“The surest way to get more of something is to have our government declare war on it.” – Uncle Rufus
The Common Good cannot be furthered without also furthering Truth. – Uncle Rufus
My personal summary of US politics, covering the last three years and [at least] the next year: Starting in 2016, Democrats needed to do only one thing to succeed: be less crazy than Trump. They could sit back, watch Trump duke it out with (and probably divorce from) the GOP, and be the grown-ups designated to clean up. Instead, they decided to out-crazy and out-corrupt Trump. There are no grown-ups, so let’s move on. The end.
Throughout the law school experience, my greatest trouble has been solitude. To a melancholic, solitude is often a refuge, a warm and soft den where thoughts and emotions can be safely acknowledged, unknotted, mourned, and wrangled. But when the solitude is inescapable, when the den gives way to a cold, endless cave, the melancholic mind and spirit encounter no safe refuge. The realities of law school not only stretched solitude into a cavern, but also exacerbated the need for the den.
The degree of loss was my greatest surprise. To an extent, I expected some solitude, some loss of relationship. Intuitively, I braced for greater distance between myself and my extended family and friends. This occurred, but that distance grew in relationships where I did not expect it to grow, laying bare the previous strength of those relationships.
Survivors warn prospective law students of this phenomenon, but they are usually quick to add that new relationships from within the law school community will fill this void. That prospect doesn’t necessarily hold true for non-traditional law students, those not inclined to participate in the binges typical of worldly grad students and those with families demanding – and deserving of – any and all spare moments. To be sure, I have made friends of many of my colleagues, and I appreciate the pleasant conversations, practical assistance, and care that we have exhibited for each other. Yet, most of them (the “kids”) can only relate to a small portion of my experience – balancing school while managing family, career, and adult life were mostly foreign to them.
My first realization of loss occurred within the first month or two of my 1L year. It was then I first noticed the loss of respect, and I grieved that loss for a while – and perhaps still struggle to put it behind me. My former ability to command respect, to look people in the eye and know that there was mutual respect and a willingness to speak and act toward common goals, was gone. Professors don’t hold students in high regard, nor should they, in a manner of speaking. However, I felt that my age and experience – in some cases exceeding those of my professors – should have set me apart from other students in the eyes of professors, inclining them to engage me on another, fuller level. Not only did that not happen, the opposite often occurred.
The simple fact that law school exists largely in the theoretical, usually with only one outlet per course (a final exam), is practically to blame for much of the solitude. There are few outlets for the vast amounts of knowledge and ideas that we take in, and even those few outlets tend to be narrow and limited, divorced from human realities. Perhaps the role of a new legal associate is designed to be a gradual release of this built-up pressure and isolation, which could be dangerous to people. Yet I can’t help but believe that the legal profession would be better off with a different system, perhaps even a “reading into” the profession under tutelage and experience. The legal clinic is a help in this regard, but it is not wholly sufficient.
The vast intake of knowledge creates the need for a sufficient outlet. But couple this knowledge with the weightiness of life, philosophy, and theology, and the melancholic needs the soft den of solitude all the more to emotionally work out the mass of problems that have been absorbed. Yet that solitude needs to be broken by relationships that beckon the melancholic to come back out of the den, to not wander further into the cold recesses of the cave. When there isn’t time or space to hear those voices, and when the flow of knowledge itself carries the melancholic further into the bowels of the cavern, all he can do is read on in wide-eyed terror or look away in cynical indifference.
Coming to the end of law school, and winding my way back out of the cave, I do begin to see light and hear welcome voices. My wife and children have been remarkably resilient, as have a few friendships. But I worry whether I will ever be able to relate to people as I once did, or if the terror and cynicism left indelible marks that can ever be overcome. At the end of this ride, I wonder if solitude will ever again be the comfortable den, or if perhaps, in some way, the new den may not include solitude at all.
On the brighter side of law school sits the legal clinic, a working law firm where students take on live cases with living, breathing clients. Gone are the musty stacks and the confident black letters of the law, and in their places are the gray questions and the squishy conflicts of real relationships and broken rights.
One client is a family seeking legal responsibility to care for their patriarch, who isn’t able to see that he needs their care. As a people, we have placed safeguards for this patriarch, and other vulnerable people, to prevent the caretakers from taking advantage. I am fortunate that my clients are, I believe I can prove, well fit and well motivated to care for a ward that needs them.
Another client is also a family, seeking to care for the home and personal effects that their patriarch left behind upon his death. As a people we created a process to transfer rights from a deceased person – unable to transfer rights himself – to other living persons, because the rights of property outlast the life of a human. The grief has now passed, and the belongings are few; yet without the family’s patriarch as leader, the family is spending its remaining strength on a fight over the few physical scraps he left behind.
These two families are very different. The ways they honor their respective patriarchs are vastly different, as are the values the patriarchs instilled in their families. There are important stories and lessons to be gained from each, but this is not the time nor place for those.
Ironically, I am exchanging my own time and money for the opportunity to learn by helping these clients. The clients bring nothing to this exchange except their problems, plus the little extra patience needed to deal with a law student rather than a lawyer.
Today I can wonder aloud: Where would my clients go, what they would do, to resolve their legal issues without this free legal service? What is the cost of justice? Is the value of the justice produced by our legal system commensurate to its price tag?
In one case, the State’s coffers are used to enable a man to fight what’s in his best interest. I can justify this to an extent, and I don’t begrudge the man in the least; if the State can remove a man’s right to self-governance, it should bear the cost of doing so. But would the family be able to bear the cost – a fight to love – without access to this legal clinic? The market value of my time spent on the case is already in the thousands.
