The Playing Fields of Landon

June 13, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
“LANDON SCHOOL expects its students to become young men of character and integrity – men who behave honorably in all of their actions and relationships with others.”
Landon is the fancy private school for boys where some “rising freshmen” – boys of fourteen or fifteen – created a sports fantasy league, complete with a website where they posted information on candidates they could draft. The trouble was that the sport was sex, the candidates were girls, and the object of the game was to score points – the boys planned to throw parties, invite the girls, and rack up points for each type of sexual contact. (WaPo story here.)

The school undoubtedly sees the boys as betraying its ideals – all that stuff on its Website about character, honor, respect, true brotherhood, and the rest. The boys’ fantasy sex league was the antithesis of these virtues.

Or was it? Maybe it was just a variant form of them.

If the continuum is from honorable to dishonorable, from respectful to disrespectful, or from good character to bad character, then yes, what the boys did was the opposite of the school’s principles.

But what if you think about it as two different ways of relating to other people? In World One, your relations with people are governed by Important Principles. The object of any interaction is to measure up, to score points for yourself and your team by behaving on the basis of those principles. Other people are more like objects in this game, objects towards which you behave honorably or respectfully or sexually, depending on the principles set forth by your team (or school or society). The important thing is to be true to your code or your school.

In World Two, you relate to other people as people. Interactions are guided by a kind of mutuality, by what makes you and the other people involved feel good or bad. You try to understand others, to know a lot about them and their reactions, and you act on the basis of this empathic knowledge. In this world, good character and honor are much less relevant concepts.

The first world works well in large organizations where most people are more or less strangers to one another. The second may be more appropriate to relationships among people who are closely and personally connected. Personalized relationships in business and government bring corruption and unfairness. But you can get just as awkward a misalignment when you force universalistic principles, even noble ones, on personal relationships. Even if, like the Beach Boys, you are being true to your girl just like you’re true to your school, you are relating not to her but to an abstract ideal – trueness. Worse, abstract principles, whether honor or virginity pledges, may prove to be brittle when they come up against sexual urges or other powerful human feelings.

In earlier comments ( here and here), I let slip my doubts about justice. Now, I’m questioning honor and character. There must be something wrong with me, but here’s what I mean. The trouble with these virtues is that they allow men (these are typically masculine virtues) to treat other people in the most inhumane ways. Take honor, for example. In a decent society, the phrase “honor killing” would be incomprehensible. But when we hear it, we understand immediately what it means. We may not always approve of the specifics – a man killing his sister because she was raped. But we get the idea, probably because we’re familiar with other defenses of honor that we do deem legitimate even though we realize that people may well wind up being killed. Death – either yours or the other guy’s – before dishonor.

If I wanted to arrange social life so that boys would exploit girls as sexual objects, how would I go about it? First, I would segregate boys from girls for most of the important parts of daily life lest the boys get to know the girls as people. Second, I would have the boys focus on abstract principles, and I would emphasize that these principles are more valuable and worthwhile than are fallible, frustrating human relationships. My Website would have statements much like the one at the top of this post.

On the other hand, if I wanted to avert that exploitative mentality, I might do everything possible to get boys and girls together in very ordinary circumstances. My Website might say something like:
The Livingston School expects boys and girls to hang out together a lot and learn to enjoy one another’s company. Character, schmaracter.

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