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The Choices We Make

Again I’m here thinking, “Man, you really have to do more blogging.” But I’m not going to apologize: the reason this time is that I’ve been busily developing a different writing project. It’s something I’ve been thinkingabout doing for about a year now. There’s even been a little putting the pencil to the paper, as I have worked on the plan. Lately, I’ve been thinking it’s time to put fingers to the keyboard and get it done.

I haven’t wanted to say much about it for a variety of reasons, but I have decided to say something today for two reasons. One is that I hope stating publicly what I’ve been up to will shame me into keeping on with the project when I’m flagging. I’ll tell myself, “Dude,” — being a product of my times, I’m prone to calling myself “Dude” whenever I have a heart-to-heart with myself — “you really have to do this. Too many people know you’re supposedly working on it, so you have to finish it now.”

The other reason is related to why I’m working on the project: I don’t think we think enough, or do enough, about a serious problem impacting an increasingly larger segment of our youth. At least, that’s how it looks from where I sit.

A large portion of my practice — I haven’t actually quantified it, but I think it may vary between 30 to 40 percent at any given time — involves juvenile delinquency cases. Unlike many attorneys I know, I have decided to focus on “one” area of law in the sense that I only do criminal defense — no family law, personal injury, or immigration law for me — but I don’t focus solely on defending adult criminals.

I enjoy working with “kids” because, although I never had any, I seem to have a knack for talking to them, recognizing the ways in which most adults talk past them, and figuring out how to explain things to them. This includes immediately recognizing the need to explain “transitional” to my client, when a judge blithely tells him, “The transitional stage for most personalities leads to the greatest abashment and bewilderment for the majority of juvenile-type individuals.”

Well, okay, there might be a bit more than “transitional” that needs to be explained there. But that’s because I exaggerated a little bit: what the judge actually said was “The transitional stage will be the most difficult for you.”

As far as the kid was concerned, though, he might as well have made the other statement, above.

The point is that grown-ups — and many, though definitely not all, juvenile court judges probably qualify as grown-ups — apparently fail to recognize that even 17-year-old undereducated children don’t often understand what’s being said to, or about, them. One judge, quite famous for his verbosity in attempting to explain what he’s doing in excruciating detail because he truly wants everyone to understand, still doesn’t himself “get it” when it comes to understanding what works and what doesn’t when it comes to word choice, analogies, metaphors, etc.

One of my favorite philosophers, Donald Davidson, famously wrote about the “indeterminacy of interpretation,” even going so far as to state that “there is no such thing as language.”

The Davidsonian problem is nearly always on my mind when thinking about what happens in juvenile courts, for, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it,

A Davidsonian theory of meaning explicates the meanings of expressions holistically through the interconnection that obtains among expressions within the structure of the language as a whole. Consequently, although it is indeed a theory of meaning, a theory of the sort Davidson proposes will have no use for a concept of meaning understood as some discrete entity (whether a determinate mental state or an abstract ‘idea’) to which meaningful expressions refer.

Thus, Davidson’s theory highlights a problem:

The basic problem that radical interpretation must address is that one cannot assign meanings to a speaker’s utterances without knowing what the speaker believes, while one cannot identify beliefs without knowing what the speaker’s utterances mean.

I’ve said before that I’m something of a holistic thinker, and I think Davidson is a large part of the reason. (Although it is entirely possible that I was attracted to Davidson’s writings because I was already a holistic thinker.)

The juvenile courts in which I appear wouldn’t know Davidson from a hole in the ground. But that’s no biggee, because I suspect most other people wouldn’t, either. So, at least in this article, I’m not going to explicate all the ways I think an understanding of Davidson explains why (and how) “justice” goes awry in our courts. I’ll save my “Davidsonian Theory of Justice” for another day; another article.

The failure, however, to even remotely share belief systems — or to have the faintest inkling that their belief systems are fundamentally different — is why we have so much trouble just talking to these kids about things like “choices” and “decisions” and the difficulty of “transitioning” from one way of navigating life to another.

Which brings me back from my Davidsonian diversion to where I started this post: I haven’t been blogging as much because I’m working on another writing project. I appear, so far, to have an ability to talk to my juvenile clients in a language which, while imperfect, has helped some to adjust, to understand a few things, about a different way of navigating “the system,” and their lives. I enjoy talking to them about setting goals and figuring out how to avoid extended periods of incarceration, while not feeling like they’ve abandoned who they are in favor of who they think some judge is telling them they have to pretend to be.

One of the things I’ve learned is that many of these kids — maybe most — sincerely, honestly, do not realize that they can make choices that will alter the trajectory of their lives. The majority of them (easily) do not realize they got where they are because of the choices they have made.

And while the judges I’ve listened to are good at telling kids that they are there because of the choices they’ve made, neither the judges nor anyone else has even thought about the need to explain what that means, because they don’t understand the differences between the belief systems they hold and those held by these kids. So even when the courts and the kids use they same words, they aren’t really speaking the same language.

Over time, I’ve experimented with my own analogies and metaphors to explain the importance of choices — and to explain what it means to choose — but I’ve been a little frustrated because, for one thing, I can only reach one kid at a time and, for another, they have to be able to remember what we discuss — something which can be very difficult when they get dumped back into the environment that taught them they had no choices in the first place.

So I’m working on a book. I’m in love with the working title, which has given me a boost, and I’ve mapped out portions of the book. Now I just have to sit down and finish writing it.

And, hopefully, my choosing to tell you all that this is what I’m working on is going to help me keep to it and “get ‘er done.”

Because it will make it more real, make me feel stupid if I don’t finish it and because a year is long enough to just sit around thinking about writing.