The Duty To Get Along

A few months ago, I got a call from a very sweet lawyer. I won’t give you her name unless she tells me it’s okay, or reveals herself in the comments, because it wasn’t a telephone call for public consumption, though it wasn’t any big secret either.  She was frustrated and angry and needed to vent.

Her problem was that her non-lawyer friends, otherwise similarly nice, intelligent, lovely people, would talk about legal issues, and particularly criminal justice issues, and be completely, utterly clueless.  They were simplistic in their understanding. They were harsh in their judgment. But what drove this lawyer nuts was that they didn’t want to learn better.

She tried, she told me, to explain the law to them and why things happened the way they happened. She would calmly run through the issues at stake and the factors to be considered. And her friends either didn’t care or couldn’t follow. As a result, she was growing to hate her friends, hate being around them, hate engaging in discussion with them. She couldn’t like being with them knowing that they were so cruel and ignorant.  Don’t we have a duty to correct them, she asked?

In the Ethicist, Chuck Kosterman writes about Correcting the Crackpot Next Door. He’s asked:

As a scientist, what is my ethical obligation to confront pseudoscience and antiscience attitudes?

Scientists get pissed at people who are ignorant about science, just as lawyers get pissed at people who are ignorant about law.  Lawyers involved in criminal law are particularly susceptible, as the public in general is interested, maybe even fascinated, by criminal law. There’s a reason why there aren’t any television shows about transactional lawyers, you know.

Kosterman responds, thankfully not invoking any legal concept with which to completely botch his answer:

In an academic setting, there’s an obligation to uphold the principles governing that field of study. But I think you already understand that. What you’re asking is if there’s an obligation to do this all the time, whenever you casually encounter someone whose worldview contradicts what your educational experience has taught you. I would argue there is not — except in situations in which not doing so will have a direct impact on people outside of the conversation itself.

Yes, he’s right this time. Hallelujah!  Thought she didn’t say so, I expect the reason the lawyer came to me was that I’m rather hard on those who want to use this place as an opportunity to express their views and, thereby, make people stupider. It’s a rule thing with me, that none of us have the right to make people stupider.  She probably figured that I, like her, get frustrated at the general level of ignorance about criminal law, and beat people up in bars and at parties for being clueless.

But I don’t. In fact, it doesn’t bother me at all. While I may run a tight ship here, that’s because this is a criminal law blog, and anyone who stumbles upon it should not find information that may cause them to make a decision that will do harm.  But outside, it’s an entirely different thing. My friends are no more knowledgeable about criminal law than this lawyers. They hold some pretty awful and ignorant ideas about it, and about the cases they read in the paper. When we talk about it, I shrug.

If someone asks a “why” question, I give them the best explanation I can. If they ask what I think, I tell them. If they disagree, and they often do, it’s fine with me. I am not the avenging angel of legal ignorance, roaming from town to town to correct people who think stupid thoughts.

My friends are my friends for a variety of reasons. I’ve got lawyer friends, and car friends, and antique friends, and wristwatch friends, and friends who are just friends. I talk about Healey’s and SU carbs with my car friends, and enjoy it. When a big criminal case is in the papers, they will talk about it, and someone will turn to me as the criminal defense lawyer in the group and ask me what I think. So I tell them, and then let them meander off into the legal stratosphere. I chuckle, shrug and discuss the virtues of Lucas electrical connectors.

So there is someone out there thinking something wrong, downright stupid, about the law?  I took no oath to fight to the death with every person believing in legal unicorns to correct the error of their ways.  This couldn’t be more true than with people I otherwise like and enjoy.

Ironically, what I’ve found is that people who are ignorant about the law can be pretty darned brilliant about some other subject, about which I’m clueless. So rather than feel compelled to straighten everyone else out, I would much prefer to spend my time with them learning, and enjoying their company.

Now, that responsibility changes if the misinformation starts to spill into the rest of society. If your friend decides to teach the evolution of the unicorn species to a second-grade science class, intercede. If he demands that the local public library move its unicorn material into the nonfiction section, intercede. If he tries to persuade his wife to pawn her jewelry so that they can convert the garage into a unicorn stable, inform the wife that she’s married to an irrational person. But if he just thinks something crazy, you can let him be crazy. You might be crazy, too, sometimes.

The lawyer who called me has a catchphrase, we are all not guilty of something, which sounds somewhat profound even though I’ve never quite understood it.  But we are all, also, stupid about something. It’s okay.  Not everyone is going to know criminal law, and most are not going to get it.  That doesn’t make them bad people, or people whose company you can’t enjoy.  Bear in mind, they may well feel the same about us when it comes to other subjects where we, ahem, aren’t nearly as knowledgeable as we think.  And yet, we can all still enjoy each other’s company.

5 comments on “The Duty To Get Along

  1. Jeff Gamso

    As an abstract proposition, I agree with you and Kosterman that one has no generic duty to go around correcting and educating the random people one stumbles across in daily life whether in the line at the grocery store or across the dinner table.

    But criminal law and procedure in general terms (I’m assuming the things that were driving her nuts weren’t specific stuff like whether the level at which the mandatory minimum for possession of cocaine in the federal system changes from 5 to 10 years) aren’t like a belief in unicorns or a misunderstanding about “SU carbs” (whatever they are, and should I eat more or fewer of them). Nancy Grace isn’t dangerous because she spouts outrageous stuff. She’s dangerous because people believe it. And those people elect the legislators and insist that they enact a new law named after the victim of the week and go some significant way toward ensuring that Judge Weinstein’s understanding of how sentencing should work will not be adopted.

    Their ignorance, that is, has larger consequences. So when a friend did ask me across the dinner table recently how I could defend those people, she got more of an answer than I think she really wanted because it was important to try to make her understand not what motivates me personally but why we want a system that works that way.

    1. SHG Post author

      When they ask, answer. Be the anti-Nancy Grace. But when you go for a beer, drink a beer. You can’t force everyone to see what they don’t want to see. It’s like trying to teach a pig to sing.

  2. Nagita Karunaratne

    You have the wisdom of a famous Chinese philosopher (either that or saw this in a fortune cookie somewhere):

    “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self.” – Confucius

    I used to have a professor that would put in every exam a question that would blow everyone away. This question seems simple but usually everyone got it wrong. So when it was explained to you rather than feeling that you aced the test you felt that you just scratched the surface and there was so much more. And it was strangely a good feeling.

    But I agree with you. It’s a nice way to think about friends.

  3. anoyn

    This really hits home. My longtime gf is finishing med school and is smarter than me. But when it comes to criminal law, she often seems “so ignorant and cruel.” Worse, she insists that her opinion is just as worthy as mine. I let the arguments drop, but part of me believes that (criminal defense) attorneys have some unspoken duty to somehow “correct” these harmful attitudes. It’s something I struggle with a lot.

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