In the other case, the family doesn’t seem to realize the value of the scraps is – or could be – easily outweighed by family cohesiveness. The family members clearly don’t have the resources to engage attorneys, so they utilize free services and/or attempt to represent themselves in a system they don’t understand in order to control property rights that won’t bring them any value. What would their argument look like – how would it be settled – if our justice system weren’t here or if people like me weren’t available to crack it open for them? Would their conflict even exist if not for our system that tells them a conflict might exist?
Today was rough. One person undermined years worth of my careful planning, hard work, and hard-won relationships, all of which have yielded — until today — successful project. To make it worse, it was done in a way that calls into question my character and ability. And the destruction was needless and unwarranted. My anger and frustration consumed energy and thoughts that I needed to focus elsewhere — on writing my own paper. I can’t tell you if your work travails correlate to your sight or not. But I can tell you that you aren’t alone in feeling stuck in a stony, thorn-filled garden. A healthy theology of vocation helps pull me through: Work wasn’t meant to be this way, and our garden — and fellow gardeners — won’t always be cursed. The depravity that I experienced from others today still resides in me; but for the grace of God I would been more destructive today. Press on in knowledge and grace.
The problem I see is this: “Religion” has become an escape clause from civil conversation and civic tolerance.
Benignly, it can be used like this: “Religion is personal and sensitive; therefore, I’m turning the conversation away from potentially offensive content.” Unfortunately, it’s increasingly used not-so-benignly: “Religion is irrational; therefore you are irrational, and I’m shutting you out of the conversation.” I can respect the first instance; the second instance is intolerant and unworthy of respect, for reasons I will attempt to explain.
Learned people will rightly quibble with my use of the term, but for simplicity and illustration I use the term “religion” here to mean a set of assumptions about myself and the world around me. In this very broad sense, everyone has a religion, even if it is not organized into a creed, institution, or society. Every person thinks, feels, and acts according — and often in contradiction — to this set of assumptions. In this sense, everyone’s religion is rational to a degree and also irrational to degree.
The problem with the second statement above is this: it’s not stating that all belief systems are a mixture of rational and irrational assumptions; it’s actually claiming that the speaker’s assumptions are more rational (and that the recipient’s assumptions are less so). In other words, it establishes the speaker as superior and freezes the recipient out of the conversation. If we aim for a secular, pluralistic society, it is incongruous to make such a claim — even if it is done in the name of secularism or pluralism. Put another way, even if it the statement was facially neutral, its effect was discriminatory.
My point is that it would be better to acknowledge that we all come to conversations and controversies with a set of assumptions about our own being and the world around us. That takes some humility and bravery, but it enables us to “negotiate” solutions that allow us to truly “tolerate” our differences in a diverse society.
For the record: I’ve never liked Roy Moore, and recent accusations (a topic unto themselves) did nothing to change my perspective. That said, even though I may not like this choice, I can understand why people voted for him. You see, I sometimes have this thing called “empathy,” which used to be considered a positive human trait. It allows me to see how someone can be rational and good-natured, even though we are different.
Empathy played an ironic role in the Alabama election: one of the factors that led rational, good-natured people to vote for Moore is that, from their perspective, their political opponents lack empathy and see them as “others” to be used or eliminated. And their perception is, regrettably, not unfounded. Empathy communicates that you see the other person as fully human, capable of intellect and emotions not unlike your own, and worthy of a dignity equal to your own. A refusal to empathize demonstrates that you count the other person as an “other,” devoid of value beyond your ability to control and use the other. Further, and more frightening, an inability to empathize is a grotesque pathology of the mind and of the soul. Here is my theory: the lack of basic empathy toward our political opponents is crippling our politics and our civil society. The inability, or unwillingness, to respectfully afford people the opportunity to disagree will only have the deleterious effect of pushing people toward extreme options. Conversely, letting people disagree “without casting aspersions on their good sense or moral character” will lead to less extreme outcomes, and perhaps, better solutions for the problems that face all of us. So back to Alabama and Moore (or pick another question, as there will always be grotesque choices to be decided), where you find yourself exasperated by the ugliness and ignominy of others. Take it as an opportunity to exercise, and identify why and how they felt and thought as they did; and for a moment, attempt to relate as a fellow human, perhaps even more fully-human than yourself. Even if my theory on empathy is proven wrong, I’d rather go down as having tried to revive this forgotten-and-gasping quality. The alternative, as best as I can tell, is to scrap for my preferred version of human ugliness over an other’s version of ugliness.
I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.
Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).
Much could be–and has been–written about the cultural fall-out of Obergefell, and there is no sense replicating it here. All I can do is point to the prescient arguments made by the dissent, grasping at straws to preserve the freedoms of conscience and expression.
This week’s Constitutional Law class provided a ready example, anecdotally (and ironically) proving the justice’s point. As the Socratic method of instruction does, the class was asked to explain the Court’s ruling, explain the dissent’s opinion (four separate dissents, in this case), and then choose a side to argue. No one dared to acknowledge that the majority of the Court offered almost no rationale. And no one dared to acknowledge the rationale of the dissent, let alone advocate for it, even if they wanted to.
And for good reason. Despite the Court’s quaint hope that there would remain room for respectful disagreement, no such room exists. To publicly question or doubt the wisdom of same-sex marriage is to commit an unpardonable sin, worthy of the scarlet letter B.
Academia is not safe for dissent. The market is not open to dissent. And a future lawyer has no place to dissent, as even a profession that is built upon tradition, rational arguments, and vigorous dissent has adopted a self-limiting rule against dissent on this matter.
So here I sit, whispering from the recesses of my home, just as Justice Alito predicted.