A Poor Choice of Dirty Old Words

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.


38 thoughts on “A Poor Choice of Dirty Old Words

  1. John Burgess

    I noted — and was troubled — by the posts at Volokh Conspiracy, too. The entire idea of ‘humor’ seems to have been sucked out of the Internet, unless it pertains to LOLCATS and Rule 54 (though Doge is pretty amusing, too).

    In his posts on language, grammar, prescriptivism v. descriptivism, etc. Volokh is consistent in pointing out that the point of it all is communication. You can use whatever grammar, register, or vocabulary you want, but if it fails to connect with your interlocutor, it’s a communications failure.

    The Internet makes it next to impossible to really target an audience (unless you’re Google). It’s a signboard open to all to read. Those of the judge’s generation and the next got his joke; those a generation or two later missed it. People either laughed or took umbrage. The judge succeeded in communicating to some, but not others. So it goes…

    It will be amusing (for certain values of amusement) to see how Gen X and Gen Y deal with the outrage heaped upon them for their language choices by members of Gen X+2.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s understandable that the generations below us don’t share our sensibilities in humor. That’s fine, as things change (and as you note, will likely change again when GenX+2 has their day). But that they can’t grasp that it was humor, that it wasn’t meant to be viewed through their linguistic lens, is what made it so terribly disappointing for me.

      It’s been clear to me for a long time that I can’t write to meet the sensibilities of all readers on the internet. Of course, readers don’t understand the problem at all, demanding that I comport with their worldview because each and every one of them is the center of the universe. Until that chances, and I doubt it ever will, we are captives of the lowest common denominator. I just didn’t expect that to be reflected at VC.

      1. Brett Middleton

        Even if the judge had avoided unfortunate trigger phrases, I suspect his post would have still drawn intergenerational outrage. The young always seem to be shocked by the suggestion that a person over the age of X years might occasionally entertain a sexual thought. It seems as if they believe there is some magical age at which a person’s mind discards the habits of a lifetime and turns into an asexual processing unit.

        To the judge, “dirty old man” expresses this idea. I wonder what the equivalent phrase is for the current generation and how WE might react to it after running it through OUR linguistic filters? Communication gaps work both ways.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’ve learned a lot of words and phrases that were unfamiliar to me from the internets when I started doing SJ. I remember asking Bennett what “meme” meant. I had no idea. But I asked and learned, and continue to do so. What I do not do is demand that words given current meaning by Millennials be defined my way, because that’s what I think it means and they must use my definition. For the same reason, I’m not obliged to use theirs.

  2. william doriss

    My oldest daughter recently chastised me for using the word “patriarch”, and said I should NEVER use that word again! Is she nuts, or what? In response, I called her a “twerp”. Now mind you, this is a very bright and accomplished forty-three year old. She is my flesh and blood. I love her, what radio station is she listening to? Where did we go wrong? What is to be done?
    Incidentally, my lady judge was younger than me. I have no idea what she was wearing under that robe. When I later saw her standing in line at the bank–and she saw me in return–she covered her face and averted her gaze. True story. You cannot make this stuff up. What was I going to do?

    1. SHG Post author

      The judge issue has different implications. Regardless of her sex or age, when a judge meets a defendant outside the courtroom, they have no idea how they will react. It could be fine or violent. As their job relative to the defendant is over, there is nothing to be gained by engaging further and risking possible harm. Don’t blame her for averting her gaze. Most judges would have done the same thing.

  3. Robert D

    Groovy post, man. How can old codgers relate to kids who don’t trust anyone over 30?

    I suspect that youth educated in zero tolerance environments administered by martinet principals not only won’t cut Judge Kopf any slack fur sublimation, but will display zero tolerance for any admission of bias by an official who enforces zero tolerance rules.

  4. Sgt. Schultz

    This may be off topic, but I couldn’t help but notice that ThusbloggedAnderson appears to think he owns the place in the VC comments, and is trying to get back at you for the spanking he received here a while back. It looks like the babies feel more at home over there than here, where they can massage their butthurt. What a sad cry for attention from a puny baby lawyer.

    1. SHG Post author

      Apparently, he finds VC much more hospitable than SJ, and he’s no doubt right about that. So he tries to beat me up over there, where he can get away with it (although I see that he’s been called out for being insipid, even there) safely. What else would you expect of him?

      1. Sgt. Schultz

        I expect nothing less. When they they don’t get a tummy rub, the run as fast as they can to the bosom of love. I’m just surprised at how VC has allowed itself to become a kindergarten for snarky, entitled baby lawyers. But hey, anything for a buck.

  5. John Jenkins

    I thought it was most troubling that the audience at whom Judge Kopf’s comments were directed (lawyers) are a group that has ostensibly received training in comprehending the meaning of a text and disregarding that which is superfluous or otherwise immaterial to that core meaning. I am not sure that it was at all unreasonable for Judge Kopf to expect attorneys to understand what he was saying (it’s a lot easier to read Judge Kopf’s writing than 19th century court decisions!). That so many lawyers failed that exercise is, at the least, a minor indictment of our profession, given the simple message Judge Kopf was conveying (i.e., as a lawyer, the consequences of your actions, behavior, dress, etc., are not borne solely by you, but by your client as well). We could be in a lot of trouble.

    1. SHG Post author

      I would agree with you, but I’ve spent too much time on this side of the internet to have such high expectations of young lawyers anymore.

  6. bmaz

    I can’t get over two things here, both rather pitifully simplistic I’m afraid. First, the use of first person self deprecating humor can be an effective vehicle to make a point. I think Judge Kopf should have seen the shitstorm coming from his honesty, but by the same token the caterwauling over it has just been ridiculous.

    Secondly, but by far most importantly, the bottom line the wailers (including some of the more academic types, though Volokh caught on a little at the end) seem not to realize is that an actual trial court lawyer’s dress is primarily about getting your job done. If it is creating ANY distraction, it is screwing your client. Period. Within those bounds, feel free to be yourself. But at the point anybody is coming to be critically focused on your attire, you are losing. Period. And no, your individual feminism or dudism does not have superior rights over that. That your dedication is to your client was about my first comment on twitter on this subject, and I still come back to that. And, awkwardly stated or not, Judge Kopf was right in his comments for that reason.

    1. SHG Post author

      Your second point is too obvious for discussion, and so I won’t (and if you note the aside, tried to tell anyone reading that I had no intention of discussing it). As to your first point, I would have hoped the judge would have realized the shitstorm coming from his choice of words. I certainly did, and I would never have used the language he used to make the point.

      But then again, the Senate has never confirmed either one of us, so what do we know?

  7. spencer neal

    What is the name for the male analogue of a slut? And how does he dress?

    In my 37 years of practice in federal court in Portland, Oregon, I don’t ever seeing a female attorney dressed in any way that I would call “sluttish.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Frankly, neither can I. I’ve seen plenty of men dress shabbily, and a few women, but I’ve never seen a woman dress sluttily. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but I really can’t remember ever seeing it. Maybe we don’t hang around in the right courts?

    2. MildlyDisturbed

      “What is the name for the male analogue of a slut? ”

      “Rake.” Or maybe “stud.”

      1. SHG Post author

        Neither rake nor stud have the negative connotations of slut. I don’t think there is any real male analogue.

        1. SHG Post author

          Let’s cut to the chase: because there is a double standard for sexual promiscuity, where a male “slut” is admired, or at worst, tolerated, while a female “slut” is disgraced, going back to our Puritan roots.

            1. SHG Post author

              The rules of the house are no links in comments, but having read that post, and finding it extraordinarily creepy, you get a pass on the link.

              Contrary to Leong’s (not to mention many other women’s complaint) that we only criticize women, I’ve written about male lawyer attire numerous times, whereas I’ve largely stayed away from female attire, as most women lawyers I’ve seen in court dressed quite well. Her “sexy male” thing isn’t something I’ve seen, but then, perhaps I’m not staring at the same parts of anatomy. I’m more concerned about the unintentional shlub look.

              I suspect what Leong really meant to say is that she (and most women) aren’t aware of posts critical of men because it doesn’t touch their sacred cow, so it never makes it on their radar. I know, it’s just so sexist, but that’s life.

            2. Nancy Leong

              Actually, what I meant to say is exactly what I said in my blog post: that there are many more criticisms of women’s attire than of men’s. If you run any google search using gender-neutral terms related to appropriate attire for lawyers, you will find many more results for women than for men.

              In my post, I never say that people ONLY criticize women’s attire. In fact, my blog post explicitly acknowledges that there are also some posts that critique men’s attire. My point is that there is a significant disparity. Maybe the disparity relates to the point you made a few posts up about the double standard relating to sexual promiscuity, with which I agree.

              I certainly appreciate that this blog has addressed the topic of men’s attire and I hope others will follow your lead (and take your advice).

            3. SHG Post author

              This must have confused me.

              Here’s what is sexist: singling out women for an issue that concerns both men and women.

              I took “singling” to mean singling rather than disparate. Sorry for the confusion. But you have raised my consciousness to a different problem. When I write about shabby male attire, am I being sexist by not having anything critical to say about women? Am I constrained to write something critical of both sexes rather than just my own? I don’t want to inadvertently be sexist, but I fear that I have based on your post.

