self-knowledge here, which is, pathetically, more than we can say for some of his compatriots in this book. Lance Armstrong has at least glimpsed who and what he is.

But self-knowledge is only as good as what you do with it. Mr. Armstrong is now several years into a campaign to renew his respectability. Evidently, he does not care that he is “somewhat in the camp” of “really, really bad people.” Armstrong believes he deserves our attention, that he is entitled to comment on the sport he helped corrupt, that he ought to have his credibility as a public figure restored, that he should be an inspiration to other athletes and even kids. So, incorrigible and beyond hope after all.

Yet the campaign appears to be working. Armstrong told CNBC in 2018 that he expected his podcast to bring in between $700,000 and $1 million over the course of his three-week coverage of the Tour de France. Endorsements are beginning once more to flow. Some people are prepared to defend him in public, to plead this case.26 Everyone in cycling dopes, the argument goes; Armstrong was just the one who got caught. And let’s just forget about those “people whose characters, reputations and careers [Armstrong] attempted to destroy in a bid to save his own.”

In a sense, his campaign should not surprise us. What could be more natural, coming from someone who has always expected to lie, cheat, and bully with impunity? On the other hand, perhaps it should astonish us that people are beginning to forgive the guy. What is wrong with us?

Which brings us to honor.

When Lance Armstrong was deciding to dope or not, I think we can speculate he was making a simple calculation. It might have gone something like this.

Doping will help me win. Yes, I might get caught, but I can survive the costs of discovery. I will not lose everything. In the worst case, I will endure a period of disgrace. But I will get a shot at rehabilitation and a chance to repair my reputation. Talk shows will open to me. Endorsements will return. I’ll be back in business.27

This is not what happens in a world constrained by honor. The cost is clear and irrevocable. Do something “completely inexcusable” and you will not be excused. No one will listen to your podcast. No one will want you as an endorser. You are done. You will not be allowed back into public life.

This makes for a very different calculation. The would-be cheater contemplates the ways he can cheat to get an edge in his sport. In our society, this is a risk–benefit calculation. There is no real fear of banishment. In this calculation, it is pretty much all benefit. But in a society based on honor, we have something to lose. And it’s not just our popularity, our currency, or our celebrity. It’s our self-worth. And unlike popularity, currency, or celebrity, this is very hard to get back.
1.5 Stuffed-Shirt Honor
Years ago, I worked at a museum. My colleagues were arts administrators, academics, and civil servants. There seemed to be a lot of award ceremonies of one kind or another. In fact, it felt like we spent much of our time conspiring to give awards to other people, chiefly, I began to think, because we hoped to get awards in return. There was a lot of honoring going on.

It was very tedious. On one occasion, I went to a reception on a Monday. It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered my error. The event I had intended to go to was, in fact, on Tuesday. Yet it hardly mattered. I met all the same people, talked about all the same things, added my voice to the same chorus of self-congratulation. The world of the arts didn’t even care which event I went to. They were pretty much interchangeable.

If you asked people what they thought they were doing at these events, I’m pretty sure they would have told you they were “honoring” the arts. The recipients have done good works of some kind or other. In reward, they are honored.

Eventually, I came to think of it as the “stuffed-shirt” model of honor. Or the “I-own-a-tuxedo” model of honor. After all, it makes sense to invest in a tuxedo when the return might be an award of your own.

But does it really matter if fat cats sit around giving one another honors? I mean, nobody gets hurt, right?

Wrong.

For one thing, it empowers the pointlessly powerful. An award, well, that’s just ducky. Now everyone has to treat them with new respect. A little respect is a dangerous thing. It can make a small-minded person smaller-minded still—or intolerable, in some cases.

But more important, the process brings discredit on the very idea of honor. It suggests that honor is the province of the social and professional elites, whom others already dislike and distrust. It reduces honor to tuxedo status: it doesn’t actually signify anything. It’s really just a way of showing off.

When true honor is replaced by self-congratulation, it’s just another pretext for the already advantaged to make deals and cement their insider advantage. If you don’t have a place at that table, there are things you’ll miss out on, schools your kids won’t be going to. This is an honor system that rewards all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.

Surely, it’s time to see that it is wrong to merely honor the timeservers, the people who go along to get along, the ones who play their cards just right in order to get that promotion, full professorship, order of merit. To give honor to the timeservers and the stuffed shirts is not only to fail fundamentally to see the purpose of honor; it degrades the very idea. It takes a glorious aristocratic idea and turns it into a hollow shell.
Photograph by Yunji Ko

Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He was the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, and a cofounder of the Artisanal Economies Project. Grant has taught at Harvard, the University of Cambridge, and MIT. He advises a wide variety of companies and individuals, including Google, Netflix, Nike, the Ford Foundation, Kanye West, the Boston Book Festival, and the White House (no, the other one). He lives in Connecticut with his wife and three cats.