Slime and Punishment

I’ve been working on my sympathy lately. This is because I’ve occasionally been accused of being insensitive and heartless by certain people upon whom I will wreak horrible, deadly vengeance as soon as I get around to it.

There are a lot of people to have sympathy for these days. Just over Christmas break, in fact, we bombed the crud out of Baghdad; Clinton got impeached by the House; and those two BYU football players got suspended, one of them eventually expelled. Unfortunately, the only ones I can work up any sympathy for are the football players.

See, with Hussein, it’s just hard to feel sorry for the guy. I mean, he’s misbehaved for as long as we’ve known him. No one has ever trusted him. He has lied to the world countless times, and the only question is, Why did it take so long for him to be punished? Oh, wait. Sorry. Replace the word “Hussein” with the word “Clinton.”

Hasn’t this guy always seemed like a weasel? He’s got that sleazy “trust me” voice, like a used-car salesman, or a politician. And he’s apparently used his high political standing to gain personal satisfaction. Proof: What woman would sleep with him if he weren’t powerful? He’s fat as a house, he’s not handsome, and he’s full of crap. If he weren’t the governor of Arkansas or president of the United States, he’d be living in a trailer park, drinking beer and watching “Cops.” In fact, I don’t think his sexual dalliances are nearly as disturbing as the lack of taste demonstrated by the women he’s slept with. At least JFK — the other lousy president who had a lot of affairs — was kind of classy.

Many of the commentators have tried to excuse Clinton’s adultery by saying that ALL U.S. presidents have had affairs. I find this excuse flimsy because 1) even if it’s true, that doesn’t make it right, and 2) my brain automatically rejects the notion anyway because of some of the images that accompany it. (Are you aware that William Howard Taft weighed over 300 pounds?)

So I can’t really feel sorry for Clinton. I feel bad for his wife and daughter, both of whom seem genuine and dignified. I feel bad for the American people for having to put up with him (although, I hasten to remind you, it’s not like a bunch of aliens flew in and elected him) (twice). But he kind of brought all this on himself, you know? He made his bed and now he has to lie in it, not that lying has ever been a problem for him.

And Hussein — do we even NEED to feel sorry for him? He certainly doesn’t invite sympathy. Even after we bombed the dickens out of his city, he was telling the Iraqis that THEY were victorious. That’s like LaVell Edwards telling the football team they won the Liberty Bowl.

Which brings me to those two football players, who, as I mentioned, are the only ones I feel sorry for. In case you missed it, they were suspended from school due to Honor Code infractions, and they weren’t allowed to play in the Liberty Bowl (not that it would have mattered). One of them was ultimately expelled from BYU. And the reason I feel sorry for them, and not for Clinton or Hussein, is that the football players never denied doing anything wrong. They received their punishment, they accepted it, and they seem genuinely sorry. Clinton and Hussein both have serious difficulty even admitting they’ve done something wrong, let alone show remorse for it. Sure, Clinton has apologized something like 8,000 times in the past few months — but that was only after he spent six months denying he had done anything. (“I didn’t do anything wrong. And for what I did wrong, I’m sorry.”)

Ironically, if the football players HAD denied any wrong-doing, we probably would have believed them. After all, it was the Honor Code Office punishing them, and we all know that mere innocence does not necessarily protect you from being punished by the Honor Code Office. No, the important thing there is that someone has TOLD the Honor Code Office you’ve done something wrong. Whether or not you actually did it is irrelevant. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” applies only in America, after all, not here. (The same goes for the principle of “you have the right to face your accuser, or at least know who he or she is.”)

[In an effort to appease some faculty members and get the column published, the preceding paragraph was modified to read as follows. Note that a couple things in this second version are more clear, not that it helped…:]

Ironically, if the football players HAD denied any wrong-doing, we probably would have believed them. After all, we’re dealing with the Honor Code Office here, and most students are aware that just because the Honor Code Office punishes you for doing something doesn’t mean you actually did it. The important thing is that someone TOLD the Honor Code Office you did it. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” applies only in America, after all, not here. (The same goes for the principle of “you have the right to face your accuser, or at least know who he or she is.”)

HONOR CODE OFFICE: A person whose name we’re not going to tell you has informed us that you were smoking crack on your apartment’s balcony.
STUDENT: My apartment doesn’t even HAVE a balcony!
HONOR CODE OFFICE: Oh, right, like we’re going to believe a crack-smoker. Where were you smoking the crack, then?
STUDENT: I’ve never smoked crack.
HONOR CODE OFFICE: Don’t play games with us. You’re obviously a crack-smoker. We can tell by the way you’re lying when you say you’re not a crack-smoker.

It occurs to me now that rather than having Ken Starr investigate Clinton, we should have had the Honor Code Office do it. Compared to them, Ken Starr seems underzealous.

