Friday, July 11, 2014

Stand Your Ground (but not with a gun)

Back when I was in middle school, I had to take a law class. Seriously, it was a requirement because of the program I was in. It was titled something like "Introduction to Law" and was meant as a government-type course with an emphasis on the legal system and how it works. Toward the end of the course, one of the things we had to do was re-enact court cases, the idea being that if we had learned what we were being taught, we would come away from those re-enactments with the same decisions as the courts did.

Here's the summation of the case I want to talk about:
Two men go into a convenience store to rob it. Man #1 has a gun; Man #2 doesn't know Man #1 has the gun. The robbery doesn't quite go as planned, and Man #1 pulls out his gun and shoots the clerk. The clerk dies. Generally speaking, this is first degree murder because the man willfully took the gun into the store; basically, he planned to use it if necessary. The question was whether Man #2 was guilty of the same crime. Remember, he didn't know about the gun.

I'll pause for a moment to give you a chance to consider. Pretend the Jeopardy music is playing. Or something. In fact, here you go:

So... Once we had re-enacted the case, which resulted in a "not guilty" verdict, we were asked to give our own opinions on what the outcome should have been. All of the class said the outcome should have been "not guilty." All of the class but me, that is. First, all of my classmates started giving me a hard time; I was the only one who said the man was guilty so I must be wrong. How could I be the only one with the correct answer, as it were? Then, my teacher started pressuring me: "Are you sure you don't want to change your mind?" And here was the hard part; she had everyone that believed "guilty" stand on one side of the room (that would be me) and everyone that believed "not guilty" go stand on the other (that would be the 35 or so other students in the class). I'm not sure I can adequately relate what it's like to be in that circumstance. To be the only one standing up for something against a wall of your peers telling you that you're wrong.

But here's the thing:
Their decision was based on what they felt was fair. Basically, it wouldn't be fair for the man to be found "guilty" since he hadn't known about the gun. They were having an emotional response to the situation.
My decision was based on this law that said, in short, that the man was guilty of the same crime as Man #1, whether he knew about the gun or not, because he had participated in the crime.

As it turned out, Man #2 had been found guilty just as Man #1 had been because of the law. I was the only one in the room that had looked at the facts and made an objective decision based on those facts. And, as it turned out, my teacher had pressured me because, as she said, that's sometimes what happens on juries, especially if deliberations have been going on a long time and the jurors just want everything to be over. Basically, she wanted to see if I would cave under the pressure (and she allowed it to be a lot of pressure, almost two full class periods).

But I stood my ground, because I had actual facts sitting in front of me, so to speak. And that's not the only time I've been in that position in my life. By a lot. But that is one of the best examples of having to stand on your own against everyone else that I have ever experienced or seen. Man, I hated middle school.

So what am I saying here? That you should always just demand that you are right no matter how many people stand up against you and tell you that you're wrong? Well, no. But I am saying that you shouldn't back down just because everyone else is saying that you're wrong. Mostly, I'm saying to look at the facts, the data, all of the information. Make a decision based on those facts, not with your emotions. If you've made the best decision you can based on the information at hand (not how you feel about that information), you shouldn't change your mind just because everyone else says you should. Especially if they are appealing to you on an emotional level (and let me tell you, appealing on the basis of what is "fair" is about as emotional as you can get: "fairness" is rarely objective). Now, if someone comes to you with actual fact, data, whatever, you should certainly look at it, evaluate it, and, maybe, revise your thinking. But just remember: Being the only one on a side, does not make you wrong.

Having said all of that, for you writers out there, this is the same way you need to approach your manuscripts. The hardest part of that is to remove as much of your own emotion as you can so that you can evaluate your work as objectively as possible, then put your emotion back in and ask yourself the question, "Do I like this? Is it something I would want to read if someone else wrote it?" If you can say yes to those questions, it doesn't really matter what anyone else says about your work. And, if you can say yes to those questions, it can give you the strength to stand alone through the rejections and the pressure to change.


  1. A great analogy, Andrew. It must have taken some bottle to not cave! I once sat in on the court case of a close friend who I knew wasn't guilty (he was found not-guilty) and the way the prosecution twisted the facts shocked me to the core. It made me wonder what I would have thought if I were a jury member. Of course, I had an emotional attachment. I'd like to think as a jury member I'd have looked only at the facts. That I wouldn't let my emotions colour my decisions.

  2. Technically you were right, the way the law is written. The conviction would've been the same, although the sentence might've been different.

  3. So much subjective stuff goes into juries. I remember seeing an episode of Dateline where jurors after the case were saying a woman was guilty because she didn't LOOK sad enough. The flip side is if she'd gone in wearing sackcloth and ashes and bawling her eyes out they'd complain she was putting on an act. They say the system is impartial but people are people so it definitely isn't.

  4. Engaging in a solid debate is difficult these days. It is all emotion and name calling, some of which is due to television news and much is due to the internet. The loss of thought in society is appalling.

