Law in Contemporary Society

A Starting Point for a Social Activist Lawyer

-- By JamilaMcCoy - 19 April 2009

A Moving Experience in Bangalore

As my friends and I shuffled through the crowds on MG Road, children, shoeless with disheveled hair, smudged faces and tattered clothing approached me. I was drinking bubble tea as I browsed through the shops on a Saturday. Two months into my time in Bangalore, I had grown somewhat accustomed to street children. Even though I knew it would not really help anything, I gave them a few rupees and kept walking. The children followed me down the block, this time there were more pitiful looking children, about ten or so of various ages, they surrounded me, all asking me for money. One girl was shirtless; she had large scars on her chest, and on her hairless head. The children were tugging at my clothes, and then a few of them, including the scarred girl bent down and touched my feet. As all of this was happening, I stood there in shock, bubble tea in one hand, and my purse hanging in the crook of my arm. Then, one of the boys took the bubble tea from my hand and started drinking it and when the other children noticed that he had it, they began to fight him for the chance to drink some. At that I felt so sad and powerless that broke down into tears in front of my friends and the now apparently confused kids. I went into a shop and bought bags full of packaged snacks and brought them back out for the children. When they saw me coming they took them and began to fight amongst themselves over who got what. I felt like garbage and I didn’t understand how my friends and coworkers, members of the burgeoning Indian middle class could tolerate such visible, pervasive poverty.

That experience let me know that I wanted to do more than just feel sorry. Tossing a few rupees or snacks at the kids won’t solve India’s problems. I knew that if I wanted to be able to do anything for children in India or impoverished people anywhere in the world, it would be necessary to understand how their society functioned and why it permitted children to fall through the cracks.

It is even more important for a lawyer to be aware of societal forces, since they determine the distribution of power. Arnold offers useful insight for accomplishing that goal. Viewing the world, and yourself as a social anthropologist can be facilitative of empathy toward others, not just (less useful) sympathy. A lawyer working for social change must feel empathy if she is to be an effective inter-group communicator, since the lawyer’s job is becoming more globalized.

Arnold’s Approach to Organizational Behavior Allows Us to See the Forest and not just the Trees

Arnold’s insight that our organizations come into existence because we are social animals, and not because we are rational thinkers making individual choices is a powerful one. It allows us to detach ourselves from the symbols, words, and attitudes that bind us to our organizations and step into a mindset that allows us to examine the larger systemic question of how power is distributed and used.

To a certain extent, our organizations arise out of our subconscious needs. The experience I just described was deeply moving and produced emotions that I am determined to carry with me as I embark on my legal career. Arnold states that the “At the bottom (or at the top, depending upon which end of the telescope you are looking through) is the individual, who in his own life, responds to the symbols and ideals of his government, the business organization which feeds him, and the social organizations which give him dignity.” (24) Despite the barrage of status quo reinforcing messages I receive from various organizations, I believe in the countervailing force of meaningful emotional experiences. If remembered and revisited, they can inspire a sense of purpose and duty that is beneficial for a social activist lawyer.

Striking a Balance

Though my experience was moving, it does not mean that I want to be a missionary. It is just one of those memories that helps me keep sight of what is important in life and work.

I suppose I should acknowledge the elephant in the room - debt.

The way I think about balancing this is that I must first learn, then earn, and finally serve full time. Of course, I will serve along the way, but generally, this framework describes my outlook. For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the sun.

The obvious argument against learning, earning, and serving is that I will become so consumed with earning that I will never get around to serving. It could happen, but when I remember how I felt on the day I described, it does not seem likely. I try to keep those emotions alive, and to actively put myself into situations that make me question, and even ones that make me uncomfortable. Perhaps anger is not the best emotion to feel, but it seems that feeling something is key to not loosing ones course. Another concern of course is becoming a bleeding heart, to the point of ineffectiveness. Though I am emphasizing the importance of the relationship of emotions to work, I do not mean to say that emotions should prevail over rational thinking.

A classmate who spent time living in India reminded me that often times, things are not as tragic as they seem. The kids I met that day might not feel like their situation merits emotional outbursts by some silly foreign girl. At least I hope they don’t. Admittedly, I am, or was only an outside observer of life in India. My experience was only a starting point. I felt something that made me want to dig deeper and to do something useful, and I hope to renew and remain faithful to that aim.

  • Reading over the versions here I have the feeling that you took my comments on the first draft too hard, in that you weakened what was strong in the essay too much in responding to my sense of the changes it would be fruitful to make. I thought a little time spent with the emotion of "anger" in response to the recognition of radical inequality might be useful. The goal wasn't to tell you to stop being angry, or to suggest an apology for anger be added to the draft, but to suggest that understanding the emotion—seeing its roots, its causes, and its functional location—and responding to the information about yourself contained in that understanding, would be valuable. Your point that any emotion is more likely to result in action than desensitization is surely right, but that seems to me a valid point once again about the situation, and it takes our attention away from the real subject of the essay, which is you.


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:08:45 - IanSullivan
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