HONOR CODE OFFICE: Mr. President, we’ve been told that you had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.
CLINTON: Well, not exactly….
HONOR CODE OFFICE: And since you did, that means you must have been lying when you said you didn’t.
CLINTON: I didn’t really lie….
HONOR CODE OFFICE: So you’re lying now?
CLINTON: No, I’m just saying —
CLINTON: I’m not lying.
HONOR CODE OFFICE: What you’re saying goes against what we already think. Therefore, you must be lying.
CLINTON: You’re right. I’m lying.
HONOR CODE OFFICE: Yes, but only because we say you are.

This was it: The column that led to the demise of "Snide Remarks" in The Daily Universe.

What was so controversial about this column that made BYU Communications Department faculty refuse to run it? Was it when I said the president of the United States was "full of crap"? Was it where I called JFK a "lousy president"? Was it where I said William Howard Taft was so fat, the idea of him having sex disturbed me? Nope.

Those of you familiar with BYU will not be surprised to learn that it was my comments on the Honor Code Office that were troublesome -- everything else was fine.

I'll briefly summarize the weekly Review Process that "Snide Remarks" went through. On Monday, I would go to a meeting with the column I intended to run the following week. At the meeting was the communications department chair, the Daily Universe faculty adviser, and two student editors -- the managing editor and the editor in chief. (This semester, since I was editor in chief, the news editor came, too, just so there would be a balance: two grown-ups, two students, and me.)

Also, you should know about the Honor Code Office. The Honor Code is a statement signed by all BYU students which says they will refrain from all illegal activity, as well as pre-marital or extra-marital sex, and just generally lead honorable, decent lives. No profanity, no immodesty -- you get the idea. The Honor Code Office is the organization that enforces the Honor Code. If you know of a BYU student who is not living up to the Honor Code, you are obligated to report him or her so they can correct the problem and take action, if necessary. (In fact, if it comes to light that someone has violated the Honor Code and you knew about it and did not report it, YOU can be punished, too.)

The Honor Code Office is widely feared and mistrusted by students, partly because of the "rat-on-your-roommate" system, and partly because of the horror stories we've all heard -- some (but by no means all) of which are probably more urban legend than truth -- in which students are falsely accused and yet punished anyway because the Honor Code Office believed the accuser over the accused.

When we discussed this column, originally scheduled to be published as the first column of the semester, on Jan. 11, there was immediate concern from the department chair, Dr. Laurie Wilson, over the Honor Code stuff. First, her concern was whether these allegations were true. Is it true they won't tell you who turned you in? (Yes: Although it's not their official policy, anyone can tell you of instances in which an accused person was not told who his accuser was.) Is it true they often have a "guilty until proven innocent" attitude? (It certainly seems that way, although that's obviously more difficult to prove and may be a matter of opinion -- which should be OK, given that this is an opinion column.)

Dr. Wilson was told by me, the two students and the Daily Universe faculty adviser that these things were true. Eventually, her skepticism gave way to greater concern -- if this is how things are, we've got to DO something about it! She eventually supported the column and agreed to run it.

Well, at some point over the next couple days, she began to doubt. She feared she would be fired over publishing a column that took potshots at such a hallowed and revered institution as the Honor Code Office (I think those concerns were unfounded), and she wanted to be positive, before she let it be published, that she could defend every word of it. So we decided to run another column for the first week, and another meeting was called to discuss this one.

This time, two additional communications department faculty people were called in as ringers -- they felt the column shouldn't run (one of them, I think, never felt ANYTHING I wrote should be run), and they felt that way before they even got to the meeting. They were not open to discussion.

At this second meeting -- which lasted two hours, by the way, and during which I had to go to the bathroom very badly -- we discussed several issues. No one doubted that the Honor Code Office often used questionable tactics -- or, at least, that students perceive that they use questionable tactics. Now the issue was, Is "Snide Remarks" the best way to address this issue?

The general tone was, no, it's not. The feeling was that if we ran this column, it would ruin any chances The Daily Universe had of conducting a legitimate, serious investigation later. It would be like opening a debate by throwing a grenade on the table.

Furthermore, someone said, while it is important for me as a humor columnist to address social issues, there are some issues that cannot be addressed in a humor column. This angered me deeply, for we had seen this attitude before, and I didn't like it then, either. In fact, I worried the first time whether we were setting a dangerous precedent; apparently, we were. The humor column was being made into a second-class citizen: "You can do most things regular columns can do, Mr. Humor Column, but not quite everything. But keep pluggin' away, little guy!" It's a condescending attitude -- humor is nice, but ultimately a secondary method of expressing opinions.