  5. I agree with Anne that there is an apalling lack of thought in society. I've noticed that on tv lately they've taken to explaining simple concepts that only a few years back would need no explaination. With all our free and easy access to information these days, I really think we've gotten stupider.

  6. Yep, if someone dies while you participate in a crime, even if you didn't have the gun, you're just as guilty as the one who pulled the trigger.

    It's very tough to stand alone and insist you're right. Hard to do. A little easier to do with the MS, though. You don't have to succumb to other people's opinions. You can be a dictator if you want to. :)

  7. You need to watch 12 Angry Men - amazing movie and I think you'll identify with the Henry Fonda character very quickly.

  8. Ellie: "Taken some bottle": I haven't heard that phrase before.
    It's hard to not let emotions weigh in; actually, it's impossible to not let them weigh in, but some people are also able to apply facts and data and not rely on the emotions.

    Alex: Technically right is all there is, because that is being right. Generally speaking, conspirators in a crime are held to be -equally- as guilty as the person that commits the crime and suffer the same fate.

    Pat: Yeah, I agree. It's like with how we still hold eye witness testimony to be the best evidence there is (even above factual data like DNA and finger prints) even though studies continue to show that eye witness testimony is unreliable at best.

    Anne: I'm not sure that's any different from how it's always been. Emerson felt the same way about society when he was alive.

    Eve: We have certainly given up the idea of storing information in our heads to some extent. On the one hand, I can understand that because why memorize the periodic chart when you can look it up almost instantaneously? I don't think, though, that we think less. Most people just don't think and most people never have.

    L.G.: It is tough. And I'm not sure it's easier to do with your manuscript. I wouldn't read about so many people trying to adopt every suggestion from their CPs and betas if it was easier.

    TAS: I'm sure I've seen that, but it's been a long time. Like 30 years. Or more. I should watch it again.

  9. Pitting kids against each other seems kind of like a cruel thing to do to kids in Middle School, but good for you for standing your ground, with the case and your writing. By the time I get halfway through writing my WIPs, I hate them, but I try to keep on writing and then revising anyway.

  10. Lexa: Do you hate them because you are tired of them or because you think they are no good? We frequently have to deal with our daughter over "hating" particular foods when what she actually means is "I'm tired of that." It can an important distinction to make.

  11. To critique anything you have to be able to step away from it Andrew.

  12. Yes, stand your ground if you opinions are based on facts! I know it happens to everywhere, but it especially pulls at my heartstrings when I see this happen to little girls. Like their decisions or opinions are often tested or peer pressure is very strong.

    Good job, yo! It's like science -- it doesn't matter if you feel it's right, if the facts are there, it's right whether you believe it or not. The judicial system is a little different, but hopefully that's what judges and discernible people are here for.

  13. Maurice: Um, yes? But I don't understand how what you're saying relates to what I said.

    Jean: Unfortunately, too many people discard facts in favor of what appeals to them emotionally. Or cherry pick their facts to fit into their emotional position.

  14. When you have the facts, it doesn't matter what you -feel-. I think that's a lot of what's wrong with people, these days, ....they're so worried about "feelings" that they don't always look at all the facts.

    Great analogy!

  15. Mark: Or they allow their feelings to pose as facts. Unfortunately, once people have decided something, in most cases, it doesn't matter what the facts say.

  16. It's a great film - one of my all-time favorites.

  17. I'm going to go stick it on my list, right now, so that I don't forget.

  18. Really enjoyed this one, Andrew. Great analogy. I'm glad you stood up for your answer, despite that pressure. I had a similar experience in an art class, but without quite so many eyes looking at me (instead they were looking at the teacher).

  19. Alex H: I'm glad you liked it. Now I want to know your art story.

  20. Well, I'll try to keep it short.

    Basically, I was taking a Compositions art class, and we were on a unit for shading in B&W, and using values to build the image.

    At the beginning of the unit, the teacher said each student would need to buy a set of graphic lead pencils. (2H-2B)

    When I went to the art store, I saw that the cheapest pencils ran at around $40. Well, I didn't feel it was worth my money to buy that, when I was (and always had been) perfectly comfortable using a regular writing pencil.

    So, I did my still life with a writing pencil.

    I didn't expect anything to come from it, but when it was time to show our projects, my teacher singled mine out, out of all of the other sketches, and talked about how GREAT the different values were.

    He sort of went on and on about the blending technique, and the overall smoothness, and then stopped at the end to ask me what brand I'd used.

    I said, "Eagle."

    He stared at me blankly for a minute, and then asked a little more quietly, "You mean, the yellow pencil?"

    "Uh-huh...." I'd really been too embarrassed to stop him early on, and at this point I felt bad.

    "With the pink eraser?"


    "....Oh, well don't I feel like a moron."

    In the end, though it must have been awkward for him, it reaffirmed my conviction that you don't need the "fancy" tools to do something right or even better.

    I like my yellow pencils.

  21. Alex: I'm with you. "Better" materials don't make up for skill.