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Standards of Value

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This is what my day is like.

I get up very early in the morning–around 4 or 4:30, usually.

I stuff enough caffeine in myself so that I am relatively functional.  Sometimes the emphasis is on “relatively.”

I sit down at the computer and write fiction.  Then I get grading and other schoolwork done.  Then I write this blog if I think of something to say. 

Then I have lunch.

In case you haven’t figured this out by now, by the time I get to “lunch” (around 1 to 2), I’m often in the state most of you are in at five, and it’s not like I’m done. 

I have one child still at home–there may be more, but I can never quite figure out what’s going on; there has to be some explanation for the fact that my refrigerator empties twice a week–and that one keeps insisting on being fed.  There are also things to do around the house, and errands, and all that other stuff.

What this means is that I hit four o’clock in the afternoon and it’s as if somebody hit me over the head with a two by four. 

I don’t know what it is about that particular hour of the day, but it’s as if I come to a complete stop.

I’m not the kind of person who can nap, unforunately.  I can lie down and go to sleep in the middle of the day, but if I do that I end up unable to get to sleep again until well after midnight, and sometimes after two. 

This is more trouble than it’s worth in a number of ways, so what I do instead is to wander into the house, fall down on the loveseat, grab the remote, and stare at whatever happens to be available on the television screen.

Note one of the issues here.  When I get this kind of tired, I’m capable of clicking the television on, but the entire process of changing channels bewilders me, so I don’t. 

For the last couple of weeks, what has been on the television at 4 in the afternoon has been Judge Judy. 

This confused me for a while, until I realized that Judge Judy airs on the same channel that carries my preferred local evening news.  All that was happening was that I was watching the local evening news and then nobody was ever changing the channel. 

Sometimes in the evenings I listen to jazz, or Koko Taylor, or that kind of thing.  Somehow, Coltrane in the morning doesn’t quite work out.

At any rate, I’d wander out, click the machine on, and there would be Judge Judy.

I haven’t much liked Judge Judy in the past.  The woman yells a lot, and sometimes she overrides people or prevents them from talking in ways that seem to me to be prejudicial to the interests of the people appearing before her.

She also sometimes has wrong ideas about reality–she doesn’t understand how some things work, but doesn’t realize she doesn’t understand.  That doesn’t help, either.

All of these things are still true, and I still find myself getting ridiculously annoyed at the woman on a regular basis, but in the late-afternoon semi-catatonia, I ‘ve started to notice something else.

I’ve started to notice the people who are appearing before her.

For those of you who know nothing about Judge Judy, Judith Scheindlin is a real judge in a real court–small claims, is my best guess–and the cases televised on the show are real cases, the adjudication of which have actual legal consequences.

They are not, however, cases that have come up willy-nilly by the luck of the draw of the docket.  The people who appear on Judge Judy elect to appear in her court and to abide by her decision.  I’m not sure how that works legally.

And I’m not sure what the self selection process is like.  The show actively solicits certain kinds of cases.  I don’t know who decides to have their suit play out on Judge Judy instead of in their local small claims court. 

The people in those case represent quite a range.  Most of them are white and what used to be called “working class” when I was younger, but there are poorer people and richer people.  There are people at almost all levels of education.  There are white people, black people, Latino people and Asian people. 

And most of them should know better. 

I presume that people who appear on this show do so either because they watch it (and therefore get the idea and the information to have their case heard there), or because they’ve been sued in this court by somebody who watches the show.  In the latter case, I’d think it would be a matter of self-preservation to make sure to watch a couple of episodes so that you’d know what you were in for.

Either that isn’t the case, or a lot of people have a lot of trouble making connections between what they see and what they ought to do.

Virtually every case involves at least one person on at least one side who has not brought any of the documentation they need to prove their contentions. 

What’s worse, their response to Judge Judy’s declaration that without documentation, they can’t win anything is to get petulant and resentful.   It’s as if asking for objective evidence of their claims is in and of itself a form of injustice. 

What’s more, they are adamant that their excuses are not just excuses but justifications–but I left it at home!  but the bank wouldn’t give me the documents!  I couldn’t help it!

It’s just not fair if it counts even when they couldn’t help it.

