Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Of Vikings and Victims

Toward the end of my first month in law school I called my spouse, who is both captain of my cheerleading squad and the daughter of an attorney, and said, "It's not that law school turns people into assholes; it's that a certain type of asshole is drawn to law school."

If you're not a lawyer, this is probably not a surprise to you. But looking around the room as a budding young attorney in law school - seeing how formulaic we were - was as uncomfortable as the first time I heard the sound of my own voice on a recording.

What struck me as "being an asshole" Dr. Brene Brown calls the "Viking or Victim" mentality, the belief that: 

[E]veryone without exception belongs to one of two mutually exclusive groups: Either you're a Victim in life - a sucker or a loser who's always being taken advantage of and can't hold your own - or you're a Viking - someone who sees the threat of being victimized as a constant, so you stay in control, you dominate, you exert power over things, and you never show vulnerability. (Daring Greatly, page 152). 

As one attorney put it, "The world is divided into assholes and suckers. It's that simple." The attorneys Dr. Brown interviewed attributed their worldview to "values they had been taught growing up, the experience of surviving hardships, or their professional training." She thinks that most people who hold this worldview seek out professions in which this is the predominant view (rather than that the professional training creates the worldview).  

The technical term for this mentality is "zero-sum;" one person's win is necessarily someone else's loss. The zero-sum game becomes a seamlessly self-perpetuating phenomenon that takes on the appearance of an objective and inevitable reality. The attorneys whom Dr. Brown interviewed discussed "high-risk behaviors, divorces, disconnection, loneliness, addiction, anger, [and] exhaustion." She noted, "[R]ather than seeing these behaviors and negative outcomes as consequences of their Viking-or-Victim worldview, they perceived them as evidence of the harsh win-or-lose nature of life."   

People who are "vulnerability intolerant" may do hand to hand combat with deadly levels of stress. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among attorneys. A 1997 study of attorneys in the United States and Canada by the Legal Profession Assistance Council (LPAC) determined that "the death rate by suicide among lawyers is six times the suicide rate of the general population." 

People inclined to take a zero-sum approach to their own existence are not in the best position to notice the tenderness of others and craft a proportionate response. An attorney might not have the clear sight to know whether she's crossed over from prosecution to persecution.

I have thought about this each time I've heard the phrase "prosecutorial over-reach" used to describe the circumstances surrounding the death of Aaron Swartz, who was charged with 13 felonies and faced the prospect of incarceration for having hacked into the MIT computer system and downloaded  from JSTOR millions of academic articles that many students want never to read. The public details of his situation appear more cut and dried than those of former prodigy Jonathan James, who ended his life rather than face another round of federal prosecution and incarceration. Each man was in his twenties, isolated, suffered from depression, and known to be incredibly talented and compelled to hack. 

I hesitated to sign the petition calling for the removal of U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who along with Stephen Heymann some hold responsible for the death of Aaron Swartz. I don't want to shoot the messenger or join a mob calling for someone's head. I do believe in personal responsibility, which in Ms. Ortiz's career is coupled with professional responsibility in the form of prosecutorial discretion. There may be more to the case than I am privy to as a member of the general public but the truth is that one of the few forces that will rebuke a prosecutor is a public scandal. For there to be a public scandal, there must be a public scandalized. And so I signed the petition.