Play the Hand You’re Dealt

One of the things I do around the margins with my students–it’s not part of the curriculum–is give them my “words of wisdom” about dealing in the world. A lot of it has to do with playing the hand you’re dealt. So, for example, many of them are the way I was some years ago, thinking that the best way to deal with police, when suspected of something you didn’t do, is to explain that you didn’t do it. That’s the wrong answer. Here’s why. All you need do to get the point is watch the first 27 minutes. This is the best law professor’s talk I have ever seen. And if you don’t want to watch the follow-on talk by the cop whom he invited to refute him, watch only the first one or two minutes of the cop’s talk.

If you’ve seen the video of the cop stopping the late Sandra Bland, your sympathy is probably with her sticking up for her rights. This young, promising woman is now dead. And, whether or not she committed suicide in jail, she would not have ended up in jail had she acted differently. I am not defending the cop; he acted horribly.

But I am getting back to my point: play the hand you’re dealt. When you get stopped by a cop who is acting unreasonably, recognize that and be compliant. That’s what I do. I once was stopped by a cop who started yelling at me for speeding. A ticket? I get that. I was speeding. But once I saw how he was, I did what I could to calm the situation. A little tip here that a younger friend of mine didn’t understand and it got him in trouble: Never tell a cop to calm down. They never need to calm down because, by definition, they’re calm. And I paid the ticket and went to traffic school to get the point off my record. (And, by the way, that particular traffic school, taught by that particular person, was valuable, unlike another one I went to 14 years later. You could argue that it saved my life the next year when I got in a pickle on I-80 near Denver because the scenarios we had worked through–what should you do if?–got me thinking about other scenarios I hadn’t thought about. I could have sat thorough 8 hours and stewed, but I didn’t. Back to the principle: play the hand you’re dealt. Make the best of it.)

So what would I have done if that ugly man–I’m not talking about physical looks here–Texas Trooper Brian Encinia, had stopped me. I would have lowered the window, kept my hands on the steering wheel in a 10 to 2 position, and, when he told me to put out my cigarette, complied without arguing. And I would have lived. So I think that Jacob Sullum’s thoughts here are valuable, with a couple of tweaks. Jacob writes:

Given the practical power that police have to mess with us and the wide discretion they have in exercising it, an attitude of meek subservience may seem advisable. That expectation is not fair, reasonable, or compatible with the principles of a free society. But it is demonstrably safer than the approach that Bland took, which was based on the assumption that she was a citizen whose constitutional rights should not be blithely violated by an authoritarian bully with a badge and a gun. I do not by any means fault Bland for questioning Encinia’s authority to order her around for reasons unrelated to her traffic offense, any more than I fault Jessica Cooke for questioning the Border Patrol’s authority to detain her at an internal immigration checkpoint in upstate New York. To the contrary, both young women showed exceptional bravery in standing on their rights. But as the outcomes in those cases (an arrest and a Tasing, respectively) show, such resistance to arbitrary power is brave because it is dangerous.

I do question “meek subservience.” What I advocate is politeness and compliance. There’s a difference. I’ll give an example. Once I was stopped by a Pacific Grove cop who had attitude. I figured out quickly that I should be polite and comply with what she said. But then she said, “Do you know what I stopped you for?” I actually didn’t because I was pretty sure I had stayed at the speed limit and I couldn’t think of anything else I had done that was illegal. But even if I had “known” what she stopped me for, I would have said what I did say: “Actually, officer, I don’t.” Let her explain. Why incriminate myself?

While I’m on “playing the hand you’re dealt,” I’ll mention one other thing that I hear professors complain about where I think that even though the complaint is valid, they would be better off, unless they’re on an admissions committee, playing the hand they’re dealt: the quality of the students. A large percent of my American students seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew, basic algebra. Do I think that’s bad? Yes. But I don’t complain about it. Instead, I work out examples in class and then give different problems using algebra on problem sets. Then I grade harshly when they blow it. Some of them learn from that.

What I’m trying to get across, possibly successfully and possibly not, is that it can be very empowering for you to recognize a situation and then use what power you have to do the best you can for yourself.

One last example that might make the point. When I deal with angry cops, I think of how I dealt with my father when he got irrationally angry. I pictured him as a big angry bear. You don’t morally judge a bear; he does what bears do. I didn’t morally judge my father–or, at least, tried not to appear to judge him in the moment. I just treaded carefully.