The Silver Asshole Of The Month Award To The Cornell Senior Lecturer And His Anonymous Student

You may have heard from Legal Blog Watch (here and here) that we’re giving a Golden Asshole Award once a month to the individual making the greatest contribution to reducing assholishness in the [legal] profession. See You Park Like an Asshole here.  The prize is a free copy of A is for Asshole, the Grownups’ ABCs of Conflict Resolution.

Today we’re creating a Silver Asshole Award for the individuals (there will always be two) who best illustrate the proposition that an asshole is not a person but a behavior and not one person but two.  Given the reduced qualifications for the Silver Medal, we’ll be sending the winners a .pdf of the first chapter of the ABCs – A is for Asshole.  This month’s winners are an unidentified yawning student at Cornell (whose name, rank and serial number I will keep confidential if s/he wishes to pick up the prize) and his/her professor, Senior Lecturer Mark Talbert.

What is an Asshole?

As the first chapter of the ABCs of Conflict explains, an “asshole” is a person who has broken the social compact of civility. Because uncivil behavior tends to lead to fisticuffs, everyone tends to discourage it and many people make an example of others who engage in it.  Take the unwritten folk rule of “first in time, first in right.”  The guy who steals another motorist’s parking place is violating that rule. He doesn’t own the space, but he’s been waiting the longest for it so he gets to grab it before anyone else. This “first in time, first in right” rule is so important to us that people are killed every year in fights over parking spaces. (see, e.g., Detective Killed in Fight for Parking Space).

Break these rules and people lose it.  

Another folk rule meant to avoid the violence that can arise from incivility is the imperative that we do not shout at one another no matter what the provocation. We do not use profanity and we do not hurl insults or epithets at the other guy’s crew. Check out “R is for Romeo” in the ABCs of Conflict Resolution for the fatal consequences of the Prince’s failure to police uncivil behavior on the streets of Verona.

Rarely, however, does anyone violate these rules without provocation. If our dinner party companion interrupts our story about our trip to Viet Nam to tell his story about his trip to Aspen, he’s breaking a different turn-taking rule ~ the one that says conversation is a dialogue not a monologue. Everyone gets to talk and everyone gets to be heard.  Shoot, that’s pretty much a complete distillation of procedural due process!

The Story at Hand

The story of the Cornell “Professor” (sic) shouting at a yawning student is all over the news, the blogosphere and the social networks (Facebook, Twitter and the like) this week.  A teacher who shouts at his students may be uncivil, but it rarely makes the local, let alone the national, news.  Nevertheless, the Huffington Post picked up the story last week in an item entitled Cornell Professor Freaks Out.  This unremarkable event did not became news because it happened. It became news because it was uploaded to YouTube. (“The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, the way we look to us all, oh yeah.”)

The “Teaching Moment”

The Huffington Post correspondent purposely – for “news” value – or inadvertently – due to Fundamental Attribution Error (?) – mis-told the story of the Cornell “Professor.”  If you watch the video, and listen to it very carefully, you’ll hear a “yawn” that seems more one of derision than an unstifled inhalation arising from sleep deprivation. If you listen to the “Professor’s” rant, you’ll also hear him say that this is not the first time he’s suffered this particular form of disrespect. He wants to know who the yawner is and demands his identity.  When that tactic fails, he tries talking about civility.  But his inability to out the miscreant only makes things worse. He asks his students for help.  They sit mum.

Then he loses it.

Why We Care

The Cornell professor video has been viewed 482,366 times.  Other videos of everyday, non-newsworthy uncivil behavior include the incident in the car park (3,360,599 views); the old lawyer fight (297,252 views); and, the bus driver fight with the kid (21,602,339 views).

Why are we drawn to this behavior?  Is it simply the car-wreck phenomenon? Rubber-neckers at freeway accidents, we are horrified but morbidly interested in this brief preview of a catastrophic loss we all fear. Seeing the wreckage allows us to continue believing that misfortune of this magnitude is visited upon others, not ourselves.

                        author

Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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