After the internet came down like a load of bricks on my senior Judge buddy, Rich Kopf, an amazing duality emerged. He used the phrase “dirty old man” to describe himself, and it became a litmus test of generational understanding. This became clear when two of the WaPo Conspirators, Nita Farahanny and the Chief Conspirator himself, Eugene Volokh, address the issue.
Aside: This is still not a post about what to wear, whether male or female, or whether Judge Kopf is a sexist pig deserving of vitriol. This is a post about the language used to convey a message to an audience on the interwebz, and how it’s perceived based on generational differences.
Duke lawprof Farahanny began by recalling her own experiences:
They remind me of the many times that students have commented on dresses I have worn to teach in (but not their male professors), and the time I appeared before a panel of federal judges for a moot court argument and was chastised for wearing a pantsuit. I was counseled to apologize to the bench and explain that while I would ordinarily appear before them in a skirt, I had a terrible case of poison ivy on my legs (true, but why exactly did they need to know that?).
She doesn’t explain why these experiences affected her deeply enough to recount, but assumes the reader will appreciate the disturbing implications. She then goes on to recount Judge Kopf’s post and, without explanation, concludes:
You can’t win? Get over it? I can’t. Can you?
This may have something to do with the fact that she is an academic, and therefore has no appreciation of the obligation to sublimate her personal feelings for the benefit of the client, but I suspect not. Rather, I suspect she read the judge’s words at face value, and they presented such an obvious affront to her sensibilities that no further explanation was needed. He was, by his own admission, a “dirty old man,” and that’s not something to get over.
Volokh, in contrast, got the message Judge Kopf sought to convey, even though he too found the language used off-putting:
I don’t much care for the tone of the post. It seems to me needlessly disrespectful both to the women in the story and to men. There’s no call, I think, for labeling men “pigs,” even facetiously, for finding women sexually attractive, or even for being distracted by women’s sexual attractiveness, or for labeling them — even self-deprecatingly — as “dirty old m[e]n” for continuing to do so when one is older.
Still, a very literal reading of Judge Kopf’s post, Certainly, commenters were far more harsh and superficial in their grasp of what the judge sought to say, and posts at feminist websites were brutal, with reactions calling for his disbarment to his dismemberment.
Why, I wondered, was it so difficult, maybe even impossible, for younger lawyers to realize that Judge Kopf wasn’t being literal? He really isn’t a “dirty old man.” While some are so passionate about seeing their world through a feminist prism that they could never see beyond those words, others, like Farahanny and Volokh, should be capable of understanding, and yet neither did, though Eugene clearly wasn’t as shallow as Nita.
Stephanie West Allen from Idealawg helped me to understand the problem better. When something is posted on the web, it can be seen by an audience of extraordinary heterogeneity. Lawyers and non-lawyers. Twelve-year-olds and 80-year-olds. Brilliant and not-so-brilliant, and Dunning-Kruger sufferers. Stephanie pointed me to Strauss–Howe generational theory, which provides a pretty good explanation for generational differences. I found this illuminating.
The meaning of words and phrases differs according to generational bias, among other things. For someone of Judge Kopf’s generation, which is the one before mine (I may be old, but he’s much older), the phrase “dirty old man” was a joke phrase.
We weren’t raised at time when every stranger was presumed to be a child molester, and feminists sucked all the fun out of anything remotely related to sex. The phrase was commonly used as a punch line, with no nefarious implications, and it was similarly understood to be a joke phrase, so that the person using it would not be subject to public excoriation.
Judge Kopf was terribly wrong to have framed his point the way he did. Not because he violated the sensibilities of Millennials and Gen-Xers, who have been weaned on Orwellian notions of language to the point that they can’t even begin to grasp that there are good people who use words that they were taught are evil, but because he didn’t realize that his audience consisted of people for whom these words meant something very different.
He should have known better, but I fear his failure to see this problem coming reflected the confluence of two factors. First, he’s given enormous deference on the web because he’s a judge. Many of the comments to Judge Kopf’s posts are incredibly deferential, almost embarrassingly so, which is odd since his posts can be awkward at times.
The second is that the worst of generational differences come out on the net. The entitlement, self-righteousness, pompousness and arrogance of children who believe with absolute certainty that they are peers with everyone else online, and that includes a federal judge. I think Judge Kopf, having been largely insulated from this, failed to realize that a 1L on the internet felt the moral authority to tell off a federal judge, and call him a name without any qualm at all. As an oldster, I can’t bring myself to not use the word judge, even though I’ve been given permission. But then, I’m old and lack that sense of entitlement.
There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of people who read Judge Kopf’s words, the “dirty old man” phrase, immediately leaped to the conclusion that he is admitting to being a sick, demented pervert, because that’s their grasp of the phrase. Nor could they be put off their shallow and literal reading, as they carry the certainty of youth. It would diminish their self-esteem to learn anything from someone with experience, so they are constrained to react with hyper-simplistic snark rather than consider the possibility they may have misunderstood.
But when two of their generation’s best thinkers, Farahanny and Volokh, to greater or lesser extents, are incapable of considering that they have taken the words of a senior judge and filtered them through their own generational sieve to condemn them, it’s a problem. No doubt they are painfully aware of Orwell’s admonitions, and yet they can’t see their own linguistic prejudice when it smacks them in the face.
The control of thought through language has been one that frightens me regularly, and has pushed me to use words that are more jarring than I would prefer to resist the forces of political correctness. At the same time, it has pushed me to ask others to either define their phrases or stop using them. I hope to get people to question the amorphous concepts that defy actual thought that have become prevalent justifications for all manner of laws, attacks, demands. If it can’t be defined, then there is a problem with it and it can’t be used to suppress thought or lock people up.
But I fear the pragmatic answer is that old guys like Judge Kopf are going to have to become far more internet savvy if they’re to publish online and recognize the intellectual limits of their audience. Sure, there will always be stupid, but Farahanny and Volokh are as far from stupid as it comes. And still they refuse to approach Judge Kopf’s words with an open mind and an effort to grasp that they weren’t meant to be understood through their mitigated comprehension.
So the answer apparently is, if the young can’t grasp things that don’t conform to their world, it’s just another problem old people will have to fix for them by adopting the speech of youth. The only problem, at least for me, is that so many words and phrases, ideas and concepts, have been lost to political agendas and personal prejudice that it’s unclear whether we will ever really be understood again. Then again, the youth won’t care, as they’re certain old people have nothing worthwhile to offer.