Lawrence Lessig: Rewarding the Critics - Fortune

Lawrence Lessig: Rewarding the Critics

I find it insanely difficult to read these comments [to my blog posts]. Not because they’re bad or mistaken, but mainly because I have very thin skin. There’s a direct correlation between what I read and pain in my gut. Even unfair and mistaken criticism cuts me in ways that are just silly. If I read a bad comment before bed, I don’t sleep. If I trip upon one when I’m trying to write, I can be distracted for hours. I fantasize about creating an alter ego who responds on my behalf. But I don’t have the courage for even that deception. So instead, my weakness manifests itself through the practice (extraordinarily unfair to the comment writer) of sometimes not reading what others have said.

So then why do I blog all? Well, much of the time, I have no idea why I do it. But when I do, it has something to do with an ethic I believe that we all should live by. I first learned it from a judge I clerked for, Judge Richard Posner. Posner is without a doubt the most significant legal academic and federal judge of our time, and perhaps of the last hundred years. He was also the perfect judge to clerk for. Unlike the vast majority of appeals court judges, Posner writes his own opinions. The job of the clerk was simply to argue. He would give us a draft opinion, and we’d write a long memo in critique. He’d use that to redraft the opinion.

I gave Posner comments on much more than his opinions. In particular, soon after I began teaching he sent me a draft of a book, which would eventually become Sex and Reason. Much of the book was brilliant. But there was one part I thought ridiculous. And in a series of faxes (I was teaching in Budapest, and this was long before e-mail was generally available), I sent him increasingly outrageous comments, arguing about this section of the book.

The morning after I sent one such missive, I reread it, and was shocked by its abusive tone. I wrote a sheepish follow-up, apologizing, and saying that of course, I had endless respect for Posner, blah, blah, and blah. All that was true. So too was it true that I thought my comments were unfair. But Posner responded not by accepting my apology, but by scolding me. And not by scolding me for my abusive fax, but for my apology. “I’m surrounded by sycophants,” he wrote. “The last thing in the world I need is you to filter your comments by reference to my feelings.”

I was astonished by the rebuke. But from that moment on, I divided the world into those who would follow (or even recommend) Posner’s practice, and those who wouldn’t. And however attractive the anti-Posner pose was, I wanted to believe I could follow his ethic: Never allow, or encourage, the sycophants. Reward the critics. Not because I’d ever become a judge, or a public figure as important as Posner. But because in following his example, I would avoid the worst effects of the protected life (as a tenured professor) that I would lead.

Author Lawrence Lessig
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