“He’s a lawyer but he’s a good guy,” said my brother, speaking of the husband of a friend who is an artist in Cleveland. Even the smartest and least cliché-minded among us deal in stereotypes. Their chief function is convenience. It’s easier to think of a lawyer as a representative of a dubious profession than to evaluate his qualities as an individual. We don’t always have time for that, it’s generally not important, and some of the lawyers we hear most about – in the news, via gossip – nicely live up to the unsavory stereotype. Besides, much humor is rooted in stereotyping, deserved or otherwise. Thus, the Polish joke, which I grew up hearing and repeating without once holding a grudge against the joke-tellers or half of my forebears.
My brother was speaking commonsensically, the way everyday people speak when not under the unforgiving lens of correctness, of the not-quite-political sort. He was not under oath. As a newspaper reporter I covered courts for years and knew hundreds of lawyers. Some were swine, some were saints, and most were like you and me. I knew a cokehead lawyer who was disbarred for ripping off his clients. I knew another – a wounded Marine veteran of Vietnam – who did more pro bono work than any work that paid. I knew a judge who sentenced a cop-killer to death. Afterwards, alone in his chamber, he wept – a fact he asked me not to report.
Stereotypes, for most of us, are the least of our sins. They are closer to laziness than viciousness. Lawyer jokes and ethnic jokes are not precursors to genocide. Theodore Dalrymple devotes an entire book to examining the fashionable notion that we should not pre-judge anyone or anything. He writes in In Praise of Prejudice: In Pursuit of Preconceived Ideas (2007):
“A philosophy that sets out to destroy the influence of custom, tradition, authority, and prejudice does indeed destroy particular customs, traditions, authorities, and prejudices, but only to replace them by others.”
In Robbery Under Law (1939), Evelyn Waugh offers a complementary insight:
“And there is another form of priggishness, too, with which we can dispense – the humbug of being unbiased. No one can grow to adult age without forming a set of opinions; heredity, environment, education and experience all condition us; the happiest are those who have allowed their opinions and beliefs to grow naturally; the unhappy are those who accept intellectually a system with which they are out of sympathy.”