Law in Contemporary Society

Pluralistic Meaning

-- By GregOrr - 12 Jun 2009

In my first paper, I discussed our reliance on precarious interpretations in communicating and making decisions. With the help of a chapter of Lawyerland called “All Great Problems Come from the Streets,” I’ll discuss the struggle over meaning within the legal profession.

Adjudicating Meaning

“This is a business in which everyone relies on representations,” Judge Day says. “Lawyers are the ones who invented spin.” She distinguishes this form of deceit, however, from outright misrepresentation. Of the less objectionable variety, she says, “Lawyers know too much. If you know too much, how don’t you lie?”

There’s “too much meaning”—by which Judge Day means ‘too many interpretations’ as opposed to ‘too important.’ In the context of statutes, cases, facts, procedures, and various players, “everything you say has another meaning.” Since “a real lawyer has an ethical obligation to defend his or her client,” lawyers play with meaning opportunistically: using multiple definitions, varying levels of specificity, feigning or feeding particular interpretations, inducing fallacious reasoning (e.g. ad hominem), changing the story, etc. On one hand, “the posturing, the playacting, arguing over the smallest things, the narcissism, the beyond-belief egomania—it’s all part of that.” But on the other hand, “it’s inherent in the process.”

In the end a judge or jury adjudicates meaning by “discerning,” but even this is just an unscientific resonance between subjective interpretations.

The Winkers

This process gives rise to a powerful and infuriating type, which I’ll call ‘the winker.’ Winkers are well-prepared, tenacious, and endowed with heightened situational awareness. Situational awareness is the knowledge of underlying factors combined with perception of others’ projection and reception of (un)intended meanings. It’s the capacity suggested by the poker saying, “If you can’t spot the mark, then you’re the mark.”

Situational awareness puts a grouping in relief, with people operating at different levels of the conversation. Winkers can manipulate various levels simultaneously, perhaps by goading one toward a dead-end while winking at another. The winker can then use the winked-at (who feels good for being winked at) to reinforce the misdirection while he talks with his secretary about travel plans.

People capable of this sort of behavior are proud to be in tune and believe in their superiority (“it’s those who don’t listen to what they’re saying who are the most insufferable people on earth”), but Judge Day gives examples to show why others dislike them. “He was looking straight at the girl with enormous confidence. You know, that look—and letting you know it—of knowing something you don’t. Of being above, somehow.” She is even disconcerted by someone she regards affectionately, “You never know about Paul. He sounds so sincere—the way he looks and talks—and he is, but sometimes you don’t know when he’s kidding you.” They seem to have exclusive access to a higher level of meaning.

The Insolent and Scared

In contrast, Judge Day presents the “insolent and scared,” people who resent the systemic and interpersonal imposition of meaning. Under this heading, she includes a young counterfeiter: “You know you’re going to put them in prison, and they know you know it, and they try to look right through you … Insolent. Toward you, toward themselves, toward life itself.” And she includes a former clerk: “He says—he’s quite agitated about it—that there no longer is a nation. What is really going on is that we’re in a state of civil wars … A Generation X lawyer has thoughts like this? Well, I can tell you, just because they may be insolent, and they are scared, doesn’t mean there aren’t some very serious sorts in their twenties roaming around out there.”

They don’t believe in the system's assignment of meaning, they don’t believe in the characters the system favors, and they express unlikely defiance. But they have doubts and fear for themselves—even Kafka said, “In the struggle between you and the world, back the world.”

Deep Answers?

Joseph’s inscription for Lawyerland is a quote from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet: “Don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths, everything becomes law.” Is he telling us that uncertainty and contradiction are illusions and that we can become aware of law-like meaning? Are the insolent and scared mired in an immature, immobilizing reaction?

Judge Day offers a seemingly similar view: “Perhaps the finest lawyer I’ve ever known used to say—it was one of his cardinal rules—if you look hard enough for an answer, you’ll find it. Everything’s there, you just have to look for it.” But the lawyer later reappears to urge, “Do whatever you can to achieve your objective.” That statement, to me, recasts the first to mean that there will always be an argument to make for your objective. An ongoing battle of wills determines meaning, and one side never definitively conquers the other. Like the young counterfeiter, Bartleby, or the Underground Man, we may always resist from unlikely positions with unlikely methods—in the least, "there is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn." The freedom of interpretation/perspective/will keeps society in flux, in a perpetual state of civil wars, with “no one in complete agreement with anyone else about any of it.”

The multiplicity of meanings seems to me a positive fact of life, despite conflict it may engender. While favored interpretations may be most advantageous for some people at some time and place, we often mistake local truth for global truth to the detriment of freedom, creativity, and diversity and at the risk of overrelying on flawed or incomplete building blocks.

As William H. Simon concludes, "A society which treats all conflict as a threat sacrifices individual development to conformism and impoverishes both self-expression and social relations. In such a society, where officially sanctioned patterns of behavior are perceived as coercively imposed, they engender cynicism and frustration. Where they are spontaneously adopted, they narrow the individual's perception of the world and of his own possibilities."


Webs Webs

r7 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:55 - IanSullivan
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