Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Serious Post Re: Parody, Charlie Hebdo, and the Law School Scam

This blog obviously trades a great deal in parody, satire, irony, sarcasm, caricature, and similar literary devices (fun fact: these are not all the same thing!).  As a writer, I hold these expressive forms as valuable as journalistic expository writing or bare-all, straight-shooter opinion pieces, and I don't believe a civilized free society can have it any other way.

Writing, like all art, is designed to communicate ideas and provoke emotional reactions.  In the right circumstances, parody and satire can do one or both of these things more effectively than other forms.  These devices are excellent at pointing out absurdities, silly ideas, and wrongful behavior.

For example, this:
Jay Conison is little different than a crumbling sweatshop operator.
is an opinion, expressed in simple metaphor, that someone might hold after reading something like this, which is an excellent straight-up piece.  But one could also say this:
The factory manager, Jay Conison, defended the recent spate of violent machine-related tragedies by stating the following:  "A factory is a complex commercial enterprise delivering a wide range of production-related services. Different factories have different strengths and weaknesses. Some are very strong in safety, others very strong in craftsmanship. Some position themselves to provide opportunity to workers; others, like ours, position themselves to develop an employee pool of diverse, tough survivors who made it through the gauntlet of death that kills 50% of careers and maims the rest."
The hastily-thought parody is not necessarily better, but different, and seeking to convey a slightly different idea.  For a more well-known example of this same concept, you can look at this viral Onion article (likely not workplace safe, unless your workplace is either depraved or chill), which makes an opinion comparison between religions so much more elegantly and poignantly than the blunt opinion of "other religions don't do this shit." 

There is certainly a sliding scale of ease in these forms.  It is difficult to satirize or parody Mother Theresa or Gandhi.  It is even harder to do the same to the humble and pleasant World War II veteran who quietly and dutifully performs volunteer work with a dying body.  It's remarkably easy to lampoon politicians, televangelists, celebrities, newscasters, and all-purpose assholes.  I will leave it to the reader to surmise where law school promoters fall in this matrix.

 The overall point is that satire and parody - which would include visual artists in a tradition including Hogarth and Nast - are a tool in the arsenal of speaking truth to power and engaging public debate, whether that be political, economic, religious, or social.  It can also, I will readily concede, be used for ill purposes, like to promote intolerance.

Often, the powerful can easily deal with negative, straight-shooting opinions; any good politician has thought through opposing viewpoints and knows how to address them.  Any enduring religion has developed a foolproof flow diagram of religious reasoning to counteract the claims of unbelievers and heretics.  For straight matters of opinion and debate, the powerful have usually already won those battles, and can often deflect them easily.

Parody, satire, and its relatives strike a different nerve, and often bring something that the target did not or could not anticipate.  Instead of addressing a powerful person straight on, they strike from an angle, away from the powerful target's home turf.  Often, that's what makes really good parody more discomforting and threatening.  There usually is simply no great response to well-done parody or satire, and certainly no way to compose one in advance, which makes it a volatile force of nature to people who build houses of power and belief on infirm foundations.

And this brings me to Charlie Hebdo.  The crazy people who do things like this aren't lashing out because some juvenile cartoonists violated a sacred tenet of their religion.  Let's be clear on that one.  For one, if extremist terrorists were going to kill because of the violation of Islam's tenets by 3rd parties, they've got much bigger fish to fry.  For two, the whole reason for the ban on images of Muhammad was originally to prevent idolatry (take yourself back to medieval Christianity for a comparison, which ignored its own religious teachings, but that's another story for another day); now the absence of depictions of Muhammad is a form of worship in its own right in some select Islamic interpretations (an irony no doubt lost in the haze of blind faith).  Western depictions of Muhammad, particular those in parody,  threaten them, threaten their ideas and beliefs and, ultimately, threaten what power they have.  The depictions of Muhammad found throughout the middle east and in art history, not quite as much.