The other thing they all have in common is this:  they’re convinced that they have a right to do wrong things if a) there was no other way for them to get what they needed or b) the other person did something wrong to them and therefore deserved retribution.

I had to steal the 1500 from her wallet.  That was the only way I could get a car, and I needed a car to get a job!

Yes, I did go into his apartment when he wasn’t home and trash the place from floor to ceiling, but he was cheating on me with another woman and he called me fat and ugly!

So I’ve been looking at this and wondering, really, where it comes from.  They didn’t develop this sort of thing on their own.  Who gave them this sort of view of the world.

And then I realized.

I did.

I am at fault for it–personally at fault for it, in some cases–in two ways.

First, the idea that “I just couldn’t do it” means you shouldn’t be held accountable for it is the bottom line of education these days.  I know you said it had to be on white paper, but I only had yellow.  You can’t take off points for that.  I couldn’t help it. 

I know you said it was due Tuesday, but my car broke down and I couldn’t get to school.  You can’t fail me.  I couldn’t help it.

And those arguments get results–and if they don’t, and the student complains to an administrator, you’re likely to be pressured into letting it get results.

As to the thing about he did something bad to me, so I have a right to get my own back any way I want–it is, I think, the basic premise behind a lot of crime fiction these days, and some fantasy and science fiction as well.

It’s also the premise behind some fairly popular books and movies of what are supposed to be a more mainstream kind.  The First Wives Club, for instance (book and movie), operates on the premise that if you’re a middle-aged woman whose husband has left her for another woman, you’re justified in breaking into his private files to get business dirt on him, blackmailing him about both his public and private life to get the money to fund a Good Works project, and on and on and on.

And it’s not the only example.

Obviously, the world cannot run on people like this.  In the end, we have to have somebody who actually assumes responsibility and gets things done.

But we seem to have reached a place where we are actively producing this sort of thing, both within the classroom and without.

Written by janeh

June 8th, 2012 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Standards of Value'

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  1. I’ve been trapped in a room with Judge Judy once or twice. If the State Department is really concerned about America’s image abroad, it will buy up and sit on foreign syndication rights.

    Responsibility. Am I hearing echoes of PJ O’Rourke’s “whole college majors invented to prove no one is responsible for anything?” But two types of standard are involved. Your Type B standard is just a tad arbitrary. The papers are due Friday because the grades are due Wednesday and they can’t ALL be given incompletes, or graded Tuesday night. So the standard is, effectively, “due Friday unless you have a really good excuse.” Your Type A standard says you can’t be an infantryman if you can’t carry a 60-pound pack 20 miles and fight at the end of the march, you can’t be an interpreter if you aren’t fluent in both languages, and you can’t teach English comp if your grammar is shakey. This standard is completely unfair–but it’s inherent in the job description. The difficulty comes when someone conflates the two and wants a Type A standard–in this case, the judge can only rule on the evidence she has–as though it were a Type B.

    As for “I broke the law, but I was provoked” this really isn’t an excuse you’d expect to play well in front of a judge, who ought to have serious respect for the law. How well it ought to play elsewhere depends on how we regard the law–and whether there is any. A lot of westerns and a fair bit of science fiction take place in a sort of Israel of the Judges where every man does what is right in his own eyes.

    I think it may be growing more common in contemporaries, though. I don’t know how much of that comes from simple disrespect for standards and authority, and how much comes from a law code which seems less and less fair and comprehensible. Tony Rand in OATH OF FEALTY said “no one knows legal or illegal now except the lawyers, and they don’t know right from wrong.” Now that I think of it, the book could be regarded as a meditation on that sentence.

    I recommend the book, by the way. It’s full of people who assume responsibility and get things done–which is one of the reasons I spend time there. People like that are much better company than the ones who show up on Judge Judy.


    8 Jun 12 at 6:28 pm

  2. Oops! should be “wants a Type A standard to be treated as though it were a Type B” of course.


    8 Jun 12 at 6:29 pm

  3. The Judge Judy show is (for want of something better in the wasteland hours) a frequent choice at our house, and I admit to a certain guilty pleasure in occasionally watching her deal with that wonderful caste of characters that seem to have been drawn directly from Times Square or wherever it was that Damon Runyon found his weird mob. So she shouts a lot. Wouldn’t you? :-)

    This is the “Whatever!” generation – pumped full to bloating with self-esteem and almost entirely lacking in self-respect. I’m glad I no longer have to deal with them on a daily basis.


