Law School Deans, Law Schools

Your Mother Is . . . Going to Law School

Ed. note: Frank H. Wu is the Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He’ll be sharing some of his thoughts about legal education and other topics here on Above the Law.

For a long time, I was young. Now, however, I am old enough to have contempt for the young. It turns out I am not alone. Anyone approximately my age laughs when I inform them I have reached this milestone.

Despite their desire that we all lighten up and their conviction we are peers, youth today — like youth of any era — take umbrage at this remark. What can I say. They have no sense of humor.

When I participate in the blogosphere, I wonder if the world is about to end. The lament about internet discourse has become cliched. It is angry, communicating hardly anything more than grunting. Even those who wish to be meaningfully provocative cannot compete.

Yet maturity is all about realizing one is wrong. I take it all back. I realize I am not understanding the norms…

The late Marshall McLuhan deserves even more credit as a prophet than he received in his heyday when he made a cameo appearance in a Woody Allen movie to explain his theories. The medium is the message. Or as has been attributed to him: “I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say.”

As it happens, almost all of my academic career was at Howard University. I learned as much as I taught, there at the nation’s leading HBCU (historically black college/university). My wife had to remind me not to be presumptuous. I should not feel that I actually understood the diversity of black experiences.

I was exposed, however, to “playing the dozens” or “snaps.” You know, the escalating exchange of “your mother is . . .”

To outsiders, this contest of insults could seem, well, insulting — if not actually alarming. To those who came up within the culture, the competition is a form of “call and response.” It has traditions, and it is an important ritual. Practiced properly, it instills self-discipline because a player cannot take the sayings seriously; only a loser loses self-control. Better to be fast and funny.

That is why I have decided to look at the internet as if it were a giant round of the dozens. That isn’t to excuse everything that wastes bandwidth: there is virtual racism, sexism, homophobia and stupidity — just as there is all around us in its real form. It is to adapt to the style of a forum that functions with its own dynamic rules.

So here I am at Above the Law. I’m still waiting for Elie Mystal to walk at least five miles with me . . .

Language, law, life, it all changes.

Frank H. Wu is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. He also is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (affiliate link).

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