Practicing The Law without lawyers

The great irony of electronic media is how anti-social they have made us. Technology has taught us to isolate ourselves. Conflicts between “friends” that could once be resolved face-to-face over a cup of coffee now blow up into courtroom conflicts between strangers. Two examples made the news recently.

James Damore, a Google software engineer, was fired because he opined via interoffice memo that women couldn’t do certain technical jobs as well as men. Broadcasting this stereotype soon caused a cascade of consequences for him and his employer. So why was he fired? Consider: what woman engineer at Google would ever want to work with him on a project? This rejection of him would thus restrict the company’s teambuilding options and challenge morale—thus productivity. Google issued these reasons publicly after firing Damore. Could it be that the public nature of this controversy forced the company to act precipitously? Might this matter have been solved more productively had Mr. Damore’s superiors shared those reasons with him as part of a warning instead of firing him so quickly? Maybe they could have invited him to lunch with one of the company’s most capable female software engineers for a little humble pie with his coffee.

Our electronic communications can become part of our permanent record, and regrettable comments, even via e-mail, can live forever. A Wall Street Journal article  is the source of our second example. It reported that executives in the male-dominated venture capital industry are nervously examining their past behavior in front of female tech executives whose companies represent fat business deals for those execs. Sexual harassment and exploitation cases are booming in the VC industry as a result—no doubt spurred by landmark cases such as the one involving comedian Bill Cosby.

Humanity’s deadly sins—especially lust, greed and pride—committed between strangers, are preventing mutual understanding between colleagues. A little old-fashioned in-person interfacing might have short circuited many such landmark harassment lawsuits. This Sunday’s mass readings demonstrate the ancient art of moral suasion—a divinely-taught skill that assigns moral responsibility to both sides of a conflict. It dates as far back as the prophet Ezekiel, as the first reading shows (Ez 33:7-9):

But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

Death would be a pretty harsh penalty for a social media faux pas, but it’s almost impossible to pierce the pride of someone who plants himself deeply in the mud of an online debate that’s open to all comers. Those mind-numbing forums and againstums never end well—and seemingly never end. I like the solution Jesus prescribes in Matthew’s gospel from which we read this Sunday (Mt 18:15-20):

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.

If he refuses to listen even to the church? Jesus doesn’t recommend death, but it’s the closest thing to social death in his day:

“Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

But we don’t just shun someone today. As the two news article we cited indicate, some go as far as enlisting the help of lawyers—who rank right down there with tax collectors on some people’s popularity scale—to ruin their online foes. The 10 Commandments are laws designed to protect us from our deadly sins, but only one of those commandments, properly observed, is powerful enough to do the work of all the others and make a court of law moot, as St. Paul told the Romans in the letter we read from this Sunday (Rom 13:8-10):

“Whatever other commandment there may be are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

That’s a good thing to remember before hitting “send” and inspiring the next landmark legal battle.

–Tom Andel

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