In my first year of law school, one professor paced the front of class, waiting for news about whether there was a stay of execution for a man sentenced to death.
“Let this be a lesson,” he said as the tension left his body upon hearing that the stay had been granted, “that what we do here has very real consequences.”
That same term, in another course, we discussed a real event where people’s loved ones had been buried in the wrong grave plots, and how distressed the families were to find that the headstone they had been tending did not mark the resting place of their dearly departed. After identifying all of the things that had gone wrong, all of the possible responses the families could make, the professor said, “it’s illegal to disinter people in that state. What remedy could you, as the lawyer for the families, offer?”
And into the stunned silence of the classroom he said “always keep in mind the goal of your clients. What is fair and what is possible are not always the same.”
As you can tell, these lessons really stuck with me.
Though God forbid I ever find myself in a position where my words are what keep someone alive, or have to provide solace to dozens of distraught families, I think these two instances provide a lot of context for me–not just professionally, where I must remember always who I am seeking to protect and how I can achieve that, but personally.
What we say has consequences. And sometimes being right is not the same as getting what we want.
It can feel so obvious and important and perhaps even necessary to try to make someone see our point of view, to agree with us, to absolve us, to like us, even. Especially online, arguing is just so simple. But there are consequences. Communities fall apart, individual people have panic attacks because of the rage machine that turned on them, victims die by suicide…it’s all digital, but there are organic components involved, and we’re all linked to them.
And for what? When we argue, what are we looking to achieve?
If you want to change minds, that’s rarely if ever done via argument, particularly not online.
If you want to be absolved, that is never achieved via the double down. Unless you are a dictator with an army behind you, trying to smother someone into conceding you’re good does not work.
There are other tools for these things. They are harder than being angry. They do not look like victory. They don’t feel like victory. But they work much better at obtaining the goal. So what’s more important? Feeling vindicated? Or achieving the goal?
These are things I ask myself before I wade in. Oftentimes if I’m arguing it’s because I know that there is someone who feels hurt and jeopardized who needs a champion, and I can be that. But the goal then isn’t to be vindicated, it’s to get the hurtful person to leave, and to make it clear to those affected that we see the hurtful behavior and it’s not okay. That’s it. My entire goal is to get the harm to stop.
It SUCKS! It really sucks. I want to eviscerate the person who dares to hurt my loved ones. I want to dismantle bigotry and fear and learned trauma and fix it all my own self with a few cunning lines. I wish life were like videogames, where you can convince someone by asking questions in the correct order. Like Arthur in The Once and Future King I would pray that I could confront all evil myself to be conquered at once, or so that I alone suffered. But that is impossible, people are messy, and all of us are sure we know best. So what is the next best outcome? What is important here?
I wish I could tell you that I was always successful in keeping to my goals, but I’m a person, too. Even in my rage, I do try to remember that all of us are just people, with bad days and pain points and trauma responses, and that kindness for the most possible people is paramount.
It’s critical to me that I try to keep this in mind.
Because everything I do, even on a small scale, has consequences. And what is fair, and what is possible are almost never the same outcome. So all I can do is stick to my goals, and measure my success in the progress I see as the world changes.