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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. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

      2. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

      3. ACLU. Way to step up against the police state. I see a lot of things from the ACLU I don't like but this one is a gold star in its column.... instead of fighting it the authorities should apologize and back off.

      4. Duncan, It's called the RIGHT OF ASSOCIATION and in the old days people believed it did apply to contracts and employment. Then along came title vii.....that aside, I believe that I am free to work or not work for whomever I like regardless: I don't need a law to tell me I'm free. The day I really am compelled to ignore all the facts of social reality in my associations and I blithely go along with it, I'll be a slave of the state. That day is not today......... in the meantime this proposed bill would probably be violative of 18 usc sec 1981 that prohibits discrimination in contracts... a law violated regularly because who could ever really expect to enforce it along the millions of contracts made in the marketplace daily? Some of these so-called civil rights laws are unenforceable and unjust Utopian Social Engineering. Forcing people to love each other will never work.

      5. I am the father of a sweet little one-year-old named girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome. To anyone who reads this who may be considering the decision to terminate, please know that your child will absolutely light up your life as my daughter has the lives of everyone around her. There is no part of me that condones abortion of a child on the basis that he/she has or might have Down Syndrome. From an intellectual standpoint, however, I question the enforceability of this potential law. As it stands now, the bill reads in relevant part as follows: "A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion . . . if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or a potential diagnosis of Down syndrome." It includes similarly worded provisions abortion on "any other disability" or based on sex selection. It goes so far as to make the medical provider at least potentially liable for wrongful death. First, how does a medical provider "know" that "the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion SOLELY" because of anything? What if the woman says she just doesn't want the baby - not because of the diagnosis - she just doesn't want him/her? Further, how can the doctor be liable for wrongful death, when a Child Wrongful Death claim belongs to the parents? Is there any circumstance in which the mother's comparative fault will not exceed the doctor's alleged comparative fault, thereby barring the claim? If the State wants to discourage women from aborting their children because of a Down Syndrome diagnosis, I'm all for that. Purporting to ban it with an unenforceable law, however, is not the way to effectuate this policy.

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