Law in Contemporary Society
I’ve been having a hard time in this class, and would like others’ input. While this class is by far my favorite, it is also the most frustrating. I’m not sure how to look at what I consider to be stereotyping, judgmental views, and bifurcated ways of thinking: Good law versus bad law, pink skin versus non-pink skin, complacency and greed versus (what I assume is meant) altruism and righteousness. I’m probably not the most articulate person to be making the points I’m about to make, but please understand I mean no offense – I’m only trying to understand and be understood, and, through this classroom experience, to learn some non-academic things along the way.

Do I like money? You’re damned right I do. Why? Because, in this society, it opens up options and is the main instrument that one is forced to use in order to produce resources that one needs and prefers (in other words, those things that make life a heck of a lot easier). I don’t care about status, social position, or wealth per se (despite what may be unintentionally implied by the sentence about being a secretary as opposed to a lawyer in the profile at http://www.law.columbia.edu/media_inquiries/news_events/2007/December07/2010profiles.) The reason I applied to Columbia instead of law schools in my state is because I assumed (and I think rightly so) that on balance, there is too good a chance I will be unemployed after law school if I’m not able to tell prospective employers that I went to what this society considers a “top” law school. If I had chosen to go to a law school in my state (in my case, Indiana University), I would be paying $15,784 in tuition this year; at Columbia, I am paying $42,024. Yes, I’m paying up-front almost three times per year in tuition what I could be paying. But I, employers, and the law schools know that my chance of recouping that financial outlay is by far greater if I have the Latin equivalent of “Columbia” at the top of my diploma instead of “Indiana.” Frustrating, but real.

I’m a practical person – I believe only those who don’t need to worry about money can afford not to. I hope I don’t make others feel uncomfortable with what I’m about to say (as in, “gee, thanks for sharing, Barb”), but I think I know, directly and indirectly, what financially tough is, and what it produces. Aside from my personal background (not all of which is in the CLS profile), my mother grew up in the foothills of Tennessee during the depression. She was one of 14 children (remember, no easy, cheap methods of birth control, unlike today), and her mother was widowed while pregnant with my mother. My mother had Ricketts. According to the death certificate, her grandmother died of pellagra (a niacin and protein deficiency) at the age of 54. While we now live in an economy where we can rely on escaping the consequences of not having enough food to eat, we still suffer other economic consequences that we can’t avoid, can’t always control, and (in my opinion) should deal with in a responsible, realistic, and objective way.

I admire those who choose to apply their legal skills to less-than-financially-secure pursuits. However it is that they have come by their choices, I assume they feel comfortable in taking those steps. I don’t. Although one could say that my concern with how much I’ll owe after law school and how I’ll pay it off should not be one of my main concerns, it is a major part of the reality that I am forced to live with, and deal with. Why ask for trouble (financial or otherwise) when you can avoid it? We all have to live in the real (not the transcendental nonsense) world. So tell me why I shouldn’t feel the way I do. Am I being naive, focusing too much on avoiding the physical and emotional discomforts that attend the inability to directly or indirectly create resources? Keep in mind: I know I can contribute to not-for-profit endeavors without having to work in a not-for-profit organization: I have done it, and I will continue to do it. But I’ll defer a job position at the not-for-profit organizations to those who can put up with the financial juggling, mental and physical exhaustion, and emotional frustration that goes with limited resources -- I’ve learned both through observing and by the hard way (maybe neurotically so, but if so, please forgive me) that not being able to come by necessities is, at a minimum, tough.

Any thoughts? -- BarbPitman



Hi Barb,

I thought Eben threw up a bit of a straw man when he was talking about this today, so I wanted to respond and ask what your thoughts really were.

  • The first argument that was presented involved pointing out the arguably false dichotomy between socially beneficial and financially beneficial work. I thought that while this was a valid point to make, it in no way addressed your question. I understood your point to be not that it was necessary to abandon ones societal and moral goals to achieve financial security, but rather that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with generally privileging financial goals over general societal concerns.

The dichotomy argument seemed to be assuming that the weighting between the two types of concern (personal social versus general societal) was relatively even, whereas I understood you to be saying that there is not necessarily a problem with weighting once over the other.

  • Eben's practicality argument (asking to define "practical") also seemed to be directed at another question. Again, it seemed as though you were using "practical" to mean something like "locally and personally fulfilling" - finding meaning in the development of small incremental (and personal) goals. I would argue that this is a valid way to deal with personal meaning. The only counterargument is appealing to your sense of personal morality and trying to show that your belief structure somehow conflicts with this way of finding meaning (showing that you really do care, but you are just repressing it and selling out.) If finding meaning in small problems and privileging financial security is truly consistent with your morality, it would seem to be unassailable by the arguments of others.

