#26 In a time of cancellations


"I’ve canceled my subscription to your newsletter. Your outright attack on gun rights has nothing to do with character, which was why I subscribed in the first place. It is actually AN ATTACK on character…..you cannot live in the US and not support constitutional rights, nor can you disallow the right of defense like Stalin, Hitler, Hussein, Mugabe, Un, or the many other dictators who strip their countries of human rights and dignity have done. Rights  are not corporate purchases, like health care laws or pensions or unions. They are individual rights, guaranteed to individuals under the constitution. The right to bear arms is a constitutional right, guaranteed by the constitution. I’ve tried to follow your past several newsletters and understand where you are coming from on character, and on your positions, but I cannot see a common thread. There isn’t much on character in what I’ve read. There is a lot on making individual decisions, but not character. My decision is to not follow your reports, because they clearly contradict my character as a conservative Christian and law abiding, constitutionalist American citizen. I don’t support stripping people of their right to choice, protection, or opinion…but that is exactly where I see your newsletter leading. In my book, that’s a lack of character."

1. People ought to cancel a subscription for whatever reason they jolly-well feel like but this particular reader felt it important to tell me why. To dismiss this vocal protest without a reply felt misaligned with the work of cultivating character and interacting with difficulty rather than moving away from it and pretending it doesn't exist.

Therefore, below you'll find my reply. In full transparency, I wrote this with no revision immediately after receiving the above cancellation email, so re-reading it I see all kinds ways I could have been more thorough, more caring, and more precise. Anyway, here's how I replied:

I’m sorry to hear you’ve canceled your subscription, but I support your choice in doing so, obviously. I never want to engage people beyond their tolerance for discomfort.

But since you provided reasons for your cancellation, which I read as maybe a quasi-invitation for a response, I’ll offer that here and you can again choose to hit the delete button immediately or consider what follows wholeheartedly and see where that leaves us.

I’d like to offer one point of clarification and a few genuine and open questions.

One of the fundamental pillars of character is morality. And morality is not a simple question of is someone moral or not––meaning do they care about others––but a question of cultivating a wider and wider understanding of what morality means. And that’s not easy to do. Most people begin their journey of character cultivation by turning towards people beyond themselves, and that’s usually a loved one, a spouse, siblings, immediate family or even a group of friends who share similar values. But there are other levels beyond those, and the well-being and the right to live a life free from terror fits under the rubric of morality, or “How shall I act so that my actions benefit the quality of life of others, even others I don’t know.” So when talking about gun-rights, I do so because our collective decisions about the laws of our country directly affect the well-being of others, which is literally a moral––because it affects others––which is an important subset of character. So I stand behind my decision to use the current gun-control debates as a platform to engage with ways we can cultivate our capacity to enlarge our sense of morality wider and wider beyond our immediate self-interests.

As for the guns rights issue itself:

1. The constant and repeatable and cyclical nature of mass-shooting and normal shootings with legally acquired weapons fill me with utter dread, terror, agony, fright, and a deep sense of grief. I want innocent lives––music concert goers; church goers; kindergarten children; high school children to live their full lives, rather than being killed with firearms. I think this is a huge problem in our country and the current laws we have are producing these outcomes; we now have years (decades, really) of evidence that under these sets of conditions, these are the outcomes and to me they are utterly unacceptable. Do you think our current mass-shooting epidemic is a problem?

2. Other countries have solved this problem and have not been subject to the rule of totalitarian mass murderers. Why can’t the United States do likewise? In what way do you think the United States is exceptional to what works elsewhere in the world?

3. If you had the ability to make any changes, what would they be? What laws would you put into place? What are you currently doing, if anything, about this problem (assuming you do find it a problem)?

4. I, too, have studied the teachings of Jesus and find them deeply inspiring and I try to live as close to those teachings as possible. I taught a class called the Bible as Literature which helped my students engage deeply with scripture beyond mere rules. And so I myself often think “What would Jesus do?” in an entirely sincere way. And since my understanding of his message comes down to Love is a greater force than Fear, I cannot imagine Jesus coming to the United States and preferring to go to a church where everyone has a weapon than a church in which all weapons have been outlawed, or at the very least, its a church in which the only people who have access to weapons have had all kinds of training, background checks, character references, and have proven they are, in fact, stable, law-abiding citizens. What do you think Jesus would do were he to witness all the death by legally acquired firearms in the United States? I ask this sincerely.

5. The constitution, as it was originally written, advocated the right for people to own other people as property. Those who were slave owners cited the constitution as a defense of their position, and it took the death of 600,00 Americans to alter the law of the country, which then followed a long and still continuing process of people learning to see everyone as having unalienable rights to a life of freedom. What would you say to a slave owner back in 1859 using the constitution as a legal defense of his rights to treat other humans he purchased legally in whatever way he wished?

I fully understand if you don’t wish to continue this conversation, and if not, I wish you all the best. But I am curious how you would answer these questions, because they all matter to me, and I want to see and acknowledge the blindspots in my own thinking so that fewer lives are lost in the upcoming days, weeks, months and years of our fragile experiment with democracy.

I haven't heard back from the reader so I'm not sure what their answers might look like. What else might you have included in your reply? How might I have done a better job bringing our newsletter-writer-reader relationship closer together rather than further apart? Send your thoughts to cxd@characterbydesign.org



2. I wish my exchange above was as insightful as this classic tangle between law students and their professor about the appropriateness of the professor wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on campus. Read below, and notice how an attack was transformed into an opportunity to shift the students' horizons of understanding. 


Here's the professor's reply:

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.

This 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.


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 do 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 even 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 front of 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 l 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 I wore 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’s 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 ignores 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 Matter 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 longstanding 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 has 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 (and 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 larger 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 some 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, faraway) 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 embed 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 o 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 then 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. Your 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.



3. "Professor Leary began her law career in Florida as a judicial clerk, legal writing teacher, and director of a legal policy clinic. She moved to California after receiving a Masters degree in Law from Columbia University and has been teaching at Whittier Law School since 1992.

As a Distinguished Teaching Professor, she sees her life’s work as student-centered, both inside and outside of the classroom. She is deeply committed to teaching students to think clearly and critically about law, to helping students to refine the art of legal reasoning and analysis, and to encouraging students to navigate with joy and purpose the life changing experience of law school.

Professor Leary is also actively involved in the life of the campus community. She devotes a great deal of her time to coaching students in appellate advocacy, and serving as faculty advisor to numerous student organizations. In 1999 she helped to found On Common Ground, a student organization that annually produces a series of events designed to raise awareness of multiple social and legal issues including race, class, gender, and sexual orientation."

What do you think of this student professor exchange? What would you have done differently? 



4. Character is as much about expanding your life's possibilities as it is about fixing yourself and all the problems in the world. Watch this wonderful––in a literal sense, full of wonder––youtube video to remind yourself that the possibilities of a human life are nearly infinite, just like space. 

Why did SpaceX send David Bowie into Space? 

Wisdom Pin-up: