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Thursday, January 12, 2006

I've been listening to bits and pieces of the Alito confirmation hearings, and it's fascinating to hear very smart people talk at cross purposes -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes just because of the chair they're sitting in.

A senator asks Alito if Roe v. Wade is the "settled law" of the land. Alito says it's a ruling that has the weight of 30 years behind it, it has been upheld repeatedly, and people have been relying on it for years. But is it "settled law", asks the Senator. Well, no, says Alito, cases keep coming in front of the Supreme Court, so to that extent it's not settled. Well that worries me that you wouldn't consider Roe v. Wade settled law, says the Senator...

A senator asks if someone's been convicted and is going to be executed, and last-minute DNA evidence exonerates him, is it unconstitutional to execute him? And Alito goes into a detailed discussion of what the guy should do to avoid being executed.

The senators are talking politics. Alito is talking law. They are at cross purposes. The senator wants Alito to say (or fail to say) that he'd uphold Roe v. Wade. Alito is discussing whether it is in fact, settled law. I have to side with him on this legalistic point: it is obviously not settled law since cases relating to it keep coming before the Court. The senator wants Alito to say that executing an innocent man is a Bad Thing, but he's asked Alito whether it's constitutional. The Constitution says it's illegal to deprive someone of rights without due process. It does not say it is illegal to deprive an innocent man of his right provided the poor sumbitch has been given due process. It is wrong to execute an innocent man, but it is perfectly "constitutional."

The point here, in a screenwriting blog, is that people are often talking about different things. They think they're in the same conversation, but they're not. They're hearing what they expect to hear and interpreting it accordingly.

This is a classic comedy situation: Lazar Wolf visits Tevye to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage; Tevye thinks Lazar wants to buy one of his cows. Hilarity ensues.

But it's also a way to inject reality into dramatic situations. People tend to behave as if everyone is equally interested in what they themselves are focused on. Have your coroner take a morbid fascination in the corpse, or compliment her beauty. But more than that, have your secondary characters talk at cross purposes to your protagonist. Make your protagonist have to pull them into the conversation she wants rather than the conversation they think they're in. And so on.

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3 Comments:

It is politics for sure; the Dems are trying to get Alito to unequivocally state whether or not he'll overturn Roe. That way, with support of a majority of people, they'll filibuster him. Of course, he's been coached by the other side to be ambiguous.

Nice way to bring it back to writing. I thought yesterday’s Kennedy-Specter blow up was great comedy.

By Blogger Shawn, at 10:43 AM  

Yeah... it's not real cross-purposes, they all know what they are talking about, they are just fencing.
.......
Here's the real translation:

Senator Teddy: "Now comeon Alito buddy-boy, you're really a whacked out, bigoted, religious nutjob aren't you? You're sitting here stonewalling us and first chance you get you're gonna outlaw abortion and fry blue collar workers isn't that right?"
...
Alito: "Screw you, you bunch of Hippy Baby Killers, you liberal pansies ain't ain't gettin' nothing outta me and that's all the settled law you're a'gonna see ... and Teddy you can stick your silver spoon where the sun don't shine".
...
This here is the case here where the possible religious fanatic is on his way to Washington to do extreme harm. It's the "Terrorist with an Abortion-Bomb Scenario" ... a clear justification for use of torture during interogation.
..
God save us from the Believers.

By Blogger max, at 4:34 PM  

Screw the politics - this is a superb lesson on dialogue. It'll have to go into Blog Fu.

By Blogger Webs, at 5:10 PM  

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