While I’ve been out of town this past week, I’ve had the opportunity to do two things I don’t often get to enjoy: Watch daytime television (hence the subject line) and talk to people from rural parts of Texas. I made a new friend, kind of – this 21 year old ex-Marine from East Texas whom I’ve had lunch with a few times, often with the television on. Whenever CNN comes on, he moans about various government entitlement programs – “Obamacare”, the unemployment benefit extension, a commercial for a (kind of shady looking) personal injury lawyer who promises to get you Social Security benefits, etc, whatever they’ve been talking about for the past week. And, while Sumpter & Gonzalez has staff and attorneys of all different political persuasions, your blogger-in-chief is very much a liberal. My biggest problem with Obama’s health care bill is that it doesn’t offer single-payer, or at least a public option – you know, one of those liberals.
I tend to bristle when people heap scorn upon the notion of civil services, because in my experience, people who need those tend to need them – my friend who got laid off and has been collecting unemployment isn’t lazy, he’s struggling in a brutal economy; my uncle on Social Security isn’t a leech, he’s hurt, can’t do labor work full-time anymore; etc, etc. And I’ll admit it – when I heard my Marine friend talk derisively about the notion of entitlement programs, I assumed that he had a head full of opinions packed in by Glenn Beck and a knee-jerk, East Texas upbringing.
Yesterday, though, that commercial for a personal injury law firm came on, and he scoffed. “I know that guy,” he said. “Three of my friends have used him.” He then went on to describe people in his life who scam the system in various ways: who collect unemployment while working cash jobs, or get expenses covered by both insurance and Social Security, stuff like that. And that Judge Judy line came into my head – by insisting that people who receive benefit payments are really just good people who fell on hard times, I’m kind of peeing on this guy’s leg and telling him it’s raining (um, metaphorically speaking). Anybody with his experiences is likely to come to the conclusion that entitlement programs are a scam and a way for lazy people to take advantage of the government and, by extension, his tax money. It’s hardly a knee-jerk reaction.
And this comes up in countless ways in criminal justice discussions. It’s worth remembering – someone whose experience is that they used to hang around with a crowd that liked to get into fights with cops isn’t going to be inclined to believe it when we tell them about the police, say, attacking a cyclist without provocation. He’s seen people get beat up by cops, and in his experience, they provoked it. (Yeah, that’s another example from my Marine friend.) And, while we can argue with them, or opine about how wrong-headed they are, because we can document countless examples of police brutality without ever leaving YouTube, all we’re really doing is peeing on their legs and telling them it’s raining.
Even though I’m not an attorney, I’m pretty good at winning arguments – one thing writers and lawyers share is a love for rhetoric – but I haven’t beaten the 21 ex-Marine I’ve been eating lunch with in an argument about this stuff. I won’t extend Judge Judy’s metaphor to the point that it gets gross(er), but I have noticed that the only time we’ve been able to really communicate on these topics has been when I acknowledge that, no, it’s not raining – he’s right, insofar as his experience takes him. Then he’s a little more willing to hear that maybe there are other people with other experiences.