One-horned purple trust eaters

Between secret societies and student organizations there is, or ought to be, an ethically gray area. It is wrong for an organizationlike the Honor Committee, which stresses transparency and the need to improve its public image, to maintain a mysterious relationship with secret societies like the Purple Shadows, which conceals their agenda under hooded purple costumes and anonymity. The nature of that agenda is anyone's guess, but the basic point is clear: Secrecy and transparency do not mix. Student organizations should generally avoid fostering relationships with secret societies that promote a specific agenda other than philanthropy. But even if one hesitates to level wide, sweeping condemnations, the specific case of the Honor Committee and the Purple Shadows is objectionable enough.

Much of this discussion deals indirectly with the changing roles of secret societies in University politics. As Honor Committee Chair Ben Cooper said, "Unlike the older secret societies, the Purple Shadows seem to be a lot more involved in day-to-day political issues." Whereas groups like the Seven Society and the Z Society seem to dwell mostly on philanthropy, the newest crop of secret societies -- the Purple Shadows, the Cardinal Order and the 21 Society, to name a few -- prefer what Cooper called "faceless political activism."

As we wrote in our editorial regarding the intellectual cowardice of the so-called Cardinal Order, legitimate debate must occur in a public forum between individuals and groups that can be held accountable for their actions or ideas. Secret societies escape this completely. "Faceless political activism" allows them to operate with the dubious combination of mysterious allure with almost no liability.

In the case of the Purple Shadows, that activity deals mostly with the honor system -- a system that allegedly touts transparency where possible. For instance, the Shadows present the James Hay, Jr. award annually to an individual who exhibits extraordinary dedication to the honor system. To deliver the award, the Shadows march into the annual Honor banquet clad in robes that can only be described as Liberace's interpretation of the Ku Klux Klan. This, taken with the Purple Shadow's dubious history, can't be baggage that the Honor Committee wants if it is sincere about shedding its white male image. Although the award constitutes the only official relationship between the Purple Shadows and the Honor Committee, unofficial connections abound.

The Purple Shadows correspond frequently with Honor chairs, allegedly help to fund traditionalist referenda and offer their opinions publicly on subjects ranging from the single sanction to student self-governance. "They've had a long-standing relationship with the Honor Committee," explained Cooper, "and they do tend toward preserving traditions like the single sanction." So, in other words, a secret organization with a blatant agenda maintains a "long-standing" relationship with the Honor Committee -- the guardians of the community of trust.

It would be silly to imply some sinister conspiracy at work here, but if there was one, how would anyone know? The reason for criticizing secret societies with overtly political agendas has less to do with what we know regarding their activity and more to do with what we don't. They are by nature secretive, which unavoidably poisons any climate of transparency and honesty. In 2004, The Cavalier Daily Managing Board wrote an editorial suggesting the "Honor Committee sever ties with the Purple Shadows and refuse to accept further recognition from this group." That seems like a good start. And if the Honor Committee wants to continue its long-standing relationship with the Purple Shadows it ought to be careful how earnestly it demands our "trust."

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