Having served on Honor Council for the majority of my Reed career, I am often asked what exactly Honor Council does. The explanation, however, is not as straightforward as one might think. Explaining the Honor Council to other community members starts off pretty easily. I start off by noting that the Council is composed of three subcommittees: Education, Mediation, and Community Rights. I then usually talk about our position as a confidential resource. I also like to describe some of the projects that past and present members of Honor Council have undertaken to further educate the community about the Honor Principle and the Honor Process. When I get to one particular term, however, I inevitably start to see frowns and confusion.
The term is neutrality. The basic idea of neutrality is that you remain unbiased and open to all points of view. Together with confidentiality, these are the two most important tenets for the Honor Council. Without neutrality and confidentiality, we have no reason to exist.
Why is neutrality so important? First and foremost, the Honor Council exists to educate all members of the community and to serve as a resource for all members of the community. If any single member of the Reed community is in need of a confidential space, an ear to turn to, a place to get information about resources available to them, assistance in navigating the judicial process at Reed, etc., we are here for them. Because of this, we need to work to ensure that every member of the community feels safe and comfortable turning to us for support. If there were any chance that a statement made by an Honor Council member could be perceived as biased, or make a community member feel that they would be unwelcome or misunderstood by Honor Council, then we sacrifice the unique role that we play on campus.
Honor Council members are available for consultation on a variety of topics, many of which are unpleasant or personally distressing. For example, a student might come in stating that they have been accused of academic misconduct. While as an Honor Council member, you might be personally disgusted at the thought of academic misconduct, and experience bias as a result, you must remain calm in your outward projection and express empathy for the person’s situation. You must offer the student all the appropriate resources for their consideration, and walk the student through the steps of the Honor Process for that particular case. On another day, you may be required to speak to someone making an allegation of academic misconduct against someone else. Even though it’s the opposite situation, you would use the same procedures.
Another reason why neutrality is so important is that it allows individuals to feel however they choose about the circumstances affecting them. If a student comes in wanting to talk about a resident of their dorm who used a slur in the common room, it would be inappropriate to project any kind of value on the situation. For example, if you reacted with, “Oh my gosh, that’s so terrible. I’m so sorry that happened,” when the student wasn’t all that upset about it, you may incite panic, and cause them to feel that it was worse than they thought, or that you don’t understand their motivations for coming to you. Likewise, if you reacted with, “Oh, well, that’s not bad. It could have been way worse!” in an attempt to mitigate the harm and make them feel better, you likewise run the risk of invalidating their feelings if they were, indeed, affected greatly by the incident. As an Honor Council member, you are there to listen and support. A neutral option could be something like, “It sounds like this event has impacted you, and you’d like to feel more comfortable in your living space.” Of course, gathering more information and asking questions about exactly what the student is looking for will help you come up with more neutral, but relevant, responses.
Lastly, it also important to remain neutral when providing resource options (if the community member wants resource options, that is!). Somebody may come in to discuss something that is personally outrageous or offensive to you and you may have strong opinions about what should be done about it. It is not, however, your situation, and it is not the place of the Honor Council to assign any valence to any of the possible options a community member may choose. All resources that we have to offer are valid options, and it is our job to provide factual information and let those who come to us choose what will be best for them.
Some people have told me that they think neutrality is a fundamental flaw with the Honor Council. Neutrality is often cast as siding with the oppressor, or as a coward’s choice. It can be considered by some to be worse than outright opposition, since it can be seen as an insidious work-around, a shirking of the responsibility to take sides in important matters. While I can recognize where this viewpoint comes from, it would be extremely difficult for the Honor Council to serve all community members without maintaining neutrality.
Remaining neutral can be, at times, very taxing. We are all individuals, and, of course, all have personal beliefs and opinions. Because neutrality is a tall order, the members of Honor Council work to support each other in this difficult endeavor. We are always available to help each other brainstorm neutral phrasing, debrief particularly challenging interactions, and generally vent about the burden that neutrality can at times become.
In this vein, it is important to note that there are some exceptions to our commitment to neutrality. When it is something that affects you personally, neutrality may not be a safe choice for your mental wellbeing. In these circumstances, there are a few options. Of course, if you absolutely cannot remain neutral about something, you always have the right to refer a student to another Honor Council member who will be able to better serve them. Outside of direct Honor Council interactions, if you would like to discuss something that is of personal experience, we never want the requirements of neutrality to silence lived experiences.
In general however, the job of an Honor Council member is to present all available and appropriate options neutrally to whomever may seek them, no matter the circumstances. Neutrality is a profoundly difficult responsibility that affects how members of Honor Council conduct themselves both personally and publicly, but it is a responsibility that we carry out to make ourselves available to every community member.