And so their reaction is not so much punitive against Charle Hebdo and the staffers who were tragically and senselessly murdered, but rather chilling.  They sacrificed a little to gain a lot: the overzealous respect of Muhammad (or their interpretation of his life and work) in global media.  And for fuck's sake, it worked.  At a time where media outlets should be publishing Muhammad cartoons as items of legitimate news interest in a free society, they're self-censoring.  Because wackjobs exist who feel so threatened by grade-school parody that they will set Paris on fire, Muhammad and Islam have been isolated and are treated differently than other religions.  Of course, this is simply a continuation of the Danish cartoon fiasco from a few years back (and, as an aside, not that far from fair criticism of Supreme Court opinions like Pacifica).  As South Park (I can't believe I'm citing South Park and "The Federalist" in the same paragraph) eloquently put it at the time:
Either it's all okay, or none of it is.
Once you place something in the category of the unimpeachable or unmentionable, you give it an unassailable power.  Any addressing of the idea or person has to now be on that person or idea's own terms.  That's as good as effectively having removed it from the marketplace of ideas.  And if something as big as a global religion can be removed from our marketplace of ideas so easily, we might as well not have one, as it has literally no security.  So for all the media organizations trying to report on these topics while conceding turf to extremists and self-censoring, eat a dick.

I mention all of this now because I can't help but draw comparisons to the law school scam media.  The most salient example is Nancy Leong's crusade of insanity against dybbuk.  Without reheashing the whole ordeal, Dybbuk wrote some sarcastic tributes to her work.  In response, Nancy defended her work with churlish sarcasm, accused him of sexism, accused him of racism against her Hawaiian ancestry, and her and others reframed the debate as one about dybbuk's character and attorney ethical rules.  Dybbuk's speech was and has been chilled as a result, and speech critical of Leong's work has been effectively chilled from other writers.  And given the choice, to be blunt, why would any of us write about Nancy when the Open Road of Least Resistance showed paths to others, like ADPC or Joan King or the 99.99% of others who haven't filed expensive bar complaints? 

It's really tempting to give in to terrorism's logic.

There are other examples, of course, such as the lashing out against Paul Campos (who occasionally dabbles in the above literary devices, as it's difficult to avoid in this industry), or Thomas Cooley suing a critical blogger (which, let's be straight, was entirely about chilling effects).  There are lots of people doing great work in the law school criticism field - Above the Law, Paul Caron, Kyle McEntee, Brian Tamanaha, etc. - who color within the lines, and that's wonderful and necessary (as much as I cringe at Above the Law's editorial tone, they do good work on this front).

But there's absolutely a place for more aggressive and emotion-provoking commentary, and to shut those doors (or deny they exist, like much of the media has done in this area) is to decimate a true marketplace of ideas and to potentially stifle the full capabilities of reform.

I say this not to compare scamblogging to a longstanding publication like Charlie Hebdo or to weigh the relative "badness" of law school bullies and Islamic terrorists.

But as a society and as a sub-culture, we cannot let squeaky wheels get more grease than they deserve.  We cannot offend or criticize only those who are mature adults.  We cannot be deterred by people whose response to criticism is childish whining.  We cannot give them more courtesy than we give reasoned people, or else we perversely enhance their power.  There cannot be a right against being offended.  In scamblogging, either everything is on the table - including certain scholarship and everything accompanying how certain professors found their positions in life, if necessary - or none of it is.  We must resist the temptation to give in to such tactics in any respect.

I considered concluding this essay with a short piece entitled Wet Slippers and the Open Road to Mecca but have decided not to for a lack of space.  Instead, I give the following two quotes:
A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.  - G.K. Chesterton 
I have only ever made one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it. - Voltaire [who, for the record, never said the quote about defending to the death opponents' free speech rights].
Both of these apply fully to criticism of law school.

My sympathies go to the families and friends of those murdered in Paris, and I pray that people honor their memory, not by emptily reciting "Je suis Charlie", but by refusing to alter their speech or behavior out of fear provoked by criminals and genuine malcontents who seek to chill speech and remove topics from the realm of open debate out of their own self-interest.


  1. Well thought out and well said. There is absolutely zero chance of this becoming a law review article, then, but this needed to be said anyway.