Tuesday Talk*: A Discouraging Word

I think often of a post that has sadly disappeared from the blawgosphere. Venkat Balasubramani observed a “cult of positivity” on the twitters:

A while back, Venkat Balasubramani noted the “Cult of Positivity” [I left the link in, though it’s now dead. Damn you, Venkat!] on twitter, where being nice to people you don’t know was repaid by their being nice in return.

Positivity certainly reigns supreme in the corner of the Twittersphere that I frequent, and my impression is that there are other pockets of it that are overwhelmingly positive as well. Twitter is all about highlighting positive things and people.  The virtual high five or pat on the back is currency on Twitter.  Indeed, research is passed around which shows that “negative remarks lead to fewer followers.”  In my (admittedly anecdotal experience), while there are a few people who call it like they see it, most legal birds are effusive in their praise and quick to withhold criticism.  And this extends to points of view taken, articles passed around, etc.  It’s almost as if it’s socially unacceptable to say that something sucks.

That was from 2010, the early days of twitter. His observation then was not merely accurate, but prescient. And rather than a wake-up call to lawyers and law students to wake up, grow up and toughen up, it’s gotten worse.

Back then, negativity might cost you some followers, people who connected in the hope that you would praise them and they would praise you in return, turning the whole twitterverse into a huge circle-jerk of positivity, except for that handful of haters left uninvited to the happy sleepover party.

Instead, what has happened is that people who utter anything critical, or even less than effusively complimentary, come under attack by tribes, large and small, in search of offense. This came to mind following a fairly anondyne twit:

Maybe taking on debt to pay exhorbitant tuition to major in a subject for which no jobs exist is not the wisest move, and not your springboard to a financially secure future?

No one was attacked. The notion that college, and the debt that some assume, might not be for everyone, is neither a new concept nor outlandish. So naturally, someone threw a clot.

What a truly negative and tone deaf thing to say.

That was from a more, ahem, mature person. The kiddy version was more vivid.

Nothing like condescension from someone who made it to those struggling. Hey what’s the job report for 2023 look like? I need to tell college freshmen right now what to major in. Also these millennials should stop paying so much for college. They set the rates right?

Which raises the question, if one can’t offer a view that falls shy of gushing adoration, how are we to improve? If my fly is down, I want someone to tell me, not compliment the crease in my trousers. What constitutes negativity has devolved to anything less than absolutely positive, and that means benign observations, what we used to call “life rules” like “don’t eat anything bigger than your head” are intolerable. So while we watch people make poor choices, foolish decisions, as their pals egg them on by telling them what a brilliant and awesome idea it is to jump off the roof, is there any way to say something without evoking the outrage of the cult of positivity?

There is, obviously, the option of letting them be them, as dumb as they wanna be. After all, they’re not our personal responsibility, and we’re not their father. But for people who either prefer not to see others self-immolate as their peer group of happy idiots cheers them on, or stand idle as the next generation of lawyers forgets why we exist to the detriment of the profession and, well, society, what can we do?

They don’t want to hear from us, as we aren’t telling them how fabulous they are. Do we shut up? Do we only rub tummies? It’s not a matter of shrugging off the dopey replies, but effectively communicating that they really need to pull out the nail. Is that doable anymore, or has Venkat’s Cult of Positivity won out?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply. Not you, as you’re been evicted from the hotel for violating SJ’s first rule.

40 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: A Discouraging Word

  1. delurking

    “If my fly is down, I want someone to tell me, not compliment the crease in my trousers.”

    Contrary to your goal, you have inspired me to find positive ways to inform people of embarrassing situations!

    Something stuck to your forehead?
    “I love your new cosmetic forehead prosthesis!”
    Spit flew out of your mouth when you spoke?
    “Thanks for that demonstration of parabolic trajectories!”
    Your skirt is tucked into your underwear?
    “What wonderfully-patterned knickers you have!”
    You ripped a loud fart?
    “Clearly you have excellent choice in food!”
    Food stuck in your teeth?
    “I really appreciate your reminding me of the importance of brushing in such a subtle and non-confrontational way!”

    I can’t wait to apply this lesson in the real world! I will have many new friends!

  2. B. McLeod

    I guess they think it indelicate when you refuse to pretend you can’t see how poorly their risk play turned out. Sometimes an observation goes over better if you put it in a song, not so much about anyone you are addressing, but perhaps about a random mooncalf (though similarly situated). You could even fold in a double moral, whereby (for example) the mooncalf has learned his lesson, but the law schools have yet to grasp their own.


