Most people who know me know that I grew up at West Point, home to the U.S. Military Academy. I tell people it was a lot like living at Hogwarts—huge stone buildings. Young, talented kids in uniform. Skydivers jumping out of planes. The occasional explosion. I got to watch all that magic from the sidelines.
West Point has educated countless leaders over the course of our nation’s history. Presidents. Generals. Business executives. (Dozens of my extremely bad-ass friends.) And one thing that’s always stuck out to me about the cadet experience is just how seriously the Academy takes its honor code.
“A Cadet Will Not Lie, Cheat, Steal or Tolerate Those Who Do.”
I’ve been putting off this essay because I don’t really want to delve into political waters. But after the events of this week (re: Melania Trump and/or her speechwriter plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech) I couldn’t stay silent anymore.
As I watch the news, I can’t help but feel like we’ve come to a point in American history when people don’t really know what honor is. It seems like all anyone does is lie, cheat, steal and tolerate it in others. Donald Trump cheats workers out of money. Hillary Clinton lies about her dereliction of duty over Benghazi. Police officers steal breath right out of the lungs of black men. Olympic teams pump steroids.
And meanwhile, most Americans look on and sigh. We tolerate it. We shrug about it. We move on. Or, if we’re outraged, we’re only outraged about whatever we’ve decided is the most wrong.
“A cadet will not lie (too much), cheat (too much), steal (too much), or tolerate those that do (too much).” That wouldn’t be a very good honor code because it bakes valuation into the equation. If the bad isn’t too bad, then it’s not that bad.
But there are no gradations of integrity. From the smallest “pop-off” answer that seems easier than explaining the whole truth, to the biggest cover-up designed to protect your ass over all others, a lie is the most basic breach of trust. It’s taking reality into your own hands and pretending you can change it. Ultimately, telling a lie means that you’ve put your own reputation, story, or ego ahead of anyone else.
The same goes for cheating. A cheater believes that personal gain, glory or pleasure is the ultimate prize. A cheater believes that his time is more valuable than yours. A cheater believes his sweat is more valuable than yours. A cheater believes that his pleasure is more important than your pain.
If lying and cheating are products of pride, stealing is the result of insecurity. People who steal don’t believe they are capable of the hard work necessary to achieve. Melania Trump (or her writers) didn’t believe they were capable of original ideas, so they stole someone else’s. Rapists don’t believe they can achieve pleasure or intimacy on their own, so they take it by force. It’s hopelessness, taken to the extreme.
Taken together, lying, cheating and stealing represent three vices that over-value or de-value a human life. Dishonorable people forget the central tenet of American ideology. We are all created in the image of God. We were all created equal.
That’s why honor matters. Because it is the backbone of justice.
Honor is being willing to admit the truth rather than lie, fail rather than cheat, and come up short rather than steal.
Honor is the courage to look a fool.
Honor is the ability to put someone else’s needs before your own.
Honor is choosing the harder right instead of the easier wrong.
Honor is believing there is a right worth choosing.
There are none of us who haven’t broken this honor code. I’m a liar, cheater, and a thief. I’ve done it all. I’ve also asked for forgiveness rather than doubling down on my pride.
My hope is that sometime in the future, we will have leaders in America who do the same.