Tuesday, February 02, 2016

A New Year’s resolution… or not

     In this paragraph is an inchoate New Year's resolution.   Not sure whether to do it. A successful businessman I knew said this about lawyers: “We make a business deal and the lawyers f--k it up.”  Brief digression: I could have said “businessperson,” but because of the word this particular businessperson used, it seemed better to refer to his sex. Wait a minute, women use four letter words.  Hope I have not offended women by referring to the gender of the person who used the four letter word.
         Let’s leave that issue for another day and get back to my possible New Year’s resolution.  Did you guess what it is? Hint.  The example is in the quote.  Additional hint.  It has nothing to do with business, or people in business, or their genders. Businesspersons, men and women alike, often get to say or do whatever they want, even run for president.  That they make goofy business decisions seems to be beside the point.  Fortunately, we do not have to vote for them. 
         But back to my New Year’s resolution.  I am tired, even sick of sanitizing so-called “offensive” words.  The person said it; it is a quote, so why not accurately quote the person verbatim? Everyone knows that the word I truncated through the omission of two letters is “fuck.”  Whoops! I didn’t mean to do that…really.  Oh dear, now what? Pretend you are on a jury and I have instructed you to ignore the offensive word you just read.  O.K.? I could have replaced the offensive word in the third sentence of the first paragraph of my column with “screw,” or the less pernicious *@#!.
         This column was written on the last day of 2015. Therefore, my tentative New Year’s resolution to say or write the noxious word was not intended to take effect until 2016. That I opted for the not-so-subtle omission of two letters may be an indication of where I was leaning.  But projecting myself a few days hence when you are reading this column, I am not so sure I should follow through with this resolution. I am counting on you, dear readers, to help me out. 
         Here is the genesis of the troublesome New Year’s resolution I am pondering.  It is de rigueur these days to avoid unpleasantness.  College students at some universities have safe zones to go to where their feelings won’t be hurt.  I have read they are given warnings about works of literature that may upset them.   Do they get to take a pass on Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Moll Flanders, and Ulysses, or see a therapist before reading the first page?  Not sure how the students will fare in what we call “the real world.”
         If liberal arts students can receive warnings about literature, should not law students receive warnings about the practice of law?  Pharmaceutical ads for drugs on T.V. give warnings: “May cause sterility, death, hives, itching to be on Broadway, necrophilia, and often death.”
         A warning on the bar exam should tell students:  “Passing the bar may cause you to suffer angry diatribes from unreasonable judges who fail to understand the logic of your argument.  Clients may stiff you on your bills, even when you obtain unimaginable victories.  If you go to a large firm, the partnership track may recede with each passing year.”  Personal anecdote.  Some time ago I spoke at the meeting of a large international law firm.  I learned that it then took at least 7 years before an associate would even be considered for a partnership.  Under common law, a person missing for 7 years is considered dead. 
And why not warnings for new judges that are attached to their oath of office?  “You may suffer reversals, unless you are on the Supreme Court, in which case some of your opinions may be disapproved by the same court a few years later. You could be attacked in a dissent or a concurring opinion by a colleague or two who thinks your reasoning sucks.”
To lower court judges: “You will be reversed for reasons that are often hurtful.  Attorneys on the losing side and arrogant law professors will write in their smug blogs and haughty law review articles in thinly disguised language that you are dimwitted and a dunderhead."
         My friend, the businessman, person or whatever, has a point.  We have become so cowed by what might, could, may happen that we dilute what we hope to accomplish or inhibit anything from happening at all.
                  Take, for example, the new language added to the oath of office for new lawyers. A new admittee must swear or affirm "as an officer of the court to strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity courtesy and integrity." Why the words “strive to”?  In my last column I criticized the new clause because it contains the words “strive to.”  In my role as investigative columnist, relentlessly seeking the truth, I learned from a reliable confidential source the reason for the words “strive to.”  In a clandestine conversation he/she told/conjectured there was concern that if the oath required that members of the bar go the distance and actually swear to conduct themselves with dignity, courtesy and integrity, not just “strive to” do so, over-zealous judges might suspend the licenses when they fall short.  Help!
We are becoming scared to commit to or express a point of view, take a definitive position, or say anything that might offend. I know people who will not use the word “niggardly” because it sounds offensive.  It means stingy or miserly. Its derivation goes back to the early 16th century. It has nothing to do with race. Do we have to cater to the illiterate or uninformed? 
So getting back to you dear readers. Political correctness is one thing, but there are truly offensive comments and phrases, the use of which we would be better not saying. If in an article I quote the exact words that someone uttered, words that most of us would consider unacceptable and objectionable, is it necessary for me to spell them out if I can convey what they are by leaving out a few letters, or substituting symbols in their place?
On the other hand, if the person said it, should I not quote the words verbatim? Does it not enhance the accuracy of the reporting and enable the reader to better evaluate and judge the comment?  The comment may be unpleasant and distasteful, but it makes us confront the world as it is, not just the beauty and goodness around us, but the disagreeable as well.  Better to understand and cope.  
So what do you think? I asked readers of the Daily Journal to weigh in on the subject.  They did.  I disclose the results in my Feb. 2016 column, Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?     Happy New Year!

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