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Communicating Honor

J.A.McArthur, 8.21.2010

Communicating Honor:
Civility, Technology, and a Digital Society
presented by

J.A. McArthur
Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs
School of Communication
Communicating Honor
J.A.McArthur, 8.21.2010

Communicating Honor:
Civility, Technology, and a Digital Society

Let me first congratulate all of you, members of the Class of 2014, on an excellent choice: enrolling at
Queens University of Charlotte. Welcome. We have eagerly anticipated your arrival on campus, and we
are so glad that you are here. Welcome also to the parents, brothers, sisters, family and friends, faculty,
and staff present this afternoon.

I find myself humbled to be before you today, asked to speak on the topic of honor, and to consider
with you digital technology and its effects on honor in society. More specifically, I’ve been challenged to
offer my thoughts on integrity, and how the expansive digital landscape influences our choices.

We live in a time unlike any other in our history: one marked by rapid change in information technology.
The ways that we share and receive information are updated almost daily. This is the crux of the study
in rhetoric and communication: the study of the ways that you and I create shared meanings through the
sending and receiving of messages.

The ways we send and receive information fundamentally impacts our interactions. So, when technology
changes, society changes.
Marshall McLuhan chronicled the creation of tools that shaped communication and society. Our shift
from the age of tribes to the literate age occurred with the invention of written alphabets that could
transcribe oral histories. The shift from the literate age to the print age happened when the printing
press made possible the rapid dissemination of ideas in mass-produced texts. The later electronic age
was born with the invention of the telegraph, which allowed messages to travel electronically through a
Each tool has emerged with its fair share of criticism. Books spread knowledge, but they will empower
people to revolt. Telephones are convenient, but they’re too impersonal to use regularly. Televisions
are fun, but they will rot your brain. Social media is cool, but it’s just a fad.
And, each tool raises a new opportunity to answer the fundamental questions about technology: how
will people use it – for good or for ill?
Marshall McLuhan suggested that contemporary communication returns us to an age of tribes: one in
which oral histories could be shared electronically. This full-circle return to storytelling, he suggested,
would create a global village.2 But to what end? How would humanity be altered by a return to oral
history, or an advance to a digital history? These questions remain to be answered.
Yet, the sounds and images of this “global village” abound in local stories told globally. We watched
as an Iranian election was disputed by citizens on Twitter.3 We viewed mobile phone footage of a plane
landing on the Hudson River.4 We listened as politicians of all persuasions spread grassroots messages
through podcasts and internet ads.5 We witnessed a Canadian teenager use YouTube videos to create
the pandemic of Bieber fever.6 The American Red Cross recently released a report indicating that 74%
of Americans believe that if they issue a cry for help using social media, they expect help to arrive within
the hour.7
In all of these examples, what we see are real people telling their stories. These stories are absent of the
news editors, publishing houses, and broadcast networks that served for generations as the gatekeepers
for information.
Now that we each have a global platform for our stories, which stories will we tell? And, how will we
tell them?
Communicating Honor
J.A.McArthur, 8.21.2010