My major defense of the column was, simply put, that it was true: Students do perceive the Honor Code Office this way. Whether or not the Honor Code Office actually does this is irrelevant (although I strongly believe it does); what matters is that students think it does. That's all I was saying in the column -- that students think the Honor Code Office is often unfair.

I used this example: What if I were saying that people tend to think auto mechanics are dumb? It doesn't matter if they actually are; it doesn't matter how unfair that generalization might be; it doesn't matter what the auto mechanics have to say about it; what matters is that people DO tend to think that! Period, end of discussion.

Also, I said, if we actually want to address this issue in the paper, at least doing so in my column, instead of on the editorial page, would guarantee that it actually be read. This argument made a few people grumble, but I had to say it. The counter-argument was that the Honor Code Office is large and daunting enough as an institution to where such defenses aren't enough. We can't just make jokes about the Honor Code Office like I would something else and have that be the end of it. The Honor Code Office would surely be enraged and come after everyone at The Daily Universe -- and they're powerful enough, being tied in closely with BYU administration, to make some serious waves.

I offered to make a couple changes. I offered to make it more clear that I was bothered by the Honor Code Office's tactics, not by the Honor Code itself. I added a paragraph in which I made it clear this was the students' perception of the Honor Code Office, and that it was based on anecdotal evidence, not in-depth research (well, I said it funnier than that, but that was the essence of it). I rewrote a paragraph, as indicated in the text above. All of this ultimately did not help.

And so it was decided that a humor column was not a dignified, legitimate way of introducing this very sensitive discussion. Everyone decided that instead, The Daily Universe should launch an actual journalistic investigation of the Honor Code Office -- we even managed to get BYU President Merrill J. Bateman's support on this -- and try to rectify whatever wrongs were being committed. This column, it was decided, would damage that investigation. I vehemently disagreed, and I reminded everyone that fixing the Honor Code Office was NOT my crusade, nor was it my original intention with the column -- you'll notice the column is only tangentially even ABOUT the Honor Code Office -- and that if an investigation was to be launched, I would lend as much support, as editor in chief, as I would to anything else, but make no mistake -- this was NOT my war. (In fact, none of us students editors were that keen on it. It was clearly the faculty members' idea the whole way, taking what I said in the column and running with it, and definitely making more of it than I originally intended.)

Dr. Wilson didn't officially make the decision not to run the column until two days after the meeting. In the meantime, I had decided that if the column wasn't run, I would quit writing "Snide Remarks." Things had been changed before, of course, and even an entire column was not run once. But those things generally had to do with matters of taste or religious propriety. Here was a non-religious, non-sacred institution that I was being told I couldn't make jokes about. I could make jokes about the sex life of the president of the United States, but I couldn't bring up the fact that BYU students don't like the Honor Code Office. Basically, while things had been censored before, the censorship had never been as unjustified and unreasonable as this was.

I really couldn't see myself continuing to write after this column was quashed. To do say would have been to say, "OK, if you don't want to run a column, that's fine. You don't have to have a good reason or anything; just let me know, and I'll write something else. La la la, everything is happy." Or words to that effect. As a matter of principle (as much as I don't like that phrase), I couldn't set that precedent.

So when I was informed the column wouldn't run, I told Dr. Wilson that I would no longer write "Snide Remarks." She seemed genuinely surprised. It was my intention to stop writing immediately -- that the column that had run a few days earlier would have been the last. She knew I had written a few columns that were waiting to be run (I usually had a few stored up); she convinced me to go ahead and publish those. I agreed, on the condition that the Review Process meeting be abolished, and that I would send those last few columns directly to her for approval. I didn't care who she had read them after that; I just didn't want to have any more meetings. She agreed. (I should have made that demand MONTHS earlier!)

At the end of the semester, in April 1999, about a dozen articles were finally printed in The Daily Universe about the Honor Code Office. These were the result of the massive "investigation" we were going to do instead of printing this column. Some interesting information was included in these stories, but overall, the series was toothless and impotent. No problems were addressed with any depth, and none of the unfair practices of the Honor Code Office were changed.

The key story in the series was supposed to contain a dozen or so testimonials from students, on the record, talking about the unfair manner in which they'd been dealt with by the Honor Code Office. In my opinion, this was what it all boiled down to, and it would be our smoking gun. But the reporter who was supposed to write it was in a play that semester, got bogged down with rehearsals and other things, and didn't write the story. The end.

All that, and "Snide Remarks" died, too. If I may say so, a BYU institution was lost, just so another BYU institution could continue its unfair practices unabated.

(As a final post-script: I'm amazed by the things I said about Bill Clinton. Can you tell I lived in the homogenous conservative bubble of BYU at the time? I don't think he should have committed adultery with Monica Lewinsky, of course, but being impeached for it was outrageous, and I'm stunned that I ever believed otherwise.)