Lawyers, law students, law school administrators and languages ​​-


[1.] Words and phrases can have different meanings, connotations, and associations for different people. “Work will set you free,” for example, might sound like a perfectly good catchphrase to many. (Consider the lack of economic dependence on parents, spouses, or the government.) But that might not work well for listeners who know that this was also the sign written in German at the entrance to ‘Auschwitz. At least it will produce an unpleasant association for them – never a good effect for a slogan supposed to inspire people. And that might cause them to question the speaker’s motives, even if they ultimately answer the question with “he probably just didn’t know the connection.”

Likewise, using “he” as a generic singular pronoun may seem like a normal convention to some, but may bristle for others. Ditto for using “they” for the same purpose, which some readers might find normal and convenient, but others might find linguistically jarring or view it as a distracting or unpleasant political statement. Nor is it limited to political reactions: for many, “decimate” means “inflict great destruction or damage to” or “greatly reduce the amount”; others think in the historical sense, which involved killing, and in particular killing one in ten. And such different reactions are an unsurprising consequence of “diversity”, in the simple sense of people with different experiences, education and attitudes coming together in the same institution.

It is important to teach law students – and other students – to be acutely aware of possibilities such as lecturers and writers. I often do this myself, especially when I teach at my brief writing clinic. (For example, I consistently recommend that students avoid controversy over pronouns by pluralizing the referent, if possible, and then using “they,” which few readers would find controversial and embarrassing in its traditional plural context.)

At the same time, it goes both ways: it is important to teach students to be aware of the risk that they will see evil intentions and future plans that were not intended. Few want a lawyer who constantly bristles at every term that could be interpreted as something bad, whether from the opposing lawyer, potential partners in a deal, the lawyer’s own client, or of colleagues. If a lawyer tries to argue that the other party’s reference to Popeyes Chicken is in fact racist, because Popeyes Chicken is fried chicken and fried chicken has been used as part of anti-black stereotypes, the lawyer could well lose his credibility with many judges or jurors. , who can think that Popeyes Chicken is just Popeyes Chicken.

[2.] Which of course brings us to TrapHouseGate, where a Yale law student who is a member of both the Native American Law Student Association and the Federalist Society emailed this invitation to the NALSA list:


Hope you are still feeling sociable! This Friday at 7:30 am we will be christening our own (soon) world famous NALSA Trap House [redacted] by launching a Constitution Day in collaboration with FedSoc. Planned attractions include Popeye’s Chicken, basic American themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.), a cocktail station, an assortment of hard and non-alcoholic drinks, and (most importantly) the ability to attend the blender. inaugural of the NALSA Trap House!

Hope to see you all there!

This was then passed on to all the sophomores, some of whom were upset at what they saw as black mockery. “Trap house” apparently originally meant, and still sometimes means, a house where people would go to buy crack cocaine, usually associated with blacks; it also became associated with a sub-genre of hip hop music, which is also considered “black music”. And Chicken Popeyes is indeed fried chicken; black people have sometimes been mockingly portrayed eating fried chicken and watermelon.

On the other hand, “trap house” also seems to mean a place where young people of all races gather to drink and party, whether somewhat illicitly (since they are minors) or because they are underage. want to jokingly suggest such illegality (as some bars or bartending services are called underground bars even though we have long been out of the ban). The author of the invitation claimed that he was referring to that meaning and not to the crack house meaning, which seems entirely plausible to me.

Likewise, there is a prominent podcast run by three white men, apparently without any hint of racial mockery, called Chapo Trap House (“Socialism for the Extremely Online,” according to Vanity Fair, who calls it “hard on the left.” ). And Chicken Popeyes is apparently very popular with many people of all races (see “The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich is Here to Save America”), and the combination of fried chicken and apple pie is not a stereotype. racial.

So here you have terms that may have different connotations for different people, depending on their experiences with those terms. This is a good opportunity for potential writers and writers to see how what they write can produce a counterproductive reaction. (Again, remember the email wasn’t meant to be a hell of a shout-out-what’s-in-my-heart-reaction, but rather an invitation to persuade a wide range of people to come to a party.) And it’s a good opportunity for readers to see how their initial reactions can be wrong and can counterproductively escalate tensions.

[3.] Consider Yale Law School’s response, though. The Associate Dean and the “Director of Diversity and Inclusion” called the author of the email to discuss the controversy – itself perhaps an overreaction, but perhaps justifiable. But rather than presenting it as “this is how we can all learn to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding”, they called it up with a message qualifying this “deeply concerning and problematic incident.” And, to quote North West liberal professor Andrew Koppelman,

Then came this disastrous blunder: “The association of email with FedSoc has been very empowering for students who already feel that FedSoc belongs to political affiliations that are oppressive to some communities through politics. … This of course includes the LGBTQIA community and black communities and immigrant communities. . “…

It may have honestly reported how some students are feeling. Corn [the director] should have taken law school away from those feelings.

When the student refused to apologize, he sent this email:

To quote Koppelman again,

Here, mediation has ceased. The law school has taken it upon themselves to declare who is right and who is wrong. Colbert has been publicly called a “racist” in front of his peers.

And, in a follow-up meeting, the director “says, ‘You’re a law student, and there’s a bar you need to take. So we think it’s really important to give you a 360 view ”. It is more threatening than anything that has been said the day before. This suggests that this episode could be brought up to the character and fitness investigation of a bar admission. “So instead of teaching, we see ‘bullying’ and ‘coercion[on]”(to quote Koppelman again).

[4.] But also important, we see Yale teaching students the wrong lesson on the other side of the controversy: The lesson that when you see a statement that has a bad connotation for you, the right thing to do is ignore the reality of diversity – the reality that different people honestly perceive words to have different connotations – and instead immediately label the statement as “racist” and should be treated as “discrimination and harassment”.

Again, would you want a lawyer to work for you who constantly reacts this way, when negotiating a deal with one of your potential business partners (or even with a litigant’s lawyer, where he is often more important to calm the waters than to disturb them)? Would you want a lawyer who consistently demands penalties for the opposing party for things that many judges are likely to view as minor communication issues? Sometimes such a reaction can be helpful, but much more often it destroys professional relationships and credibility.

Likewise, would you want a lawyer who would systematically react this way to things you say as a client, or that you say as a colleague? Or would you prefer a lawyer who, if he is really confused by a possible interpretation of a statement, reaches out to the speaker and asks him something like, “I’m not sure I understood what by “trap house” you mean; can you explain a little more? … Oh, really? It’s strange ; I took it as a reference to crack houses – you might not know it, but that’s what trap house still generally means in many contexts – and as a pejorative allusion to black crack addicts. think others have taken it the same way. Very happy that this is not what you had in mind. “

What reaction is Yale Law School teaching students to propose in the future, in school, at work, in court, or elsewhere?


Nancy I. Romero

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