RESPECT FOR THE LAW
Ivan Hoffman, B.A., J.D.
Something seemed to have shifted some decades ago and part of that something that seemed to shift was that we seemed, collectively, to lose a respect for the law. Maybe it was the assassinations of the ‘60’s, or the way war protesters were treated in the 70’s or the abuses that appeared to result from the freedom from governmental regulation of the 80’s. Maybe it was something else or a combination of somethings else but whatever it was, it appears to me, as both an attorney for a good part of the above time span and an observer of legal behavior, that many people appear to have lost their respect for the law.
Let me define what I mean by “respect for the law.” This is not merely the adherence to the letter of the law or even to the spirit of the law. That we all must do and thus that is a given. However, merely complying with the law is not the same as respecting the law. Respect for the law of course includes complying with the law but respect for the law goes beyond that threshold. Complying with the law does not of necessity include respecting the law but respecting the law does include complying with the law.
In its simplest incarnation, the difference can be summarized as follows: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Respect for the law is not merely not doing something negative but is actually doing something positive. Respect for the law is behaving in such a way that you act affirmatively to manifest a respect the law. Respect means that we behave with deference and esteem, even awe for the law, and with a sense that the law has value over and above the immediacy of the application of the law in a given situation. It means that we nurture the law, help the law to evolve and in turn allow the law to help us evolve as well. Without law there can be no civilization. Indeed, it is the law that creates civilization.
The law is now and always has been a reflection of the values of the society in which it is found. But in truth there is no such thing as “society.” Society is merely the totality of the input that all of us, individually and through our institutions such as media, business and the like, create. The world is simply all of us added together. “Society” includes as well all of those same inputs of everyone who came before us including parents, grandparents and others not related to us individually. But in the end, all of that input came from a person, not a thing called “society.” Some person created each value that we now attribute to “society.” When enough of us adopted that same value, it seemed to become some sort of accepted truth. Some of those “truths” became our law.
Thus the law is a reflection of each of our individual values, writ onto the larger canvas that we, for convenience if not literal correctness, call society. Having a “thing” to blame it on excuses our individual responsibility. We are the law in a very real sense. We are part of its creation and it reflects who we are.
It follows that if the law is reflective of our individual values, then we have to examine those individual values and how we thus play a part in the shaping of the “societal” values. It requires a sense of ourselves. It requires a sense of our individual power and yes, responsibility for who we are as a “society” and the laws that reflect that society.
But the law is an elusive and indeed, in many instances, a fragile thing. There is no “one size fits all” concept of the law. These qualities are part of its beauty. It can be molded to fit a wide variety of situations. However, that elusiveness makes some people uncomfortable since we often seek constancy. We would often like to have things “carved into a stone wall” as it were. But it is the very nature of the law being so elusive that gives it its power to have lasted as long as it has in this country.
The fragility of the law is due, in large part, to the fact that there actually is no law outside of that which we elect to have as law. The law is not self-fulfilling. Writing some statute into a code book, having a court interpret a law, does not make anything happen. Law only is effective to the degree that we, the individuals who make up our society, elect to have it be effective. We are totally responsible for the continuation and effectiveness of the law. If enough of us agree the law or a given aspect of the law is not reflective of who we are as a society, that law goes unenforced or in some instances, is repealed or overruled by court decision. As but a few examples, counting slaves as 3/5ths of a “free person” was included in the original Constitution (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3) because it was reflective of the dominant attitude of at least the more powerful segments of society at the time, later to be amended out of existence, at least in law. “Separate but equal” while set forth as a standard in 1896 in Plessy vs. Ferguson, was found to be invalid in 1954 in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka because the prevailing attitudes of society had changed. Prohibition was enacted by Constitutional amendment and then repealed by the same process since it was found that the vast majority of those in this country refused to have their morals determined by the act of a few.
As we collectively and individually go through the transitions that are now and will remain an integral part of the development of the Internet in particular and the law in general, each of us must examine what role we play in those transitions. This may make some uncomfortable since we are not generally given to accepting responsibility for our own conduct.
Acting affirmatively is much more difficult than merely refraining from action perhaps in large part because it requires us to recognize and, in turn, manifest a sense of how our own conduct impacts on the totality of all conduct, generally referred to as “society.” It is not to be left to others to respect the law, to advance society. The only “others” are we ourselves.
Manifesting an affirmative respect for the law says that you expect to raise the level of discussion to a higher plane. And that you expect others to follow. If all we seek is minimum compliance with the law, then all we will end up with is a minimum compliance world, a world without excellence. We of course want to have a world in which everyone complies with the law. But we deserve a better world than a merely compliant world. Striving to reach a higher goal in our business and legal behavior can help create a maximum world, a world in which everyone actually respects the law as opposed to a world in which all we have is begrudging compliance.
Demonstrating respect for the law requires modeling appropriate legal behavior. Merely refraining is nowhere near as important as a teaching tool—for “society” as well as on more personal level—as is affirmatively modeling. Affirmatively modeling requires us to have the sense that our conduct actually matters in the larger world, in that “society.” It often appears that few believe they have any value in the world outside of their own selves. Believing that we are small generally produces people who are small. And thus believing, they then act to make their beliefs their truths. Believe small, stay small. Failing to dream creates its own reality.
It is a difficult thing to go against the trend of something as large as society. The tendency often is to “go along to get along.” But the difficulty is part of the journey.
In the words of Robert Browning, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?”
We have struggled for over 200 years to create a nation where we are governed by the rule of law, not the rule based on the whims of individuals, whether such individuals be kings, presidents or anyone else. But here is the difference between merely complying with the law and instead acting affirmatively to respect the law. Failing to respect the law, as I am using it in this article, does not mean that the person is not complying with the law. Indeed, as I posit in this article, complying with the law is an essential element of respecting the law but that the person may be in compliance with what the law requires is not the issue. Even if the person is complying with the law, the person still may not be respecting the law. It does not matter if, in the long term, any such decision on the person’s part may turn out to be legally right. The issue for the purpose of modeling appropriate behavior is not ultimate “right” or “wrong” from a legal standpoint, decided after years of litigation and appeals and the consequent legal fees and costs.
The law can be a source of significant societal change and growth. We have seen this countless times in our history, from abolishing the “separate but equal” doctrine, to providing suffrage for all and many other instances. But as indicated, the law exists because we all agree the law shall exist and that agreement has to be based on something more than merely personal convenience or individual whims. We have to be willing to accept laws that may be inconvenient for us on a personal level because we see how the law can benefit us on a collective level. “A rising tide,” it is said, “raises all boats.”
The law, indeed democracy overall, requires effort on our individual parts to make these worthy ideas real. Part of our agreement is that we agree that each of us has our role in both creating and respecting the law. Stepping out from the crowd requires a sense of self-worth and a willingness to endure the “inconvenience” that going it alone often creates. But that inconvenience is far outweighed by the sense that we may be creating a new set of values.
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Self-Reliance:”
It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
The law does not exist just for everyone else to respect.
Copyright © 2004, 2018 Ivan Hoffman. All Rights Reserved.
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This article is not legal advice and is not intended as legal advice. This article is intended to provide only general, non-specific legal information. This article is not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed. You should not rely on this article in any manner whatsoever and you should not draw any conclusions of any sort from this article. The specific facts that apply to your matter may make the outcome different than would be anticipated by you. This article is based on United States laws but the laws of other countries may be different. You should consult with an attorney familiar with the issues and the laws of your country. This article does not create any attorney client relationship and is not a solicitation.