Righteousness and self-righteousness: A practical lesson from the lawyers

Main point: Lawyers argue for a living, so they have skills we could use in political conversation. One of those skills is being able to adopt the perspective of your opponent.

* * *

We’re all amateurs in this political-conversation game. So we need to look for skills wherever we can, such as how to make our point and keep our cool when a conversation turns into an argument.

When honing a skill, it’s a good idea to look to professionals. The people from whom we hear most political conversation—television pundits and radio talk-show hosts—may be paid, but they are not conversation professionals. They do theatrics, not conversation. They rarely make solid logical arguments. They act as if the preface “some say” turns any assertion into fact. Their skill is manufacturing conflict, not resolving it.

But lawyers…  Lawyers make their living by arguing. They come in after a dispute has already blossomed and they argue to win, not just for show. They must be likable enough to make witnesses talk and juries listen. Their arguments have to be logical enough to withstand counterattack. And they have to keep their cool.

So what can we learn from lawyers?

In this week’s Time magazine, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken wrote about the recent dust-up in academia over provocative speakers and hecklers.  She pointed out that the same speakers who attract shout-it-down demonstrations on some campuses don’t get similarly dramatic reactions when they appear at law schools.

CampusProtest

Gerken used the example of Charles Murray, whose writings on race and intelligence draw violent reactions at some colleges. When he spoke at her law school, “students and faculty engaged with him, and students held a separate event to protest and discuss the implications of his work.” He encountered opposition, but not chaos.

I’m not going to weigh in on the pros and cons of campus heckling or its control. This blog isn’t about demonstration tactics or campus free-speech rights.

But I found Gerken’s ideas useful for person-to-person conversation.

Law schools can handle provocative speakers, Gerken wrote, not because law students find offensive ideas palatable. Instead, she says, they have been taught “the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness.”

Both are based on the awareness that we are “in a war over values” in which “we should fight and fight hard for what we believe.”

But righteousness also maintains awareness that “even as we do battle, it’s crucial to recognize the best in the other side and the worst in your own.”

In law school exercises, students are forced to practice defending ideas they disagree with. They are not expected to accept those ideas as their own, but they do learn to see the dispute as their opponents do.

This brings them two advantages, according to Gerken.

When you can see your own arguments from the opposing perspective, you can better see their weaknesses. And when you can “imaginatively and sympathetically reconstruct the opponents’ best argument,” you can more effectively refute it.

Gerken also wrote about the importance of “rituals of respect.”

We understand that we should respect our opponents, but it’s often difficult to summon up the genuine feeling.  And so attorneys use ‘rituals of respect.’ Proceed as if you respect and are respected, even if you don’t and you aren’t. Everyone gets heard.

Gerken wrote that these rituals “are so powerful they can trump even the deepest divides,” citing the case of Thurgood Marshall. As a black lawyer in mid-20th century America, he was able to do things in even Southern courtrooms that he couldn’t do in any other forum, like asking tough questions of a white woman. The rituals of respect enabled arguments to proceed–and eventually pay off.

If we want to be effective in political debate, we need to do more than just listen. Taking the righteous path while avoiding self-righteousness requires us to drop the ‘self’ long enough to see the argument through our opponents’ eyes.

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About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time in civic activities promoting our ability to exercise our right to self-government. I have two focuses: verified accurate election results, and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. Based in Wisconsin.
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2 Responses to Righteousness and self-righteousness: A practical lesson from the lawyers

  1. Margaret Lahti says:

    Karen, this isboth excellent and helpful. As difficult as it often is,we must rise above the anger and disrespect or we gain othing. Thanks for being an excellent advocate of reason.

  2. julie crego says:

    Good article. Education is the what can take us out of ourselves and open our eyes.

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