            4. Nancy Leong

              My tentative thought is that it depends on the backdrop. So if the backdrop is that there are already 12x as many posts about women as men (which was about the ratio I found when I ran google searches while researching my post), then I don’t think it’s sexist to write a post that’s just about men. You’re bring attention to something that’s under-discussed rather than piling on — right? Or would you disagree?

              If women *actually were* more likely to dress inappropriately than men then I don’t think the disproportionate criticism would be sexist either. But I think (based on my reading of this post and your comments) that you and I agree that men and women both need some help with attire from time to time. Again, it’s the unjustified disparity that’s the problem (or singling out as I confusingly called it).

              What I do find EXTREMELY SEXIST is your insistence that I do a VERY HARD math problem before posting. Clearly my lady brain can’t handle that 😉

              In all seriousness, thanks for reading me. I only started my blog a few months ago and I’m still figuring out the whole blogging thing. I write about Fourth Amendment issues from time to time and I suspect you will find those posts less creepy.

            5. SHG Post author

              I write about Fourth Amendment issues from time to time and I suspect you will find those posts less creepy.

              I write about Fourth Amendment issues from time to time too, and I find them very creepy, often involving similar body parts. But we endure for the law. As to dress, I was frankly unaware that such a disparity existed, mostly because I’m fairly gender neutral and never thought to look. My inclination is to continue writing about anything that I think could stand discussion. I really hate it when men wear black sneakers and think no one notices that they aren’t shoes. Who do they think they’re kidding?

              As for the “VERY HARD math problem,” all lawyers struggle with that. It’s just my way of making them sorry they didn’t study hard enough to go to med school. I get a lot of complaints about it. It makes me happy.

  8. Catherine Mulcahey

    Meanwhile, Judge Kopf has started chemo for his Stage III classic Hodgkins lymphoma and probably doesn’t care a lot about the reaction to his use of the phrase “dirty old man.”

    1. SHG Post author

      He’s got plenty of life left in him, so don’t think he’s ready to give up yet. I similarly suspect he (and I) are less concerned about the reaction to him than about the fact that the reaction has been so misguided and shallow. This is a blight on our ability to think, discuss and understand one another.

  9. Nebraskatrialattorney

    I am a member of “Gen X” so I guess I am indoctrinated into political correctness and unable to accurately interpret language if certain offensive terms are used. That said, I seemed to remember that one of George Orwell’s phrases was “common decency”. Kopf’s “Dirty Old Man” post breached common decency in his description of a “composite” of young female attorneys who practice before him. Frankly Kopf’s composite description sounded like the introduction for a “Letter to Penthouse.” I guess I am not a sophisticated legal thinker since I think Judge Kopf’s post and his subsequent commentary about the post have been ridiculous and unprofessional. Plenty of 50 and 60 something white male lawyers in Nebraska thought his post was ridiculous as well, but no one will call him on it as he is still an active federal trial judge. If it takes a 23 year-old 1L in Boston posting anonymously on a blog to smack some proverbial sense into Kopf on this issue, then so be it.

    1. SHG Post author

      You don’t have to like what Judge Kopf had to say or how he said it. But if you’re going to hate it, hate it for what it is, not for what you imagine it to be.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Yeah, a few people said that about Angus Young too.

        All the immediacy in the world today makes me wonder if
        Thunderstruck couldn’t have been brought too a whole new level if the 80’s weren’t so fucking orchestrated.

        Not that, that would have been necessarily good or bad and
        I never even really liked AC/DC anyway…

        But, let’s hope the judge keeps blawing and inviting his guests to bring blankets and coolers full of beer while they lovingly mash up the grass on the hills of his amphitheater.

        If he gets a little cranky I think he just might get his Hercules on while stumbling around for the umpire.

        Not that the topic of his recent “controversial” post is not worth discussion but I am kinda hoping “his eye opening experience” hardens him up enough to stick his toes in even more subject matter that he may have taken a pass on in the past.

        1. SHG Post author

          I doubt he’ll be bothered by the fact that people disagree with him, but speaking from experience, there is a sense of pointlessness when you come to the epiphany that most people are thick as bricks, and in a constant state of teary-eyed butthurt. If you wouldn’t talk to them in person at a cocktail party, you don’t want to talk to them on the interwebz. So why write if the people reading are flamers?

          And while I’m at it, I have a bone to pick with you. I saw your comment over there, and it’s damn near cogent. So only I get the benefit of your insanity, and he gets almost comprehensible comments? You cut me to the quick.

          1. John Barleycorn

            Ouch. My apologies esteemed host.

            Your back forty deserves much more consistent respect from me than I have been known to exercise.

    2. MildlyDisturbed

      Judge Kopf was writing in the style of Letterman, but unfortunately some in his audience only ‘get’ Jimmy Fallon.

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