      1. B. McLeod

        Well, I feel I have been remiss in recent Tuesday Talk discussions, but this sensitive issue with law schools and debt is one where I have frequently tried to get law school recruits to curb their optimism, and to focus on the actual probabilities. In this early, two-part example, the feckless Cloddy Dumkins demonstrated the downside of law school, and also the importance of the point (passed down to us from classical Greco-Roman times) that people who visit a fortuneteller need to make sure they get the message right.

        Unfortunately I have found among law students a persisting delusion that, “Yeah, that may have happened to that guy, but I will succeed brilliantly”. (It didn’t work for Cloddy).



        1. SHG Post author

          Beyond the delusion that all the kids at Lake Wobegon are above average, they can no longer tolerate being questioned, no less challenged. They completely lose their shit. Got a song for that?

  3. L. Phillips

    How about just not caring if we evoke the outrage of the cult of positivity? I must lurk in the wrong blogs or be terminally daft because the concept of a such a cult never occurred to me.

    1. SHG Post author

      Two reasons: first, because the kids whose lives are soon to be turned into a heaping pile of steaming crap aren’t here, and won’t realize the error of their ways unless we reach out and touch them. Second, as they are on the cusp of going from bad to worse, they are surrounded by the Chorus of Happiness who applaud their ignorance of the sunk cost fallacy. They won’t hear, and if they do, they won’t listen as long as there are others telling them how awesome their most idiotic decision is.

      Or in other words, there’s nobody offering an alternative of harsh reality, and then they go all nihilist or blame everyone else.

  4. Casual Lurker

    “If my fly is down, I want someone to tell me, not compliment the crease in my trousers.”

    Here at the ‘rest spa’, some of our ‘guests’ consider having one’s fly down as a “feature”, not a bug. (Better ventillation, I assume???)

    On the other hand — or should I say “in the other hand” — due to all the distractions around this place, it’s easy for some to forget what they’re doing. So if a ‘guest’ is walking around with their shlong in their hand, it’s considered good form to remind them to put it away.

    It’s Not A Bug, It’s a Feature!

      1. Casual Lurker

        “So you’re saying I’m out of touch?”

        Depends on where (or what) you’re touching. (Please check with the Title IX coordinator beforehand. Thanks!)

      1. Jake

        Letting myself down? Or themes in your posts? True either way and I have noticed. But it’s today’s theme that I’m referring to.

        Whether you are a baby-lawyer or of counsel, have no fear if all the law jobs are drying up. After all: You can always learn to code.

  5. Oskar

    I don’t really know the rules of Tuesday Talk but I guess I’m not going to get yelled at as much as the other weekdays? At least if I don’t break rule 1#.

    My two questions for the day is:

    Firstly, how does one learn how to write better? The advice I’ve got was just write more but I’m not so sure. I need to work on structuring and being clear and concise. Writing more is all well and good, but more bad writing does not exactly lead to good writing. Any pointers/book recommendations?

    Secondly, anyone got a book recommendation?

        1. Jake

          Write everything in this until you don’t have to anymore: [Ed. Note: Even with Tuesday Talk rules, this is over the line. Not a chance in hell.]

      1. Oskar

        Words to live by:

        TODAY’S BUSINESS WRITING TIP: In writing proposals to prospective clients, be sure to clearly state the benefits they will receive:

        WRONG: ”I sincerely believe that it is to your advantage to accept this proposal.”

        RIGHT: ”I have photographs of you naked with a squirrel.”

    1. Hunting Guy

      Well, it’s Tuesday, so maybe this will get posted.

      Google The Passive Voice. It’s a blog run by a lawyer that was involved in IP litigation.

      On the right side is a long list of authors, both traditional and indy published. Almost all of them have writing suggestions.

      Also find the Mad Genius Club. Mostly indy published authors, many of them are making a living at it and they are always posting helpful writing tidbits.

      You can also download a pdf of the Air Force writing manual, the Tongue and Quill as a guide to writing. It’s free.

    2. wilbur

      For what it may be worth, I hold with Eric Hoffer: writing is hard work, if you want to be clear. Work to eliminate every unnecessary word, and choose the right word.

      Like everything else, the more you do it the better you get at it.

      1. Oskar

        Yep, trying to be more clear and concise when writing a brief or a pm. Also need to get better at structuring.

        There is always room for improvement, a lot of room when it comes to my writing.

    3. The Real Kurt

      Strunk and White: The Elements of Style.

      Do stay away from the Chicago Manual of Style, and the AP guide as well.

      All of them are focused on American English, which is appropriate for this blawg.

      While it’s not about writing (rather the inverse) you might also benefit from How to Read a Book, by Adler and Van Doren. Again, focused on American English.

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