This issue of storytelling is an issue of identity and the ways we create identities. I want to tell you the
story of my digital identity. I was an early adopter of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, and
Foursquare, among others. These tools, as you all know, let us create our identities and share them with
the world.
This might sound like a strange concept: to create one’s identity, but really, that’s what we do everyday.
Our clothes, our hair, and our mobile phones tell our stories to those who look. The same is true for
the digital versions of our selves.
When I first joined Twitter, I had a crisis of identity. I created two accounts – one for my personal life8
and one for my professional life.9 My personal twitter page chronicled the spur-of-the-moment status
updates in response to Twitter’s question: “What’s happening?” My professional tweets shared
information, mainly about social media, but also about communication, and resources for students. I told
you I suffered a crisis of identity. As it turns out, my two selves on Twitter started tweeting about each
other. How strange is that? I split my identity and the two sides wanted desperately to be rejoined.
What I learned in this process is that each of my identities online were all still me. I am the sum of all
the facets of my life: personal and professional, public and private. I knew I had to be the authentic “me”
in all of my identities – digital or otherwise.
Now, you are well aware that in the digital world, we can each choose to be whomever we would like
to be – authentic or otherwise. If you use Twitter, you’d probably prefer to follow people who tweet
for themselves rather than people who have paid staff that tweet for them. Why? Because you can
distinguish a person’s true voice from a marketing scheme: it’s more personal because it’s authentic.
The other thing I learned from my early days on Twitter was that the personal, authentic information
we share in participatory media can be deeply personal, but it is never private. In an age of global, digital
storytelling, information is highly accessible and revealing. At times it is even voyeuristic.
The possibilities of oversharing might lead us to share our private moments and deepest thoughts
online. On the other hand, the consequences of oversharing might cause us to completely shun social
media as scary or dangerous.
I suggest to you that our goal is neither of these things. Our goal should be to be authentic. To manage
our selves so that when we choose to share our stories, we get to tell them with enthusiasm and
integrity without degrading ourselves or others. To find a digital identity that supports our real identity.
This goal is not an easy one, and all of us, myself included, have much to learn about what to share, how
much to share, how often to share the stories of our lives.
So, each of us is in the process of becoming, of developing ourselves and of sharing ourselves online. We
write and present stories of our choosing on blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter, and YouTube. In this
plethora of stories, how do we sift through the noise to find the most compelling stories? And whose
stories will we choose to believe?
Interestingly, digital technology answers those questions for us. Digital technology not only shares
stories among us, but it also tells us which stories to read. Don’t believe me? Last time you had a cold
did you Google your symptoms? The last time you wrote a paper, did you use Wikipedia to help you get
started? If you read books on the Kindle or the iPad, try finding really obscure authors. You see, digital
search functions, like Google, Amazon and Wikipedia, sort our results in the same way that society
does: by popularity – by what is the most famous, the most recognized, the most well known for being
Communicating Honor
J.A.McArthur, 8.21.2010

And we buy into this process of discovery. Researchers at Northwestern University recently reported
that our generation loves Google. We depend upon it. When we seek information, our first response is
to “Google it.” And we value the information’s ranking above the credibility of its source. 11

Let me say that again: we, you and I, place more value on an article’s popularity ranking on Google than
on the credibility of its facts. We choose to believe what Google tells us to believe. We choose to
believe that the most popular stories are the most interesting. We choose to believe that the most
viewed videos are the best ones on YouTube. We choose to believe that the person with the most
friends on Facebook is the most popular. Instead of reading the stories of Yitzchak Dovid Grossman12
and Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu13, we choose to seek out the stories Jake & Vienna14 or Snooki and the
Situation15 -- because they are popular rather than compelling.

What would happen if we made different choices? How would our society be changed if each of us
thought more critically about these sites? What would happen if we developed a new literacy, a
improved way of thinking, about digital and media documents?

Don’t mistake my words. I am a fan of shared information. I appreciate the quantity of information that
we can access on the Internet. Students in my classes know that I’m perfectly happy tweeting about class
assignments, and that I would expect them to tweet during this event, or at least respond to it in a
Facebook post. In fact, I vetted much of my thinking for this speech in Twitter chats and blog posts.

These digital tools and the information they can provide are excellent vehicles for learning, working, and
living. Our challenge in this digital society is to use our judgment alongside our technologies.

So, now you might ask, “How do we choose to use digital tools well?”

The answer might be to consider them critically; to investigate information for ourselves rather than
relying on a Google search. The answer might be to consider our audience, our message, our tone, and
how digital tools impact our communication. The answer might be to think, and after thinking, to make a
judgment call.

To make a choice.

