Wherein, One Recreational Mathematician Extends a Mildly Snarky Olive Branch to the Entire Legal Profession after a Lifelong Journey of Self-Discovery. (Warning: extensive rambling ahead)
At the risk of offending the several friends, acquaintances, and business associates I have in the legal field in the very first sentence, I'm just gonna blurt out how most legalese and lawyerish stuff really tends to rub me the wrong way. I didn't know why, and really, for most of my life I never questioned it much. Legalese just kinda sat there in the same mental bin as coffee, centipedes, and celebrity gossip magazines. I didn't like it. I didn't think much about why. Until recently, at least. Why the change? Perhaps it's the fact that after a while you're inevitably going to run into a number of people who work in the legal profession and learn that they are neither space aliens wearing human suits nor are they possessed by amoral demonic beings. Perhaps it's because unlike your least favourite bands or television shows, it's kinda hard to just mute The Law, and so it occupies space in your brain whether you like it or not. Whatever the case, I think I figured it out.
But before I tell you, I'm gonna need to draw a comparison. The whole Introvert/Extrovert distinction has gone pretty mainstream by this point, but in the off chance that you don't have a single introvert friend on Facebook and haven't seen the links go around, a quick summary: both introverts and extroverts have friends and like spending time with them, but the key difference between the two is that extroverts gain energy from group activities while introverts spend energy doing the same thing. It's not that introverts dislike people, so much as that we've gotta be a bit more choosy about how we spend our energy -- and when we get caught up in social situations that aren't particularly fulfilling, it's a recipe for resentment. What does introversion vs. extroversion have to do with legal disdain? Jack all. No, I'm more concerned with the second letter the MBTI gives you.
Perpendicular to the introversion-extroversion axis is an axis they label sensing-intuition. To over-simplify this one, this axis is about being detail-oriented versus -- wait, no. Scratch that. "Detail-oriented" and "big picture" are overused vacuous corporate newspeak horseshit terms -- and that's a different hate rant for a different day -- so let's coin some new ones. Let's call the S-types "microverts" and the N-types "macroverts." "Turned towards small things" and "turned towards large things," respectively, and overtly mimicking the "introvert/extrovert" distinction.
Now, I've never thought of or described myself as a detail person, yet that is often how I am perceived. I can't even say they're entirely wrong, because I often find myself buried in details, content to obsess over some meticulous task as the hours slip by. I mean, come on, I'm a programmer, for crying out loud, my career as such would have ended many years ago were I unable to handle meticulous attention to detail. And it wasn't until one day that I was reading one of the several introvert pride rallies that make the rounds on Facebook that I had a lightbulb moment: I'm introverted and friendly at the same time, right? Who's to say I can't be macroverted and detail-conscientious in the same way?
That's it! Suddenly, it makes sense: I can handle details, but they're not what excites me. Abstractions, big ideas, those are what charges my battery. I'm no psychologist, but this concept explains so much it's hard for me to ignore. If an introvert spending her precious mental energy on unfulfilling social situations is a recipe for resentment, is it that much of a stretch to posit that an extrovert spending her energy on unfulfilling details would be as well? This would explain how in my elementary school years I would bury myself in books like Math for Smarty Pants and The Man Who Counted, but at the same time dread going to actual math class. It would explain my love/hate relationship with programming over the years. And (because no, I haven't forgotten the alleged topic I'm attempting to stay on) it would explain my general feelings of disdain towards legalese.
The magic of the Internet has -- with about as much organization as you could expect from a nebulous group of introverts -- produced a very effective introvert awareness campaign. I'd like to think of this article as being part of the opening salvo of a similar macrovert awareness campaign. But I expect this battle to be more difficult than the introvert rights movement, because microverts pretty much run the world right now. Sure, you'll see some macroverts at the very top leading the way, but for better or worse, the legal profession -- the most microverted profession I can think of -- has cemented its role in our social infrastructure. If you want to start a business, get married or divorced, hire someone to replace the shingles on your roof, or even run a piece of software on your own darn computer, you're going to either need to hire a lawyer yourself or at the very least make use of an off-the-shelf form, click-through agreement, or piece of legislation that was written by one. So an "equal rights for macroverts" campaign is going bump into that problem at some point. But as I lead my charge, I'd like to make one thing very clear to the lawyers and legally type people of the world: I'm here to start a revolution, not a war. And when I say "revolution," think "industrial," not "French." I'm no Jack Cade or Dick the Butcher: I'm not out to destroy you. No, I intend to bring you with me.
How? By using math.
Let's take a look at what the legal world looks like from the outside through the eyes of a game designer. When there are no disputes, they really don't come into play at all, but when two people disagree and bring the lawyers into play, they engage in a peculiar game indeed: one of them builds a giant forcefield out of words, while the other seeks a combination of words that can pass through the shield. It has the peculiar side-effect that every time one lawyer does his job well, he makes every other lawyer's job slightly more difficult. The consequence of this arms race is that the license agreement for a piece of music-playing software in 2013 is something like three times as long as the document that served as the legal framework of an entire country back in 1787. I get the driving force behind it all: grey areas are bad for big business. They want control over what is and isn't OK under the terms of their contracts, adding more words to the black and white forcefield whenever something finds a gray spot to sneak through. They dream of a world where every bit of their forcefield is either black or white without a speck of gray, but it's just a dream. It can never happen. I can say this with confidence without a drop of formal legal education, because a mathematician figured as much out all the way back in 1931.
