Law school professor writes razor-sharp reply to students’ complaint about her wearing #BlackLivesMatter t-shirt

Prof Leary & Black Lives MatterThere isn’t much to add to this law school professor’s reply to students who (anonymously) complained about her wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on campus. Inside Higher Ed reports that Professor Patricia Leary answered courteously, comprehensively – and basically, just tore the students’ snarky little racist diatribe into tiny little shreds. Their letter is available at the Inside Higher Ed link. I have not heard a better explanation of why #BlackLivesMatter deserves its day in the sun, anywhere. Nope. Judge for yourself:

Response to Concerned Students Memo

I am accepting the invitation in your memo, and the opportunity created by its content, to teach you. I would prefer to do it through a conversation, or especially through a series of conversations. Because I don’t know who you are, this isn’t possible. And there is an even more important reason for putting this in writing for the entire law school community. The larger issues that underlie your anger are timely, and they touch the entire law school community and transcend it.

The response to your memo is in two parts. Part I addresses the substantive and analytical lessons that can be learned from the memo. Part II addresses the lessons about writing that can be learned from the memo.

Part I

When your argument is based on a series of premises, you should be aware of them. You should also be aware that if any of these premises are factually flawed or illogical, or if the reader simply doesn’t accept them, your message will collapse from lack of support. Here is a short list of some of the premises in your memo, and my critique of them.

Premise: You have purchased, with your tuition dollars, the right to make demands upon the institution and the people in it and to dictate the content of your legal education.

Critique: I don not subscribe to the “consumer model” of legal education. As a consequence, I believe in your entitlement to assert your needs and desires even more strongly than you do. You would be just as entitled to express yourself to us if the law school were entirely tuition free. This is because you are a student, not because you are a consumer. Besides, the natural and logical extension of your premise is that students on a full scholarship are not entitled to assert their needs and desires to the same extent as other students (or maybe not at all). So, as you can see, arguments premised on consumerism are not likely to influence me. On the contrary, such a premise causes me to believe that you have a diminished view of legal education and the source of our responsibility as legal educators. This allows me to take any criticism from such a perspective less seriously than I otherwise would.

Premise: You are not paying for my opinion.

Critique: You are not paying me to pretend I don’t have one.

Premise: There is something called “Law” that is objective, fixed, and detached from and unaffected by the society in which it functions.

Critique: Law has no meaning or relevance outside of society. It both shapes and is shaped by the society in which it functions. Law is made by humans. It protects, controls, burdens, and liberates humans, non-human animals, nature, and inanimate physical objects. Like the humans who make it, Law is biased, noble, aspirational, short-sighted, flawed, messy, unclear, brilliant and constantly changing. If you think that Law is merely a set of rules to be taught and learned, you are missing the beauty of Law and the point of law school.

Premise: You know more about legal education than I do.

Critique: You don’t.

Premise: There is an invisible “only” in the words “Black Lives Matter.”

Critique: There is a difference between focus and exclusion. If something matters, this does not imply that nothing else does. If I say “Law Students Matter” it does not imply that my colleagues, friends, and family do not. Here is something else that matters: context. The Black Lives Matter movement arose in a context of evidence that they don’t. When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough.

As applied specifically to the context in which my Black Lives Matter shirt, I did this on a day in Criminal Procedure when we were explicitly discussing violence against the black community by police.

There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:

Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and

the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular, it

is important that we say that…

This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.

Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion. As a general matter, seeing the world and the people in it in mutually exclusive, either/or terms impedes your own thought processes. If you wish to bear that intellectual consequence of a constricting ideology, that is your decision. But this does not entitle you to project your either/or ideology onto people who do not share it.

Premise: Saying “Black Lives Matter? is an expression of racist hatred of white people.

Critique: “Black Lives Matter” is not a statement about white people. It does not exclude white people. It does not accuse white people, unless you are a specific white person who perpetrates, endorses, or ignore violence against black people.

