Law in Contemporary Society
This is a rewrite of Jamila McCoy? 's paper.

A Starting Point for a Social Activist Lawyer

A Moving Experience in Bangalore

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

Vicarious Anger and Empathy are Motivating Factors for the Social Activist Lawyer

Vicarious Anger and Empathy are not Enough

A Starting Point for a Social Activist Lawyer

A Moving Experience in Bangalore

As my friends and I shuffled through the crowds on MG Road, I was approached by three shoeless children with disheveled hair, smudged faces, and tattered clothing. I was drinking bubble tea as I browsed through the shops on a Saturday. After spending two months in Bangalore, I had grown somewhat accustomed to street children. Even though I knew it would not really matter, I gave them a few rupees and kept walking. The children followed me down the block, only now there were more pitiful looking children, and they surrounded me, all asking for money. One girl was shirtless, with large scars on her chest and on her hairless head. The children tugged at my clothes, and suddenly they bent down and began touching my feet. As all of this was happening, I stood rooted to the ground in shock, bubble tea in one hand, my purse hanging in the crook of my arm. Then, one of the boys took my bubble tea and started drinking it; when the other children noticed, they began to fight him for the tea. At that I felt so sad and powerless that I broke down in tears. I walked into a shop to buy bags of packaged snacks; when I brought them out, the children quickly took the snacks and began to fight amongst themselves over who got what.

As I watched the children argue, I felt like garbage. How could my friends and coworkers, members of the burgeoning Indian middle class, tolerate such pervasive poverty?

That experience made me realize that I want to do more than just feel sorry. Tossing a few rupees or snacks at these kids won’t solve their problems. If I want to be able to do anything for impoverished children in India or anywhere in the world, I will need to understand how their society functions and why it permits children to fall through the cracks.

It is especially important for lawyers to be aware of societal forces, because they help determine the distribution of power. Arnold offers useful insight for accomplishing this goal. Viewing the world from the perspective of a social anthropologist can facilitate empathy, an important trait for lawyers working for social change and striving to be effective intergroup communicators in our increasingly globalized world.

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 and attitudes that bind us to our organizations and examine the larger systemic question of how power is distributed.

In “Anger,” included in the Encyclopedia of Ethics, Paul M. Hughes describes “settled and deliberate” anger, which P. F. Strawson links to “reactive attitudes” in “Freedom and Resentment"(link text). According to Strawson, we judge others’ actions based on “the attitudes and intentions towards us...[and our personal feelings depend upon] our beliefs about these attitudes and intentions” (link text p. 6). When a slight is perceived to be related to another’s ill will, the slighted becomes resentful. When a slight does not reflect the actor’s view of the slighted (it was accidental, for example), the action will not engender resentment.

Strawson notes two considerations that minimize or preclude resentment: when we see the injury as one for which the actor was not responsible because of lack of volition, and when the actor himself is viewed as psychologically abnormal (text pp. 9, 11).

If we are just social animals living life like we’re painting by numbers, maybe those who ignore the plight of street children are merely failing to act because they have been stripped of volition by the constraints of society. In that case, I shouldn’t really be mad at the next man who’s just doing as he’s been taught.

But that notion has its limits. Arnold explains, “At the the individual, who...responds to the symbols and ideals of his government, the business organization which feeds him, and the social organizations which give him dignity” (link text p. 24). The individual can redefine what dignity and meaning in life are to her, despite the persistent symbols and ideals of society, with the help of both vicarious anger and empathy.

Vicarious Anger and Empathy are Motivating Factors for the Social Activist Lawyer

Vicarious anger, according to Strawson, is moral anger. We expect others to receive the same respect that we would like to receive ourselves, and when they don’t, we feel “moral indignation” on their behalves (18). When combined with a strong sense of empathy, moral anger is an important tool for a social activist. As Heinz Kohut explains in "How does Analysis Cure?," empathy is being able to “think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person” (link text p. 82). As an attorney advocating for social change, seeing through the eyes of a group both motivates and helps one understand what is needed and why it is needed. Vicarious anger prompted by a group’s situation is both facilitated by empathy (one is more likely to become angered if one can put oneself into another’s shoes) and facilitative of empathy, insofar as it can motivate the attorney to fight for the social change she desires.

Vicarious Anger and Empathy Are Not Enough

Simon Baron-Cohen’s work, “Autism: The Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) Theory,” examines the discrepancy between autistic children’s below-average abilities to empathize and their systematizing skills (average or above average). His analysis sheds light on a complementary capability to vicarious anger and empathy: systematizing, or “the drive to analyze or construct systems” (p. 71). In order to bring about change, empathy is not enough; neither is analysis. The proper balance between the two, between social connection and intellectual detachment, is also necessary.

Though vicarious anger and empathy cannot be touched or eaten, they are an important starting point. They can motivate an individual unit of a social organization to redefine what fulfills her while enabling her to truly help those in need by understanding their needs. While additional abilities, including the capability to detach from and analyze an emotionally charged situation, are necessary for ultimate success, empathy and motivating anger are vital assets to an attorney trying to make a difference.

  • I think this is a somewhat peculiar edit, combining Jamila's original personal story with a range of machinery, psychological literature citation and the terminology it supports, grafted in, despite the absence of any such orientation in Jamila's draft. The result is inorganic: neither distanced from her story (now material viewed with a professional detachment) nor in her voice. One might have assimilated the new concepts to her cadences, and tried to orchestrate new material in her style. Or one might have cut the connection to her experience. But I think the effort to avoid the decision was unfortunately productive of more problems than it solved.


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:27:18 - IanSullivan
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