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Indiana Judges Association: Judges need to take control of cultural standing

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ija-dreyerInternet meme (pron.: / ’mi:m/MEEM): a concept that spreads from person to person via the Internet. Meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene,” as an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads; Internet memes are a subset of this, specific to the culture and environment of the Internet.

Have you ever Googled “lawyer dog”? If you do, be prepared to see a limitless line of websites all featuring identical photos of the same canine seated behind his desk, along with various one-liners related to the law, dogs and just silliness. (“The judge is a man? We’re golden. I’m man’s best friend.”) Such phenomena are presumably what people mean when they mention the word “meme.” Although it was originally invented as a pseudo-academic name for social symbols, words or ideas that emerge and represent part of a culture (like the peace sign), it has apparently been appropriated by humans’ computer habits. Some thinkers now believe the Internet is the only way that memes, or any cultural activity, are invented, perceived or have any impact on people. On the other hand, many avid Internet activists today use “meme” to merely describe anything that is currently popular on the Web. Some consider memes as just updated versions of stereotypes, only spreading much quicker. But here’s the problem: What if the meme becomes the message, that is, becomes so ubiquitous that it gets stuck in everybody’s mind – whether we like it or not – or whether it deserves to be?

Sometimes meme activity just happens in speech and practice, like using “Google” as a verb. Commentators sometimes use “meme” to characterize broad popular images, like a quarterback dating a cheerleader or a judge who is male with gray hair. More commonly, running Internet jokes, forwarded photos, satirical YouTube videos, open-ended questions and posted answers, etc., all creep into some part of our public observation and thinking. Hence, “lawyer dog” and the like. When this happens, no one yet knows the result. The Economist, a leading international journal, recently featured studies implying memes not only affect individual behavior, they shape entire societies.

Lawyers and judges are prominent meme creators. In fact, the language of law itself is perhaps the ultimate meme:

“All men are created equal.” But not all memes are created equal.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Couldn’t they have added “regular vacations” as well?

“Right to remain silent.” If only more lawyers would take advantage of this.

“I cannot recall at this point in time.” 1970s Watergate lawyers developed this perjury-avoidant answer for clients testifying to Congress. It is still heard by judges every day.

“I know it when I see it.” Yogi Berra could not have said it any better.

The non-lawyer world unfortunately has found its own legal memes, and they are not as entertaining as “lawyer dog” sites. In fact, they should serve to alarm us, especially considering the instant power of memes. Pondscumandlawyers.com is a fairly typical example. It routinely ridicules lawyers with a different joke each day. The website is not necessarily popular, but its method is pervasive. The basic lawyer meme is anything that shows lawyers as rude, greedy, arrogant or just plain dishonest. This means that lawyers and judges are culturally misperceived. For lawyers, this may not be such a serious issue because clients and fees will come as long as there are people with problems. But the world depends upon public confidence in judges – and judges can do little to control the meme effect of the Internet.

The good and bad news is that Internet memes can be created and spread by anyone. So why shouldn’t we judges create memes to control our cultural standing? For example, why not post a succinct video of a judge talking about his or her job? It should promote a meme-like slogan, like “We’re judges, but we’re not judgmental.” Maybe we can spread the stories of judges who have given their lives in Mexico and Eastern Europe, in the name of justice, by finding an image of one grieving relative and asking for public comment? Perhaps we try to start a popular legal blog and forum where real judges answer questions about the system, what it’s like to be a judge, etc. As far-fetched as it can appear to those of us who were trained by actual books, the world today learns as much from Internet memes as anything else. Whether we like it or not, we judges risk peril if we avoid these realities.

All in all, law will not be decided by the Internet – at least not yet. So judges and lawyers will still have to think, write and argue just as before. Memes are part of our cultural experience and can form the basis of contemporary thinking. But law is more than contemporary culture. Judges may have to proactively market an accurate image to the public, but memes will never take the place of a fact well-proven or a judgment well-reasoned.•

__________

Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
 

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  • Point Smith
    I concede, point to JS this round!
  • Less marketing more truth
    No lawyers are not the source of political correctness movement. Who is? I don't know for sure, but here is what William Lind says http://www.academia.org/the-origins-of-political-correctness/ As for who is the source of greed, the hallmark vice of lawyers, is it not our fallen nature? And the lawyers & politicians that founded this republic and disseminated such memes as "all men created equal" etc. down the decades right on up today, were not so much lawyers as plutocrats, marketing strategic wars for dominion in order to enlist the gullible colonials as cannon fodder. Maybe we need less memes and marketing and clever stuff like that and more plain simple Truth & Justice. As for who first told me there was no such thing as truth I recall that was a professor. Back to Bill Lind...
    • Caution, your honor, assumptions can make ...
      "The basic lawyer meme is anything that shows lawyers as rude, greedy, arrogant or just plain dishonest. This means that lawyers and judges are culturally misperceived." ASSUMPTION: That most lawyers and judges are just as reported. It that justified? What has the rise of the legal class since WWII done good for America? Has not our profession brought much of the modernist ills in governance, and is not most government corruption, financial or ideological (i.e. PC movement) not the fault of attorneys, by and large? Here is what Old Slewfoot has to say about that, and he is quite the expert witness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6bC9w9cH-M

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      1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

      2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

      3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

      4. I am sorry to hear this.

      5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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