I hope I am not misinterpreting what you were saying. Please correct me if I am raising my own straw man.

-- TheodoreSmith - 24 Jan 2008

Thanks Theodore, right you are -- let this thread address the content of Barb's and Eben's disagreement, and discuss the form here: FreeSpeechHowwhywhether

-- AndrewGradman - 24 Jan 2008

@Barb- My own personal reasoning on the subject goes something like:

You know what is right. If it is going to bother you later that you were comfortable in the face of injustice/immorality/bad stuff, you should do something different. Clearly it is a tough call... what you think of as bad stuff changes, and sometimes is more apparent from where you are than where you were, but this is the call you have to make.

In general though, I would shy away from looking for fulfillment or happiness in the external/contingent circumstances of the world. I say this not because I think there is any moral imperative to do so, but simply because the more you define yourself (and your happiness) in terms of things around you, the more fragile that happiness is when circumstances change. (Which they almost always do)

Clearly all of this is easier to say when you are warm and full than starving and on the streets, but it is the best response I have to what you were talking about.

-- TheodoreSmith - 24 Jan 2008

Thanks for both of your comments. In response, I would say that I know that when I have not been in a position to meet my own needs, I have found that the physical, mental, and emotional distractions and exertions that have resulted from this have kept me from being in a position to help others, let alone myself. I believe that if I can position myself to not have to worry as much about meeting my financial obligations and physical needs, then I am in a better mental, physical, and emotional position to see outside myself and my own concerns and help others. In other words, the best chance I have to help others in what I consider to be a meaningful way is to help myself. One could say that this is a rationalization, and perhaps that is right, but in defense, I would say that I believe I know my own limitations and inclinations on this matter, because I have been in various financial positions over the years and realize what my responses have been. And I wouldn't say that I define myself by my externalities -- my externalities have a way of defining me (and what I do).

-- BarbPitman - 25 Jan 2008

I found your post intriguing. I particularly thought for some time about this quote that struck me “I believe only those who don’t need to worry about money can afford not to.” It reminded me of plane instructions where they tell you to fix your own gas mask before you help another person.

I think that in reading many authors who define success differently sometimes we grow up not truly defining it for ourselves. I can empathize with feelings that you cannot truly help someone else unless you are in a certain position in society. I also feel everyone if we are to aspire to happiness, we must define meaning for ourselves rather than be tied down to conventional notions. If helping others is seen as a privilege instead of something that grants you a prize maybe that’s a completely different framework that allows for those who are practical to find contentment. If it’s seen as a duty that’s totally different, or even if it’s seen as a risk. I’m far from a Singer utilitarian view myself on the subject and can’t say I have it all figured out yet but I definitely understand and value your perspective about mapping out a life for you that is your own. We all should be able to choose between firm, non profit, etc.

I don’t think your na´ve, however, I find that those who have defined meaning for themselves are able to bear other’s criticisms easier. If a criticism points out an internal struggle, then maybe that presents the answer of whether or not one should make a change.

-- MichaelBrown - 25 Jan 2008

Going back to Eben's suggestion that we should not divide the question of materially defining what we want/need and defining socially meaningful work in half - that this dichotomy is a social construction rather than a practicality... If this is a social construction, how has it formed and why is it so prevalent? I am under the impression that this divide is more present as a social construction in my generation than it was for my parents. On numerous occasions my parents have commented that the issues and concerns that my peers in college were considering and weighing in terms of making decisions about what jobs and careers to pursue were very different from the considerations they made when they were this age – generally the trend being that in ‘their day’ the concern was more about adventure and making social change and today it’s more about what looks good on a resume and establishing lucrative careers. Is this 'dichotomy' greater today, if so why?

I have spent a lot of time in the Netherlands where I am a citizen. When I was living there last year, I had just finished college and was preparing to start pursuing a career. What I found striking was how my Dutch friends and cousins who were in the same 'life' position were making their decisions and considering their options in a completely different atmosphere. To mention a few of the driving factors -financial concerns tend to be far less prevalent since the government provides a comparatively enormous amount of security. Student debt is also comparatively non-existent - average university tuition is under 2000 euro per year (in fact, the government gives college students monthly stipends to help with living costs and free public transportation). The point is, that the 'socially constructed' dichotomy isn't quite so prevalent there - from what I have observed anyway. I think that in many ways living in the United States is far scarier than living in the Netherlands where the government steps in to provide such enormous security. I do think that these factors play a role in the creation of this 'social construction'. I would be interested in hearing more of what others have to say in terms of addressing why this perception exists in the first place as a way of getting at the more pressing questions of how to overcome it.

-- CarinaWallance - 25 Jan 2008

Michael and Carina, Thanks for your responses -- I appreciate your perspectives and the opportunity to learn from you. As concerns bifurcated/dichotomous thinking, I think that ideas can be presented to you in that form, but it is you who ultimately decides how to interpret them. For example, at one point yesterday, Eben said as an aside that he is known for criticizing instead of building up. But criticizing and building up don’t have to be mutually exclusive: if the person being criticized takes it as an opportunity to learn, then “building up” should occur.



I wish to direct the curious to the "diffs" page. If the original author intended the note to "recent contributors" to be overheard by others, I won't stop him from restoring it. But it said "to recent contributors," and it names us.
-- AndrewGradman - 03 Feb 2008



Andrew, if you felt that you want to make "history" out of the part of my remarks that could be construed as critical, I understand, but what I wrote was intended to explain my intentions and objectives to others, as well as to explain my request to you to stop writing for a while, which is exactly what you now haven't done. Rather than eliminating what I wrote, had I not asked you to take a time out you could have edited my remarks to remove personal criticism (which would have been noted and understood for what it is) while leaving the rest of my ideas in place. That would have been the wiki way. But I had asked you for a period of silence and you shouldn't have done anything. Instead you decided the situation called for you to ignore the instruction you had been given, and make yet another decision for me by writing more and erasing my instructions. That was contempt of court. You are in a hole. Stop digging. Don't say anything. Just stop.

While you are sitting out this set and more to come, I'll do the editing for you.

-- EbenMoglen, 3 Feb 2008, 20:25 GMT



Note on Wiki Structure and Content

The Indexing approach proposed by AndrewGradman will do more harm than good. The right solution in wikis is to make each topic a Topic, with a page of its own, and a "Talk" page attached to the topic for discussion about its contents. That about which there is consensus remains on the main Topic page, and that for which more interaction is necessary to establish the content of the Topic remains on the Talk page for that topic. Those who want to see how and why it works can study the Wikipedia. Refactoring then is largely about moving conclusions from Talk to Topic, and revising Talk to maximize the productivity of future Talk. Ian and I have been planning the editorial interventions needed to reduce the clutter caused by such un-wiki behavior as Topic and Topic2 (which caused much levity and head-shaking among the wiki-theorists I showed it to). The AndrewGradman proposal would invert what experience has shown to be the best structure in order to make what could literally be called the anti-best structure.

Has it occurred to all of you that one of the "hidden" objectives of the course (where, as Andrew says, Form and Content are indistinct) is to teach you how to use wikis to collaborate, because my work with my own lawyers in my firm and with others in the software industries around the world shows me that this is how you can learn to be more creative in your practices and more effective in your results? Don't try to take over the course mechanisms in the interests of "democracy" or "free speech" at least until you've learned what skilled craftsmen decades cannier and more experienced than you can teach you about how to use the tools. Makalika pointed this out last week and nobody listened to her, even after I pointed to her contribution so no one would miss it.

The wiki--with the exception of the papers-- should be about the intellectual structure and content of our investigation. About the readings and what they mean, about the inferences and questions that come out of them, about the "and" (and not so much of the "but") of what we learn from what we read. Classroom discussion allows us to investigate what it means to who we are as often as it allows us to clear the obscurities identified in writing. There are many reasons for this, including the benefit of training in collaborative editing--it is hard to edit someone else's personal statement, but easy to edit someone's reading of a passage or question raised by a conclusion. That's what you're going to use collaborative media to do in practice, as you assemble documents from many hands and minds. More importantly, to write about the personal and speak face to face about the impersonal inverts the emotional structure for the benefit of psychic defenses--shows of virtue, avoidance of confrontation, levying of accusations--which deprives us of the reality of the way human beings actually talk. I use RobinsonsMetamorphosisTalk for a reason, too, which we haven't begun to exploit yet. Wikis do not necessarily work well for poetry.

-- EbenMoglen - 03 Feb 2008, 16:30 GMT

Very helpful, thank you Eben.

-- AdamCarlis - 03 Feb 2008

 

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