Don’t Make a Federal Case of It

About 8 years ago or so, my older son cut the tip of his middle finger off. My younger son had a birthday party with, my older son claimed, a bunch of “stupid and annoying” friends. Worse: one was spending the night. In essence, my younger son was getting an inordinate amount  of attention and my wife and I, recognizing our older son’s frustration, decided it might be nice if he and I went out to dinner and a movie. If everyone is special, then no one is special. That’s probably not what we were aiming for, but you get the idea. Guerrilla parenting so everyone feels loved.  It makes sense in theory.

The finger incident was, as is often the case, a freak accident almost impossible to reproduce. He’s walking out the door, pulls it shut behind him, the door sticks a little, and somehow his hand doesn’t move fast enough. Snip. Next thing you know, I’m in the bathroom trying to stop the bleeding, looking, literally, at the bony tip of his finger, telling my wife to go find the tip and put it in a baggie. (That went over real well. “You want me to do what? And put it where? You go get the damn finger and leave me here with him!” Actually, to her credit, she only thought such things and told me later. Arguing in front of your child while he bleeds–not good parenting.)

Needless to say, we skipped the night out. And didn’t have to worry about the younger son getting too much attention. To my son’s credit, he was calm, cool, collected, and he bore the pain with dignity. We drove to the emergency room, they gave him the kind of drugs only an ER doctor can hand out, cleaned and taped his finger, and sent us on our way, rejecting my argument that the parents needed the pain killers just as much as the kid.

And my son spent about 4 weeks flipping off the world. That’s not a bad idea if you are 18 and making your way in the world. It’s healthy, I tell my kids, sometimes to show the world how disgusted you are. Shake your fists at the gods, demand equality. Sometimes it feels good to stomp your feet, slam the door, and raise your middle finger in frustration. The world might exist without our approval or our consent, but by gosh we don’t always have to be happy about it. Reject the norm, fight conformity, stand out–feel the angst of youth! We have the free will, either literally or metaphorically, to flip off the universe.

But when you are 12 and headed to school, church, and various other places, perhaps, my wife told my son, you should lose the smirk when you hold your hand up and show everyone your middle finger. While the doctor said to keep the finger elevated, you don’t have to rest it on the car window for all passing motorists to see. You can, she also noted, wave to people with the other hand. In particular, we want to recognize that strangers, teachers, and police officers might, just maybe, mis-read your intent.

Her concerns were mocked in the house. “No one will see it that way? He’s just a kid.” Apologies, should they occur, can begin any day now.

In a 14 page opinion, a Federal judge has ruled that raising one’s middle finger is an “ancient gesture” and there is “nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult.” The case centered around what has now been deemed an illegal stop and arrest because the police officer claimed he thought the couple was trying to get his attention. In other words, we now have 14 pages of definitive government ruling on what it means to flip someone off. 14 pages?

And we wonder why our nation is in debt. I don’t know what Federal judges make an hour, or how many bailiffs, lawyers, transcribers, and other people we had to pay, but everyone in this case ought to get just smacked upside the head. I find it hard to believe that at time when there is a backlog of Federal cases, a shortage of judges appointed to the bench (caught in political wrangling), we really need a judge to tell us what it means when someone flips off a cop. What cases, I wonder, were delayed so our judge could write 14 pages, and do the corresponding research, defending our right to flip off a police officer?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad symbolic gestures are protected speech, but if you are driving a car past a police officer running radar and you flip her off, she might get upset. While your right to the gesture should be protected, that doesn’t mean you should, willy-nilly, exercise that right. I’m sure there is an appropriate time to express your dissatisfaction with authority, but a cop running radar probably is not that time.

More troubling, though, is that the case points to a clear flaw in the judicial system. I realize much has been written about frivolous lawsuits and I also realize that messiness and inefficiency is the price of due process. But, as they say on the NFL pregame show–C’mon Man! At some point, we need to create a system whereby our Federal judges aren’t hearing cases that belong in a junior high lunch room.

I propose a citizen panel called the “No Duh” Task Force. This task force would review any and all potential cases before they move forward. Penalties can range from a stern eye-rolling to a smack upside the head. In extreme cases, we can require a dunce cap. Spill coffee on yourself? No, you can’t sue McDonalds because the coffee was hot. I mean, “No Duh.” Visit a haunted house and get scared? No, you can’t sue for emotional damage because you got scared. That’s the dang point! You get a smack in the head.

And if you flip off the police, expect them to be unhappy about it. No, duh. But, no, you can’t arrest them, claiming you misunderstood the gesture. However, our citizen panel can make you both wear a dunce cap for a week.

Most importantly, let’s stop creating federal cases when we get our feelings hurt or when we do something stupid to ourselves. Feel free to shake your fist at the heavens, but let’s save the court docket for more important things. Either that, or let’s start producing a lot of dunce caps.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

8 Responses to Don’t Make a Federal Case of It

  1. Pingback: Don’t Make a Federal Case of It | CORRIDORS OF A JUMBLED MIND

  2. I did the same thing with my middle finger in high school. The offending door was for the gymnasium anteroom. Imagine the secretary’s surprise when a relatively calm girl walked in clutching a dripping finger all over the office’s carpet. Sitting while waiting for my dad did make me want to pass out a bit, though. I was sixteen and working at a grocery store when it happened. I guess a girl repeatedly flipping people off is less offensive, though.
    In a similar vein, I’ve heard that saying the F-word in public is grounds for fines in many public places now.

  3. Geo Sans says:

    Your story reminded me of a Seinfeld episode where George thought someone gave him the finger. It was actually very funny.

  4. I swear I thought a case like this had gone through the courts in the 70’s, when it seemed like everyone, everywhere was flipping the bird at… everyone, everywhere?

  5. People seemed to be confused about constitutionally protected rights. One is protected from governmental prosecution, but not from the natural consequences of one’s actions, or one’s personal endowment of stupidity. I hadn’t heard about this case before reading this post.
    Have you read “The Death of Common Sense” by Philip K. Howard? It’s an oldie, but goodie regarding the legal system and frivolous laws and lawsuits.

    • John Wegner says:

      I have not read Howard’s book. I’m planning to check it out from the library, though. I wonder how far I’ll get before I get too frustrated to keep reading? Thanks for the comment.

  6. rayahsmomma says:

    Great blog post. I see nothing wrong with telling (showing) the world how disgusted we are with it at times either! But you’re right – let’s invest time, energy, and resources on more important matters (mental wellness programs for one!) Great imagery — you made me laugh! Thanks 🙂

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