Saturday, January 31, 2009

Code of Silence or Mob Silence?

Bear with me here while I play around with some ideas.

While trying to understand Alaska based FBI Special Agent (are there any FBI agents that aren't special?) Chad Joy’s decision to complain about fellow Special Agent Mary Beth Kepner, one of the issues that arose was the idea of the code of silence. Why, if there have been so many cases of law enforcement officers not reporting other officers abusing suspects, taking drugs or bribes, etc., would he go after a fellow agent for things as relatively insignificant as "giving away unnecessary information to sources." "telling her husband about her work," and "wearing a skirt in court as a surprise for a witness"?

A Google search found a variety of stories headlined “Code of Silence” ranging from

Prison guards intimidating others guards to not reveal their abuses against prisoners
The Bush Administration
Orange County Sheriff’s Office
Gangs silencing neighborhood witnesses
The Mafia
Corporations Not Talking about being hacked

This got me thinking about the wide variety of ways “Code of Silence” is used, suggesting to me that the term is rapidly losing its meaning. It’s becoming an easy headline, a cliche, that now simply means that "people won’t talk."

Let’s consider what a code is. The first two definitions at Merriam Webster online are

1: a systematic statement of a body of law ; especially : one given statutory force
2: a system of principles or rules

Both these definitions have positive connotations. As do Honor Codes and Codes of Ethics. There’s also Code of Chivalry.

Chivalry was disciplined by a code of conduct that was clearly understood although it was never clearly formulated. Examination now, in retrospect, allows it to be reduced to this series of commandments composed by Léon Gautier ~

1. Thou shalt believe all the Church teaches and shalt obey her commandments.
2. Thou shalt defend the Church.
3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
4. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
5. Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
6. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
7. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
8. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
9. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

This is a noble code (assuming you believe in the church and feudal duties). In the purest form, people in some sort of group voluntarily pledge to follow a code simply because it is seen as a being morally right. But as I look at how “Code of Silence” is used, it appears to me that rather than people voluntarily pledging to an honorable code, it often refers to very negative ways to force people to conceal potentially embarrassing, even harmful information about corrupt individuals. I’d say there is a continuum from

Let’s look at some examples:

1. Honor. Members take a pledge, often at risk to themselves, to remain silent for what they consider the greater good of their group, community.
a. Captured soldiers who refuse to reveal information to their captors. They are ruled by a sense of honor not fear of punishment - for they often receive terrible punishment from their captors for refusing to cooperate. While they may also be affected by peer pressure from their fellow captives, this is an appeal to honor of sorts too.
b. Members of an underground movement - say the Underground that fought the Nazis in WWII - who also will not reveal hideouts or other members despite torture and threat of death.

Even at this theoretical ‘good’ side of the continuum, there are problems. One could believe that one country’s military is honorable while the other side is not. One could find certain underground movements (the US Revolutionary Army, the WWII underground, the Mujahideen fighting the Russians) as good, but others (Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army, the Irish Republican Army, the Taliban fighting the Americans) as bad. While someone else might see the moral right in each of these examples reversed. And there are probably few if any pure situations where some sort of sanction doesn't have a role.

2. Honor and Punishment. Members take a pledge and there is a sense of honor, but there is also a real threat of physical harm to those who do not uphold the Code.
Examples: The traditional Mafia (at least as portrayed in books, movies, and television) seems to have had a sense of honor in the loyalty of members to each other, yet the code is also enforced by threats of violence, even death. It’s what Tony Soprano refers to when he complains that there isn’t the honor among the troops that there used to be.

3. Punishment. There is no pledge or Code. Silence about illegal activity is enforced by threats of expulsion, violence, death.
a. Prison guards who abuse prisoners in violation of the law and keep prisoners and other guards from reporting the abuses through threats, peer pressure, intimidation.
b. Community members who will not talk to the police about gang members for fear of retaliation.

I'd guess that Codes of Silence (where people maintain silence as a form of honorably maintaining of a code of behavior based on principle, not based on fear of retaliation) are pretty uncommon these days. There appears to be ample evidence of situations where people refuse to cooperate with law enforcement by remaining silent about what they know. But this silence is for the most part, not based on some Code of Conduct, but rather simple fear of retaliation or distrust of the law enforcement agencies or a combination of both. To call this a “Code of Silence” is to give it a dignity it doesn’t deserve. "Fear Forced Silence" is not as catchy as “Code of Silence” but probably more accurate. "Bullied Silence?" Maybe "Mob Silence" is catchier, suggesting the pressure to be silent, with the hint of violence.

This is one of the problems we have with all cliches. As George Orwell wrote, back in the 1930s, metaphors are coined to help us grasp an abstract idea. At first they are crisp and eye-catching like Churchill's use of "iron curtain." But then with overuse they become cliches, and we no longer see the imagery. (When was the last time you "saw" someone dead just short of the line?) Then we use the concept without thinking.

I think that's happened with Code of Silence and now journalists, headline writers, and others apply this term without thought to any situation where people won't talk, even where there is no 'code' operating, just the power of bullies protecting themselves from exposure. This is a form of terrorism.


  1. Of course you have read The Right Stuff-- do you remember the astronauts being annoyed with the press for knowing their lingo and wearing it out and using it to become too familiar?

    I doubt that MBK is honorable because it takes slime to catch slime, but if she is honorable, could Monsignor Joy have called her on what seems yawnfully petty because he didn't see her as a threat? Does he have political aspirations?

  2. More than political aspirations, maybe he's just playing political favoritism.


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