By Tom Cushing
In flagrante de Oh No!Uploaded: Apr 29, 2015
The law professor helpfully dashed-off an early morning e-note to her students ? "Here's a good article on briefs," then pasted the URL, signed-off and moved-on with her day. It was to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very, Very bad day.
Unfortunately, incredibly and hilariously (to some observers), the internet address in the note led students to a video ? the only briefs in which were promptly discarded ? in favor of an appliance for the adventuresome ? if you know what I mean, and I'm guessing you do. Even the video itself was not brief.* Quickly, the class, then the school, and then the entire internets exploded -- it was the biggest 'oops' since Governor Perry.
Who among us has not tasted that self-reproach ? the shame that sets-in when you realize you've done something publicly, irretrievably dumb? It may be relatively minor, as when you call a loved-one by a predecessor's name (context may affect consequences. I'm told), politically embarrassing ? a stray mike that records an unguarded moment, or career-altering ? as when you write that the boss is once again a grandstanding idiot, and then hit 'reply-all' by mistake.
And who among us wants our 'fifteen minutes' to be in-famous?
As the virus went epidemic, our prof was humiliated, promptly suspended pending investigation of her having potentially created a hostile work environment (law schools are remarkably cautious, thorough, and sometimes ridiculous ? she was cleared), and she felt compelled to anticipate the blowback her children might receive on her behalf, by having a hopefully age-appropriate conversation with them. Elsewhere, the porn site server broke under the strain, and the appliance maker likely hired extra staff.
What would you do? ** What would Olivia Pope do, after draining a very large glass of a very expensive cabernet?
What our prof did was to engage the Washington Post for an op-ed mea culpa , which instead blamed everybody else, and didn't even explain how it happened. It was serious in tone, poignant about the kids (one of whom feared that Mom was about to reveal that she had cancer), and attempted a shame-back by questioning the newsworthiness of the entire mess, and the ethics of those who had participated in it.
I think she made a mistake, of the 'purple elephant' variety. If you don't want people to think about purple pachyderms, by all means Do Not tell them not to think about them. By choosing to respond in a very public way, she widened the audience.
I also think she adopted a way-too-serious, and somewhat self-pitying tone. Thus, she both deepened the story and invited over-eager media types (and errant bloggers) to indulge her with further critique and commentary.
I have thought a little about this topic, worrying about a stray remark or off-hand joke in class, that might sound very different than it was intended or received, when viewed by others, in print. There's a limerick, for instance, told to my own law school class by my Property prof who was a giant in the field during that simpler time. It was useful in explaining the phrase "de minimis non curat lex" (obviously ? as I still remember it from a long time ago, although Latin was then still in conversational use). I don't use it any more in the classes I teach, precisely because I don't want to have to explain its use and pedagogical value, out of context. I wouldn't even have any excuse of inadvertence.
But, what if ? ? If I was Olivia Pope, my advice would be either to shrug-it-off, mostly in silence, or if write-you-must (and every attorney thinks s/he 'must'), then two elements are crucial. First ? take complete, utter and absolute blame for the accident. Anything less makes you look self-important, pitiful and vindictive. And second, be a good sport about it. Make it a 'mea gulpa.' Lightly apologize to anyone who hadn't seen this particular material covered in the syllabus, shake your head at the irony, and even shake a good-natured fist at the deities in-charge of the internet. But show yourself to be human, and the unlucky blunder out-of-character.
We fortunates who have not (yet) been tweaked by fate's fickle finger would do well to ponder our continuing grace ? and always proof-read -- as we live in dread of the day.
* Yes (the blogger sighed) ? I've seen it. Investigative journalism is Not dead. But you'll have to google it ? we're a family publication, after all.
** I mean that hypothetically, although porn-on-the-web is one of those things that 90% of people have seen, and 10% have lied-about.