I learned, at an otherwise soporific session on legal writing many years ago, that in the old days lawyers had their writs, complaints, answers, surreplies, etc. written by scriveners. These professional scribes had elegant handwriting and were, one won’t be shocked to learn, paid by the word.
So much of the seeming double-talk in the law, the endless legalistic quibbling, caviling, carping, signifying, distinguishing, synonym stringing, de-empahsizing, re-emphasizing, privilege-preserving, seemingly redundant, overstated, reiterative language in traditional legalese was the work of these craftsmen. “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” is more than twice as many words than “do you swear to tell the truth?”. Cah-ching, scrivener!
But that’s not the only reason for the development of legalese, of course. Make something complicated, convoluted, meandering, equivocating, jargonized, specific, obfuscating enough et, voila, half of your problem is solved.
If half the country hates slavery, do not ever use the word in the founding document that preserves the right for those who love having slaves. No “slave”, “African” “chattel”, “servant” or any other straight forward reference in the Constitution to the slaves, from Africa, who were regarded by the law as chattels, unpaid servants for life.
Instead, in three or four discrete, discreet clauses, we read of “other such persons as the states shall see fit to admit” and nonchalant, misdirecting yet precise, legally-binding phrases like that. You can feel better that the word ‘slave’, or even some of the horrible things these forced laborers were called, is nowhere near our sacred founding text. Even as, of course, the legality of slavery, and its enforcement under federal law, received irrefutable, iron-clad federal protection in that same discreet document.
We are, and have always been, a nation of laws and freedom under those laws, notwithstanding the 3/5 of such persons– and it goes without saying we use the term ‘persons’ in its broadest sense — who come into play for apportionment in Congress for grossly underrepresented slave-states (majority slave state, in the case of South Carolina). The devil, yop, yop, in the damned details.
OK, this has been my typical ‘why I hate our freedom’ rant and you are well within your rights to treat it as such and click over to something more uplifting. The point I am driving at today is not our national tic for concealing truths that might make millions of our citizens angry enough to rebel, it’s personal.
I recently took down some fiction I’d written and posted here, realizing that if certain parties read this work they would see themselves and feel violated, angry, perhaps even vengeful. When a person guards a humiliating secret, which each of us has every right to do, any reference to that secret is easily seen as a betrayal.
I once wrote a line that infuriated a very wealthy man living, closeted, as a salt-of-the-earth working stiff, by writing “it’s not as if he needed the money.” This was construed as a betrayal of a secret he had kept from me, something I could only have learned from his ex-wife, which was how I’d inadvertently heard it. She described a $75,000 settlement of their divorce, which I called generous when she told me about it about 30 years back. She laughed, and agreed it was generous, although, possibly not quite as generous in the context of her ex-husband’s fortune of more than $20,000,000. The whole thing was humiliating to him, the poisonous reference to him “not needing the money,” and my mention of these facts here, where any member of the public can theoretically see them, was an unforgivable, final betrayal, even if he was never mentioned by name. I get that.
I am not in the habit of violating confidences. If somebody tells me something in confidence, I will never break that trust. I can think of many examples. All we have is our word and our good name. Which reminds me of something my old friend the judge told me once, on the Triboro Bridge.
I’d just purchased an iPad, which I was integrating into my student run children’s animation workshop. We were driving along and I was using the iPad’s video camera for the first time, filming the trip. We were chatting when suddenly the judge turned to me and asked me if there was sound on that video I was recording. I told him, now that he mentioned it, that there was. Our talk was being recorded, although that was not my intention when I started filming. He told me to shut the video off and erase it, that he didn’t feel comfortable with our conversation, which he hadn’t known was being recorded, being preserved in perpetuity. He got quite exercised about it, actually. I assured him I had no intention of playing it for anybody and then he made a good point.
“At the moment you make a promise like that, it is inconceivable to you that you would ever betray my confidence. That’s why contracts are drawn up when the parties are friends, with protections built in for after their falling out. Provisions against non-disclosure are not made for when everybody is on the same page and getting along great. They are for the day when the parties are no longer friends, for the day they are adversaries, in fact, looking for evidence to use against each other.”
I assured him that once I had extracted the video footage, isolated from the sound, I’d delete the original, with our conversation on it. As it happened, not that long after that ride, we were on shaky ground as friends and soon after that completely estranged.
Here’s the morally sticky part. A loved one tells you they were threatened with particularly violent death by a husband with a long history of road rage, speeding tickets and petty crimes, including embezzlement, credit card fraud, shoplifting and who knows what else. You are not told this in confidence, your loved one is shaken and upset when the details pour out. You hear the same story from another party involved in the drama, which involved multiple murder threats. Later you are told you may never speak of this. There’s your moral quagmire for you.
The children of that couple? Do you have any obligation to them?
Clearly, I am wrestling with this constantly. I think part of the reason it is a bone crosswise in my throat is the frustrating world we live in now, our general powerlessness in this corporate age. We live in a world run by the corporate imperative: admit no wrongdoing, cite the plain language of the contract, construct hoops for someone with a complaint to jump through, restrict options available to the aggrieved, condition any settlement on nondisclosure. In politics it is the same: never admit fault, stick to your theory of why you were justified, state your talking points, pivot, constantly, away from any responsibility on your part, repeat talking points.
When a personal connection resorts to this intolerable bullshit more than once or twice, it may be time to dissolve the apolitical bands which have connected you. It seems self-evident; you cannot depend on a person who routinely lies. Depending on someone who will say whatever they feel is necessary under the circumstances is like depending on a person like Donald Trump to take the moral high road.
“That high-road you moral fucks talk about is for you high-minded assholes to walk on, it’s a road for fucking losers. I walk on the winner’s road, it is very smooth, and padded to be gentle on the joints, and downhill all the way. All other things being equal (LOL!!!) I’ll take my regular road against your moral tight-rope every minute of every day, asshole.”
If you have a problem with any of that, take a fucking chill pill and dummy up. Word to the wise.