A famous Hogwarts headmaster put it like this: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more
than our abilities.”16

The ancient philosopher Quintillian admonishes us: It is not enough for people to speak well. They
should be good people speaking well.17

Queens University of Charlotte’s motto reminds us non ministrari, sed ministrare: “Not to be served, but
to serve.”18

Our choices define us. So, when talking about how to use digital tools well, or really how to use any
tools well, our discussion necessarily focuses on our choices, and choosing to use these tools with

Here at Queens, we have an Honor Code which binds our community together and communicates
honor. If you haven’t yet read the honor code, check out the back of your program and read it. If you
have read it, you’ll note that the Queens University of Charlotte Honor Code is not a set of rules or a
policy to be followed. Rather, it is a pledge that each member of our community will conduct him or
herself with integrity and respect.
Communicating Honor
J.A.McArthur, 8.21.2010

When you join this community, as you, the class of 2014, are about to do, you make an academic pledge
that you will treat your work with integrity. This pledge refers to honesty in your academic pursuits in
the classroom, in our laboratories, on our campus, in web-based platforms like our Moodle class sites,
your campus email, and in the written, oral, visual, and digital projects you complete here.

You also make a community pledge to treat others with respect. This community pledge refers to
integrity when you address other people in the classroom, in your residence halls, at student activities,
off campus in the community, and in the digital environment in places like the Queens website, student
blog and video pages, on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

You’ll note that neither the academic pledge nor the community pledge mention the tools you will use
here. Rather, both pledges speak about honor, regardless of the tools that you use.

If you were to pull out your iPhone, Blackberry, or Droid and look up the word honor on your
dictionary application, you might find that honor has multiple meanings. These multiple meanings boil
down to two main categories: honor the decoration, honor the action.

The first honor, the noun, is honor the reputation, the recognition, the decoration. When I think of
honor, the noun, I often think of my grandfathers, both veterans of World War 11 whose uniforms
were decorated with military honors. The badges worn by our servicemen and women are decorations
of honor.

In the same way, in four or so years, when you become alumni of Queens University of Charlotte, you
will be adorned with the decorations that come with this honor – the cap and gown – and you will
receive diplomas and degrees which recognize your efforts.

When it comes to the Honor Code, we have a decoration that you’ll find in every classroom on
campus. The plaques, inscribed with the Honor Code, hang on the walls wherever classes meet as a
decorative reminder of our pledge.

But ultimately, this first definition of honor – the decoration – is a result of our prior choices and

The decorated military heroes had previously earned the honors they now wear. The graduates of our
institution put forth four years of work. The plaques on our walls represent the values of our
community. In each of these cases, honor - the verb, the action – led to the decoration.

This second definition of honor – honor the action – is a verb and, more specifically, a transitive verb. A
transitive verb, like the verb “to honor,” requires both a subject and an object – both a sender and a
receiver. And this verb, to honor, reflects a choice – a choice to treat someone with respect, a choice
to fulfill a commitment, a choice to salute or give special reference to something.

This action of honoring one another is the foundation of our Honor Code here at Queens. The Honor
Code that you sign today is not a policy to be enforced. It is a framework for living in a community of
other people, and it is a guide for honoring that community and yourself.

The Honor Code that you sign this afternoon says that you will “endeavor to create a spirit of
integrity.”19 To do so requires action. Each of the little daily choices that you and I make can build upon
or detract from this spirit. The little choices matter. All the tiny decisions add up to a culture for our
community. So, when your history professor leaves your classroom during your midterm exam, how
will you respond? When you see a stranger in the library leave her laptop unattended, how will you
respond? Perhaps you’ll think to yourself, “Seriously. I can’t believe that just happened.” Or perhaps
you’ll think, “This is a community that respects its members.”
Communicating Honor
J.A.McArthur, 8.21.2010

The Honor Code that you sign this afternoon also says that you will “not tolerate any violations of its
spirit or principles.”20 Many have interpreted this statement to mean that each of us will report
violations of the Honor Code when we see them occur. If your roommate turns in a paper he found
with a Google search, how will you respond? If your sorority sister posts degrading remarks on
Facebook, how will you respond? Perhaps you’ll think to yourself, “Seriously. I can’t believe that just
happened.” Or perhaps you’ll consider carefully the ethical dilemma you face and you’ll investigate the
ways that your choice and your resulting action will impact our community. And remember, refusing to
act is still a choice.

Living under the Honor Code will require you to make choices. As you will learn, if you haven’t already,
most choices are not easy, and they come not only in black and white, but also in wonderfully vibrant
shades of grey.


