Today I Learned – 10/19/16

Today I Learned how to respond virtuously upon being made aware of displeasing words that someone may have said about me, thanks to Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig (who, unbeknownst to me also ran for president at one point, but that’s a different topic).

In recent weeks, WikiLeaks has been releasing an avalanche of Hillary Clinton’s private emails, including correspondence between her close aides. In one email thread, two political aides named John Podesta and Neera Tanden are expressing their contempt for Lessig, describing him with some unpleasant words, like “pompous” and “smug[ness].” Thanks to WikiLeaks, what was intended as a personal and private exchange between two high-profile individuals was now open to the public for scrutiny.

Now, given the disappointingly low standards of today’s public discourse and the tendency of an otherwise sane media to scrutinize and dramatize every peccadillo of public figures, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that this exchange would be the next new short-lived scandal to take over our headlines. Perhaps Lessig, who is a strong advocate for campaign finance reform, would use it as an opportunity to take a political jab at Clinton?

The news of this exchange eventually reached Lessig’s attention, and to the surprise of many, he responded in such a manner that was so extraordinarily composed and refreshingly professional that it deserved to be recognized as lesson for us all. Here’s a quote of what he said:

I’m a big believer in leaks for the public interest. That’s why I support Snowden, and why I believe the President should pardon him. But I can’t for the life of me see the public good in a leak like this — at least one that reveals no crime or violation of any important public policy.

We all deserve privacy. The burdens of public service are insane enough without the perpetual threat that every thought shared with a friend becomes Twitter fodder.

Neera has only ever served in the public (and public interest) sector. Her work has always and only been devoted to advancing her vision of the public good. It is not right that she should bear the burden of this sort of breach.

To me, not only was this response principled and virtuous, but it also showed a type of class rarely seen in public discourse.  Lessig showed us the importance of overlooking privately expressed personal remarks in favor of prioritizing a commitment to the greater public good, whilst affirming the rights of others to express those remarks, however unpleasant they may be. He begins his statement by proclaiming his support for leaks that benefit public interest, and follows it up by shunning the type of leaks (like this one) that bring no benefit for the public. He then affirms his universal support for the privacy rights of every individual, and reminds us that there is already much at stake for those working in public service for their every private statement to be scrutinized.

Finally, he concludes by doing contrary of what many of us would expect; instead of retaliating against Neera, or even just dismissing her, he praises her for her good work in public service and scorns the notion that she should be attacked for her privately expressed thoughts.

I am not a politician or a public figure, but this definitely led me to reflect upon similar such instances in my life — whether it was with family, friends, or coworkers — and how I responded. How did I respond when I I was made aware of disparaging comments made about me in private? What was my attitude towards the person who made those comments? What was my attitude towards the individual who made me aware it in the first place? I think the lessons imparted from Lessig’s response are definitely worth pondering over and serve as a great reminder for how to manage our everyday relationships with people and the public.

-Asad

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