Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Reflections on Chief Justice John Roberts' address to his son's private school

"Now, the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you," (Chief Justice of the U.S Supreme Court John) Roberts said. "I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty." (Katie Reilly, Time, July 5, 2017)

Roberts was speaking to the New Hampshire Cardigan Mountain School for boys in grades 6-9 on June 3. Of course, the speech has garnered a considerable social media following, primarily for its unconventionality. It could not be because it is so outrageous? After all, this is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, the same court that opened the gates to unfettered campaign cash as an expression of “free speech” in its Citizens United decision.

Given the human tendency to fail, to betray, to disappoint, to let down and to violate and invade and to alienate and detach into insouciance, there is a little doubt that Roberts’ hope will not be so fulfilled in the lives of those boys as to wonder why he needed to say it. However, put in the context of our also human preference to deny, avoid, dismiss, run away from and generally to refuse to acknowledge our many shortcomings, there is a kernel of wisdom in the nugget.

Getting attention for an unconventional stance is something in which  the Chief Justice has some experience. He disappointed conservatives in not blowing up Obamacare when it was challenged in the Supreme Court.

In his A Time for Judas, Morley Callaghan, the Canadian writer, postulates that Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, was necessary for the events of the crucifixion and resurrection to unfold as they were to. And for some inspiration for the betrayer in each of us, the novel has a measure of salve. And even all of us other betrayers have the hope and promise of forgiveness and redemption. There is a reasonable doubt, however, that young boys in grades six through nine can be expected to integrate and assimilate fully the weight of the Roberts’ hope without jaundicing its honourable intent.

Young boys aspire to be healthy men naturally. And, in order to don the heavy mantel of masculinity, especially in the contemporary culture, requires not only a strong sense of self to be able to face difficulty, disappointment and failure….and in the American culture, “brush yourself off and get back up to fight again”. It also requires a sound foundation of hope, optimism, attainable dreams, and even dreams that might exceed one’s grasp (else what’s a heaven for?)

Not only is human existence more than replete with failure, betrayal, disappointment and unfairness (so none of these boys will ever have to look for any of such experiences) the premise that justice depends on a population who has experienced first hand the pain of betrayal, unfairness, disappointment and failure. To presume that loyalty relies on betrayal, unfairness and disappointment is, in a word, nothing short of specious. And justice and loyalty do not comprise the touchstone of a mature, healthy and compassionate society, no matter how loud and how long the cry from the Chief Justice might be. Justice and loyalty are not ends in themselves; they are but means to more aspirational dreams of an existence that is not governed primarily, and certainly not exclusively by laws. And this is true not only in terms of one’s faith and religion but also in terms of one’s affiliation into the streets, classrooms, operating rooms, factories and trains and buses of our lives.

If man-made, man-written and man-defended laws represent the highest achievements of human kind, then we are a sorry and tragic lot, in a desperately sacrificed culture and political ethos. Laws are not the sole embodiment of justice and loyalty, yet they comprise a sizeable proportion of those words.

While it is true that most of the best in human artistic achievement, comedy, scientific discoveries and explorations of the many frontiers have floated on the shoulders of extreme discipline, hardship, some unfairness and disappointment, without these rocks or grains of sand fully compromising the “gears” of the people or the projects. And the experience of going through such exigencies develops the willingness and the skill to seek support, counsel, guidance and the perception that threats are indeed opportunities, just as the Chinese mantra has held for centuries.

However, to reduce an address to young boys to some old testament theatre of judgement, in order to develop the kind of character that values justice and loyalty is to make many faulty and disputable assumptions. First, there is the missing ingredient of human psychology that grows its best self through a combination of supportive and challenging narratives. It is to the extremes of both justice and loyalty that Roberts has to be referring. And rather than a kind of trump-like tweet that arrests the attention of these young men, Roberts might have asked for a show of hands of those who believe they had been betrayed. Following that evidence, he might then have asked, “What does the experience of being treated unfairly or betrayed make you want to do in your own life?”