That mathematician was Kurt Gödel, and I'm referring to his Incompleteness Theorems. They can be a bit hard to wrap your head around at first, since they're a pair of mathematical proofs about mathematical proofs. The details are.... detailed. But the upshot is, in any formal system (such as mathematics), you will always be able to construct statements that are true but can not be proven to be true. It's a bit tough to give an example of what a true but unprovable statement might be, but if you listen to Freeman Dyson talk out this unique problem maybe you'll have a better idea of what it all means. What does it mean for legalese, though?
Well, when you take a look at the sum of our laws and contracts and legal agreements and whatnot heretofore referred to as the Legalverse ("LEGALVERSE"), you'll notice it actually bears a close resemblance to a formal mathematical system. Just as mathematicians piece together axioms and theorems to determine whether a mathematical statement is true or false, lawyers piece together laws and contracts and court precedents to determine whether actions are legal or illegal. And so, if you accept the notion that the Legalverse is a formal axiomatic system -- and they do certainly seem to present themselves that way -- then you must accept that no matter how many lawyers you hire, no matter how long your click-through agreements become, there are always going to exist some squirrely actions out there which cannot be proven to be legal or illegal in a court of law.
Now, Gödel does leave us two escape routes. The first is to underachieve, to be so trivial or limited in scope that Gödel never gets a chance to act as the bouncer for his infinitely-exclusive club because you got bored and left before you even got to the front door. A lot of board games are going to fit this model, like Chess, Checkers, or Go. Try as you might, you're never going to find a chess move that can't be reliably sorted into a nice, neat "legal move" or "illegal move" pile. But even games as seemingly simple as Monopoly or Catan, where players can make trades and come to agreements with each other, if you let yourself get really carried away with it all, you're either going to eventually bump into Gödel, or at some point before you get to him agree that you've taken things too far and really you should just get back to having fun rather than negotiating complicated deals where Bob trades Alice Park Place for Pennsylvania Avenue but cuts a deal where he gets to stay there rent-free but then when Cecil buys Park Place off of Alice was the contract between Bob and Alice or between the owners of Park Place and Pennsylvania Avenue and does Cecil need to honor this or that and oh my god you guys this is why you never get invited to board game night, why can't we just play this game normally?.
Game night might be ruined -- and don't tell me that nobody plays Monopoly that way because that right there was based on a true story -- but what can we learn from it? Well, next game night might have a new house rule about how trades happen instantaneously and any long-term agreements between players are non-binding. We could try this approach with real-life law: clip the wings of the Legalverse every time it gets to be too burdensome. Declare, for example, that software license agreements have no place in the world and are no longer binding. But don't worry, Apple, you won't need your software license, we'll make sure that if someone uses an app they downloaded on iTunes to make a nuclear weapon, you won't be held responsible for it. (Think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. Read for yourself.) Exit #1 might work in real life, but you know that Alice and Bob are probably just going to find other ways ruin game night, and you'd be right to be skeptical of any approach that would involve calling upon the Legalsphere to patch up all of the problems created by the Legalsphere.
The second way to avoid Gödel's is hiding in the word "if" three paragraphs up: you side-step him by not being formal or axiomatic. And I'm just crazy and macroverted enough to think that this could work. It would mean a radical change in legal culture, that's for certain. Dial things back to pre-Hammurabi and start fresh. We'd need to take down all of the Ten Commandments monuments in front of our courtrooms, not out of concerns about the separation of church and state, but because we'd be replacing them with monuments of the Golden Rule. The whole principle of Stare Decisis would pretty much need to be abandoned, because, c'mon, man, that situation was totes different, let's just talk about the matter at hand. Juries might come back with a verdict that the defendant is just kinda a bad person and needs to stop doing what they're doing. Lawyers would still have plenty of work in this world, their arguments would just look different. "Your honor, ladies and the gentlemen of the jury: The notion that my client, a 13-year-old male, should be charged as a child pornographer just because he thought it would be funny to take a picture of his own butt with his smart phone and send it to his friend, is a patently absurd one. The defense rests. STRIKE POSE, SUNGLASSES ON, GRAB BRIEFCASE. LAWYER, OUT."
I should probably stop before I give every microvert in my audience a stroke. I can already feel the wind from the arm-waving rage I've pushed them to, and all I'm gonna say is this: now you know how I, and every other macrovert, feel whenever I come across one of your click-through agreements.
But speaking of arm-waving madness, the astute reader has noticed the irresponsibly gaping hole in my argument. "Cathy, Cathy, Cathy, don't you realize what you've done? You've assumed that the Legalverse would even want to avoid Gödel after you basically proved to them that Gödel gives them the best job security ever. They'll always have law to law, the same way that mathematicians still have math to math even in a post-Gödel era. You have filled the eyes of every microverted lawyer in the world with cartoon dollar signs!" And to you, I say that this was never an appeal to the Legalverse to change its ways. I was just explaining to them how they can adapt and survive in the world I create when I pull back the curtain and reveal to their clients and constituents that their microverted approach to law will never and in fact can never completely work.
Strike pose. Sunglasses on. Grab slide rule.