    8 Jun 12 at 9:30 pm

  4. As many as…counting on fingers…shit, as many as that?…23 years ago, I took an “Ethics in Journalism” class taught by Neal Shine, at that time publisher of the Detroit News. (did I mention I loved my University? they had GREAT teaching policies)

    And in that time when the dinosaurs walked, I was the ahem, returning (meaning ye olde farte) student among the fresh-faced youngsters. And I was frequently appalled during discussions when I found out nearly all these seemingly normal American twenty-year-olds thought it was okay to lie to someone if they were “a bad person.” Bad being undefined, of course.

    There was no concept of a lie being damaging to the spirit or integrity of the liar. In fact, few of them seemed to have a functional definition of integrity at all.

    It’s not terribly surprising to me that people who are the children of that generation have found ways to tell themselves that anything they want to do is in some way justified, acceptable, and reasonable. It certainly doesn’t seem that any egregious act makes the actor feel worse about him or herself. I guess all those “self-esteem programs” are having an impact.



    8 Jun 12 at 10:30 pm

  5. “But you didn’t tell me that!” is the reason our syllabi and practicum and internship handbooks have gotten so long. We have to spell out in black and white stuff that we had to learn at home in order to function in Kindergarten for the 20-somethings we are teaching today.

    We actually had to explain to a student a few years ago that she had failed a section of her comprehensive exams and had to take it over because she had made errors in her essays–and she complained that we hadn’t given her a rubric that pointed out that errors would be counted off for. On doctoral comprehensive exams. We didn’t tell her that errors were wrong. I’m still speechless about it.

    We had another student recently who accepted an internship, then later accepted another one and turned the first down. She complained that no one had told her that accepting an offer in writing was binding.


    Cathy F


    8 Jun 12 at 10:56 pm

  6. . . .The complaint our ancestors made, the complaint we make, the complaint our posterity will make, is that morality is overturned, that wickedness holds sway, and that human affairs and every sin are ending toward the worse.

    Yet these things remain and will continue to remain in the same position, with only a slight movement now in this direction, now in that, like that of the waves, which a rising tide carries far inland, and a receding tide restrains within the limits of the shoreline. Now adultery will be more common than other sins, and chastity will tear off its reins; now a furore for feasting and the most shameful scourge that assails fortunes, the kitchen, will prevail,
    and now excessive adornment of the body and the concern for its beauty that displays an unbeauteous mind; now ill-controlled liberty will burst forth
    into wantonness and presumption; and now the progress will be toward cruelty, on the part both of the state and of the individual, and to the insanity of civil war, which desecrates all that is holy and sacred; sometimes it will be drunkenness on which honour is bestowed, and he who can hold the most wine will be a hero.

    Vices do not wait expectantly in just one spot, but are always in movement and, being at variance with each other, are in constant turmoil, they rout and in turn are routed . . .

    SENECA, “Moral Essays” ON BENEFITS, I. ix. 5-x. 2 – I. x. 2-5


    9 Jun 12 at 7:16 am

  7. All true, Michael, except for that one word “slight” and the implicit notion that the changes take place of themselves.

    We worked very hard individually and as a matter of governmental policy to arrive at the Self Esteem society in which all standards are arbitrary and no one responsible for anything, and having large numbers of people who think that way has real and unpleasant consequences. It’s going to take at least as much work–and having our noses rubbed in those consequences–to dig our way out of this mess and go on to whatever our next error might be.


    9 Jun 12 at 7:56 am

  8. Gee, I didn’t know Seneca watched Jersey Shore….


    9 Jun 12 at 1:17 pm

  9. Robert, if its any comfort, the US isn’t alone. I’m drawing a pension from one of the funds mentioned in


    (superannuation fund = US pension fund)

    Ah well, I’m almost 76. With any luck I won’t be around in 10 years when it all collapses. The people who will have to dig their way out of the mess will be the grandchildren of the baby boomers.


    9 Jun 12 at 3:24 pm

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