If you are one of those people, then somebody had better be saying something to you. (I am using “you” here in the general sense as a substitute for “one,” and not as in “you memo writers”).

Premise: History doesn’t matter. Therefore sequences of cause and effect can be ignored (or even inverted).

Critique: To assert that the Black Lives Matters movement is about violence against the police is to ignore (and invert) the causal reality that the movement arose as an effect of police violence. Yes, the movement is about violence, in that it is about the subject of violence, but it is not about violent retaliation against the violence that it is about. It is a tragic fact that rage as a consequence of racial injustice sometimes gets enacted as violence (although not nearly as often as we might expect, given the long-standing causes of that rage). We can all lament the fact that violence begets violence. But we can’t even do that if we ignore the violence that had done, and is doing, the begetting.

Premise: What you think something means is the same as what it actually means.

Critique: We are all entitled to (should make every effort to) discern meaning. There can be reasonable differences of opinion about what something means. Something can even carry a meaning that has a longer life of its own, regardless of the meaning ascribed to it by a particular person. For example, the flag of the Confederacy carries the meaning of white supremacy, even if a particular person thinks it only means “tradition.” One person, or even a group of people, cannot take away the flag’s odious meaning just by declaring that it means something else. Similarly, ascribing a negative meaning where none exists does not bring that meaning into being.

Unless you speak for the Black Lives Matter movement you have no authority to say what those words mean to the people in it. You certainly have no authority to say (and apparently not even any knowledge of) what it means to me. Your interpretation of something and your reaction to it based on that interpretation are not the same as what something actually means. Things in the world have meanings that exist outside of you.

The point I am making here is different from the points above that address your misunderstanding of the movement and the three words that embody it. This is a point about aggrandizement, not accuracy.

Part II

Because a long time ago (in a law school far, far away) I was a teacher of legal writing, and because I still care about it very much, I will make some points relevant to formal and persuasive writing.

When you are writing to someone who has a formal title (e.g. Doctor, Professor, Dean, Judge, Senator), you should address him or her using that title. To do otherwise appears either ignorant or disrespectful. Whether or not you actually have any respect for the person is completely irrelevant. I take that back. It might be more important to follow the formal writing conventions when you don’t respect the individual person. Otherwise, you are risking trading the credibility of your entire message for the momentary satisfaction derived from communicating your disdain.

When you imbed a statement in a dependent clause, you are signaling to the reader that it is of lesser importance (e.g. “While we can appreciate your sacred right to the freedom of speech,… “). If this was intentional, it undermines your message. If it was not intentional, it obscures it.

Frame the issue precisely and focus on it. Don’t overgeneralize. You begin by stating that the issue is my “inappropriate conduct,” which sounds very general. Then you narrow the issue to “specifically” one event that occurred on a particular day last semester. Yur use of hyperbolic rhetoric throughout the memo suggests that you really are angry about more than just a T-shirt. If it really is about just the T-shirt, then by overgeneralizing from a specific occurrence, your message is swamped by exaggeration. If it really is about other “conduct” on my part, I can’t tell what that is. By the end of the memo you have lost focus completely, generalizing (in statements that are unexplained and inexplicable) about bar passage and about the faculty and administration of the entire law school.

Be as clear as you can about everything, including the remedy you are seeking. You are not required to want anything specific, but I can’t tell whether you do or not. Perhaps you are demanding that I simply cease and desist from wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt. If that is it, the demand could have been stated clearly. Instead, it is mired in the generalities and the threatening and overblown rhetoric that I referred to above.

DO NOT YELL AT THE READER. The power of your message should come from carefully chosen words that have been thoughtfully assembled, not from the size of your fonts. Capitalizing words does not make them more powerful. It just makes you look angry.

In conclusion, I believe that every moment in life (and certainly in the life of law school can be an occasion for teaching and learning. Thank you for creating an opportunity for me to put this deeply held belief into practice.

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