Answers might have ranged from punch the guy in the nose, all the way to doing what they could to prevent such a situation from repeating. The “hard-assed,” “hard-nosed” shock value of the justice’s rhetoric may demonstrate his need for magnetizing his young adolescent audience. Yet, he has also likely created some quite different potential outcomes.

Young minds could turn the “hope” around in their dorm to justify their own act of betraying one of their classmates.  They could also grow a more hardened heart and perception of the way the world works, before they are mature enough to manage that reality in a healthy and hopeful and optimistic manner.

And then there is the question of the status of justice and loyalty on the human totem of ethical and moral values. Aspiring to justice and loyalty, hardly the crown of human values, reduces the expectations, not only of the individuals listening, but more importantly of the surrounding culture. It is not only the immediate male adolescent audience that risks sliding more easily and justifiably into rationalizing betrayal, long before they are mature enough to transform the experience into a golden moment of growth and insight. 

Also as a Christian who knows and believes that it is unrestrained and unconditional love, including forgiveness and restorative justice, that frees us all from the shackles of inferiority, self-loathing, insecurity and the many sources of the very unfairness and betrayal that we project onto others, often unconsciously, Roberts, as a practicing Roman Catholic, ought to know better. However, to have let or even to have encouraged the pursuit of justice, in its narrow or broadest definition. to trump the value of compassion, and agape and storge love, is a step too far. Of course, there will be those (and Roberts may include himself here) who finesse agape and storge love into justice and loyalty, merging the experiences into one.

And that too would be another step too far. The human capacity as a social animal far outstrips the boundaries, expectations and limitations of justice and loyalty. And for the Chief Justice to minimize the imaginations of these young boys though the power and the authority of his profession and his legal status, (they would have been overawed by his mere presence!) warrants push back not only from mere scribes but also from his colleagues and peers on the Court.

Language does really matter in the formative education of young children. And the sensibilities of speakers like Mr. Justice Roberts, whose son was in his audience, need to be enhanced, not only for these young minds and hearts, but also for the long-term future of his country.

The legal system, its case methodology and evidence-based tradition, including the obscurity and ambiguity of its unique forms of expression, cannot be permitted to take precedence over the poets, the prophets and the shamans who are not circumscribed by the functional parameters of justice and loyalty. And that pertains not only to the content of their arguments but also to the language of their decisions and public presentations.

Function, Dear Mr. Justice, is not the highest aspiration or ideal of human existence even he function of pursuing justice and loyalty. Performance, Dear Mr. Roberts, is not the summation or the highest peak of our spiritual lives and aspirations. Seeking justice and loyalty, while significant, relevant and worthy of the public discourse and debate, is not and never will be the expression of our highest imaginative reach. And while they separately and together may offer a means and a pathway to the silence of the mind and heart  that is at the core of the mystics’ discipline and the prophets’ mountain, they will forever provide a pathway of  and to the mediocre, the intellectual and the extrinsic arena of human existence.

There is also an “absolute” quality to the justice’s exhortation to the experience of unfairness and betrayal. Most adults take years if not decades to unpack their previous betrayals, especially those like an unfair strapping at school, or a dishonest and unprofessional letter of reference displaying an abuse of clinical diagnostics far above the qualifications of the writer. To be told sometime between ages 10 and 14 that more betrayal is to be hoped for, could have been a catalyst for an even deeper depression.
Of course, when we have reached maturity, and have grown in experience, reflection and shifted expectations, and can begin to unpack those traumatic memories, in order to find the “gold” hidden therein, we can then, and only then, fully appreciate the misplaced wisdom of the chief justice.

It is not that he lied or dissembled with those boys; he merely failed to take full cognizance of their age and receptivity of his homily.


Let’s hope those young boys were less than enamoured with the presence and the “wisdom” of their honoured guest speaker. With them, more than with their guest, lie the best hopes and the highest dreams of their generation.

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