One of the strangest paradoxes of this speech is that while the ethical choices in the physical world are
often complex, choices in the digital world are always binary. When you’re writing in computer code,
every image, every word, every color is made up of a series of ones and zeroes. These ones and zeroes
combine in endless possibilities to create sound, color, shape, and text. In the digital world, it’s always a
one or a zero.

One or zero.

Certainly some of the daily choices we make are binary: Chicken or steak. Mac or PC. Team Edward or
Team Jacob.21 Facebook or Twitter (or both).

I submit to you that you have a binary choice to make today as you officially become a member of the
Queens community. On the one hand, you can choose honor, the noun, the decoration. And like this
plaque, the honor code will be a gleaming symbol of a vague reality and an ideal way of life.

However, on the other hand, you can choose honor, the verb, the action. To regard one another with
respect. Should you make this decision, your life will be an ongoing set of choices founded on the
principles of respect, service, and the common good – non ministrari, sed minstrare.

This choice, the choice between decoration and action, will impact the way you live as a member of the
Queens community. And this choice is the first of many that will shape you and this community for
years to come.

Therefore, I hope that you choose honor, the action, the verb. That you make respect, humility, and
service your way of life here at Queens and far beyond.

As you sign the Honor Code, know that the faculty, staff and administration seated around you are
making a choice, too. We choose to be here, to profess our expertise to you, and to guide you in this
community. We honor you. Our question to you is, “Will you honor Queens in person and online?”
“Will you honor this community, physically and digitally?” “Will you choose honor?” We hope the
answer is a resounding yes.

One or Zero.

Action or Decoration.

The choice is yours.

Communicating Honor
J.A.McArthur, 8.21.2010


McLuhan, M. (1963). Understanding Media.; McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967). The Medium is the Massage.
McLuhan, M. (1963). Understanding Media.; McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967). The Medium is the Massage.
See Newsweek’s “A Twitter Timeline of the Iran Election” (June 26, 2009).
Miller, C.C. (2008, November 7). How Obama’s Internet campaign changed politics. New York Times.
A reference to the social media beginnings of pop star Justin Beiber. See the ABC News Report
or CBS’s Katie Couric’s interview with Beiber (
See the full report by the American Red Cross here:
Now obsolete. See next endnote.
I tweet @JAMcArthur –
See Boorstin, D. (1962). The Image: A guide to psuedo-events in America.
Hargittai, E., Fullerton, L., Menchen-Trevino, E., & Thomas, K.Y. (2010). Trust online: Young adults’ evaluation of
web content. International Journal of Communication, 4, pp. 468-494. Available online at:
Caring Insitute Award Winner Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman. Read more at
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu is more well known by another name: Mother Teresa. The author notes that Mother
Teresa may in fact be more well-known than Snooki, the Situation, or Jake & Vienna, but perhaps the inclusion
of her birth name herein will inspire research and reflection on her lifetime of service.
A reference to the recent public break up of Jake Pavelka and Vienna Girardi, contestants on ABC’s The Bachelor.
A reference to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of MTV’s Jersey Shore.
Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999).
Quintillian revised Cicero’s teaching. Cicero suggested that “speaking well” was the essence of rhetoric.
Quintillian noted that rhetoricians have a responsibility to their audience to be a “good man speaking well.”
Queens University of Charlotte’s Latin motto was originally the motto of Chicora College which merged with
Queens in 1930.
Queens University of Charlotte’s Honor Code: As a member of the Queens University of Charlotte community, I will
endeavor to create a spirit of integrity and honor for its own sake at Queens University of Charlotte. Academic Pledge: I
pledge truthfulness and absolute honesty in the performance of all academic work. Community Pledge: I pledge to be
truthful at all times, to treat others with respect, to respect the property of others, and to adhere to University policies
Accepting both the privileges and responsibilities of living by this code of honor, I resolve to uphold this code and not to
tolerate any violations of its spirit or principles.
A reference to the Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga which pits werewolf Jacob Black against vampire Edward
Cullen for the affections of Bella Swan.

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