An increasing number of corporations, universities, and other organizations hold anti-racism seminars in which participants are expected to acknowledge their own racism at the start of the meetings or to write “letters of apology to marginalized people whom they may have harmed.”
Anthropologist and brand consultant Grant McCracken, who has taught at places such as Harvard Business School and worked with people such as Kanye West, says such imperatives are doubly bad. First, they don’t acknowledge the changed nature of institutions over the past half-century toward inclusion and equality and second, they leave participants feeling defamed and diminished. There’s never a good reason to say you are a racist, he writes, unless, of course, you are one.
McCracken’s work will be familiar to Reason readers, both as a contributor to our pages and as an influence on the magazine’s broad conception of culture as a dynamic, participatory process through which we all figure out who we are and what we want to become. His 1998 book Plenitude, in which he documents what he calls the “quickening speciation of social types,” remains the essential starting point for understanding the relentlessly heterogenous world in which we live.
His new book is called The New Honor Code: A Simple Plan for Raising Our Standards and Restoring Our Good Names. It explores the seeming disappearance of honorable behavior from much of our personal, professional, and public lives. Sports heroes such as Lance Armstrong not only cheat to win but lie about it while accusing others of cheating. Medical professionals such as Larry Nassar abuse their position as the USA Gymnastics team doctor to assault hundreds of young, defenseless patients. Politicians ranging from Nancy Pelosi to Donald Trump to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Ted Cruz regularly defame and lie about their opponents without evidence or fear of reprisal.
What America needs, says McCracken, is a rebirth of honor that demands we insist on basic standards of behavior, especially from those in positions of power, and that we also treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated: with respect and compassion. The New Honor Code is a rich text, drawing from McCracken’s academic research into Elizabethan England, his abiding curiosity about popular culture, and his work in corporate America. Few other thinkers can distill lessons for the future from figures as diverse as 16th-century English diplomat Thomas Elyot, Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and Canadian musician and Elon Musk partner Grimes.