Saturday, June 18, 2016

Joe Don Looney, Personal Attacks, and Civility




I've heard it said that Joe Don Looney said, "I never met a man I didn't like except Will Rogers" but maybe I just read that somewhere. In fact. maybe Joe Don did not say it. Maybe Will Rogers, in a moment of self-loathing, said it.

I was thinking about Joe Don, Will, and my 150 page, 300 footnote law review article thanking all the tenured members of my faculty, several people  I hardly know but may have met at a conference in Barcelona, citing myself 37 times, and whether I can wring out another article from what some would say is a narrow topic, when a law school pal walked in with a problem. It was a real problem but I could not solve it   How does Joe Don fit in? Keep reading.



In the course of the conversation my pal said (and I am changing the names) "Emma told me that Jane told her that Phil had personally attacked, Lucy." Well, I was taken back because I know Phil; Phil is a friend of mine and he's  as sweet as pumpkin pie with double Karo. I wondered what Lucy had done but I realized that even if Lucy were OJ and Phil was Mother Teresa, under law professor rules, Phil was a really bad guy.

Then I realized that "personal attack" accusations are all part of the civility game -- the way the "ins" stifle dissent by the "outs." You can be dead on right about something but if the culprit kicks up enough dust about the fact that you mentioned it, you have violated law professor rule 1.23(a)

Actually lots of people have been writing about this lately (including me since this is a slightly revised version of a post from two years ago.) Other than the personal attack accusation, there are other was to use civility as a weapon. The most direct (if there is anything direct) way is "I don't like your tone," or "I am offended." It goes like this. You express alarm to see  Jack stocking up school supplies to take home, enjoying a side deal unavailable to others, or belittling a secretary.  Jack's reply is "I don't like your tone," as he closes the back door of his Volvo on 1000  reams of 8.5 x 11 he forced a secretary to load.  Another version  is "I am offended." No one asks why because the civility rule is that everything stops when someone shouts "Offense." In fact, right now I am getting pretty offended by just thinking about the "O" bomb. Unfortunately when I am offended by the "O bomb" no one really cares.

[I am stopping here to catch my breath.]

Let's go back to the "personal attack" accusation. Here is how it works. Go back to Jack's Volvo or any other transgression. No matter what the perceived transgression is, if anyone can figure out from what you say about it,  you have engaged in a personal attack.  So, Billy Joe has been running a questionable foreign program for 20 years. If you complain you have personally attacked Billy Joe. It does not matter that you would complain no matter who is running it.  You can avoid this by saying "It is possible that someone, somewhere, at sometime, is running a less than 100% indispensable foreign program" or, in the case of Jack's insatiable need for 8.5 by 11, "Golly, I wonder where all the printer paper went." In other words, say nothing.

The personal attack is different from the  ad hominem attack as in: "Bill can't be right about that because he is a puppy kicker." Therefore, so the reasoning goes, it must be OK for me to take 1000 reams of paper for my personal use.

Tone complaints, do not engage, and accusations of personal attacks are ways to protect what is and to stop change when it threatens your fussy little world.

And, Joe Don Looney?  He never met and, therefore, did not know Will Rogers. He did not know what he was talking about any more than Jane knew what  Phil had actually said. [see above]

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I say "thank you" when they say "I am offended."

But I am thinking of changing my response to "I understand."

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Perfect, thanks.

Rafael said...

This reminds me of a quote from Stephen Fry:

“It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that.' As if that gives them certain rights. It's actually nothing more... than a whine. 'I find that offensive.' It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I am offended by that.' Well, so fucking what."