Nerve Touching

When I read my buddy Tamar Birckhead’s post at PrawfsBlawg, I cringed. While Tamar is a clinical lawprof now at UNC, she used to be a federal defender, whose days were spent getting her butt kicked in the trenches.  This distinguished her from the others, who only knew the trenches from photographs, but also saddled her with a burden she needed to realize. She didn’t.

Her post, that Zimmerman prosecutor Angela Corey may have violated ethics by charging him with a crime she couldn’t prove, had a personal subtext. Tamar would have been just fine with a Zimmerman conviction as well. Intellectually, this was crazy, but Tamar’s assertion wasn’t about intellect. It was an injection of her personal, visceral feelings coming from her years in the trenches, where black kids get slammed. It wouldn’t have broken her heart if the black kid won for once.

But she made a rookie mistake in offering this small look into her heart rather than her head. First, we’re lawyers, and we’re supposed to have minds like steel traps and hearts of stone. Second, she was writing at PrawfsBlawg, where academics, whose only view of legal life comes from reading about it in law journals, try to impress the hell out of each other with the power of their unerring, cutting edge logic. And then comes Tamar, who reveals her feelings. What was she thinking?

So they ripped her a new one, calling her mean names like “deranged” and suggesting that anyone who would hope for a conviction of a man whom the law clearly would require be acquitted is a clear and present danger to young minds. Tamar, who should have been tougher from her PD days, found the vitriol “maddening.”

This was her second rookie mistake, not recognizing that the internet takes no prisoners and if you can’t take the heat, don’t publish your feelings on the web. Instead, Tamar followed up with a “mea culpa” post:

I understand why the jury acquitted, I respect their decision, and *contrary to my earlier post* I would have been troubled — based on the evidence presented — if George Zimmerman had been convicted of the charges brought against him.

In other words, I was wrong.

Yet, the vicious tone of some of the comments, both here and elsewhere, saddens me. No, I am not “deranged.” No, I am not lacking in “rational thought.” I am sorry you were “appalled,” “shocked,” “horrified” or “disturbed” by my perspective. I am not sorry, however, to have shared what I repeatedly described as my “visceral” response to the verdict.

While three rights make a left, two wrongs don’t make a right. But this fed into the lawprof validation compulsion, and she got her tummy rubs for admitting the error of her ways. On the substantive side, her mea culpa earned her applause from the people who argued for Zimmerman’s acquittal all along. All of this was absurd, both intellectually and emotionally. It was an homage to butthurt, on the one side, and kudos for admitting defeat on the other. Neither meant a thing.

Tamar than made her third rookie mistake, saying aloud that she “clearly hit a nerve” and was just trying to start an “honest discussion” in revealing her emotional reaction. Like the “honest discussions” Dr. SJ wants to have with me from time to time, which require me to sit in silence for an hour and listen to her tell me her feelings. I know them well. Tamar was still hurting and  trying to salvage her dignity from the attacks. But no nerve was hit, and her “honest discussion” was other people’s irrationality.

Tamar asked me to explain why I didn’t think she hit a nerve, though she added that if I was just going to add to the chorus of haters, she would prefer I drop it.  I will, and I’m not, but I also won’t sugar coat it to make it lawprof palatable. Since Tamar is a friend, her errors were rookie ones, and I am nothing if not “experienced” in the ways of the internet, here’s a top 10 listicle especially for this occasion:

First, we’re lawyers, and one of the reasons we’re so despised is that we don’t let emotions cloud logic or prevent us from doing our jobs. While others can express their feelings, we express our thoughts.

Second, you were posting at Prawfs, not some mommy-blog where neither reason nor logic has any business rearing its ugly head. If you want to argue that it’s not about the nail, this was not the place to do it or the audience for it.

Third, while you may be a lawprof now (and have certain expectations that the “tone” of commentary about you will be limited to the usual painfully tepid lawprof nuance), your perspective has yet to shift from public defender, who sees the agony in the streets, to heartless lawprof who has never held the hand of the mother of a dead black kid. Do you really think they can possibly understand why you feel as you do? Even the part about how juries return crazy verdicts all the time flew over their heads. Know your audience.

Fourth, So people said mean things about you. So what? When does a federal defender in the trenches get all upset that someone said something mean? That’s our life, bearing the brunt of anger and frustration. We’re the target of no end of angry words, and we shrug it off and laugh in their faces. When did a federal defender becomes such a delicate flower?

Fifth, the internet is brutal. It can be right, and it can be wrong, but it is brutal. If you can’t take the punches, you have no business posting on the internet.

Sixth, you’re allowed to feel however you feel, no matter how wrong it may be. And others are allowed to disagree with how you feel, no matter how wrong it may be. It’s a two-way street.

Seventh, you can complain about the tone of those who disagree with you, but you (nor anyone else, for that matter) can’t dictate the tone others will use. You control your tone. They control theirs. That’s how it works.

Eighth, nobody owns honesty. Not you. Not them. When you try to load the dice by attributing honest feelings to yourself, you beg for those who disagree to punch you harder. If you don’t want to get punched, don’t do it.

Ninth, the tummy rubbers for “seeing the light” are just as disingenuous as the haters who called you deranged. Just because they make you feel better doesn’t make them any more right. Do we applaud people who fart and say “excuse me” for being polite?

And finally, tenth, you didn’t touch a nerve, at least not in the sense of exposing entrenched racist attitudes belying people’s approval of the verdict or ignorance of how incipient racism infected the thought processes leading up to Trayvon Martin’s death. Rather, you exposed yourself to outrage by offering an emotional reaction in a forum  and to a crowd demands logical reactions and rejected visceral ones. You got slammed because you went all emo on a controversial case where there was far too much ignorant emotion permeating the discussion already.

Shrug it off. Remember who you are, a former federal defender who has experienced a world that few will ever know. And never forget that if you want to reveal your feelings on the internet, then be prepared to have people call you mean names. You’re better than this, but you needed to get your butt handed to you to remind you of who you are and what we do. Now get over it.


3 comments on “Nerve Touching

  1. G3Ken762mm

    I am enjoying the commentary more every day. It’s not always easy, but neither is life. Say what you mean, even if people don’t like you for it and put on your “big boy” pants and suck it up. Not everyone is going to like you, no matter how hard you try. It goes against the grain sometimes, but emotions can often be a liability.

    1. SHG Post author

      We always learn more from criticism than from applause, which is why it’s critical to pay attention to people calling you mean names. But the idea that we can indulge ourselves in controversial issues while being universally loved (or at least nicely treated) is just wrong. Getting your butt kicked is the price of speaking your mind (or in Tamar’s case, her heart). That’s life. If it’s more than one can bear, then don’t do it.

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