Law in Contemporary Society

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JInduObiofumaSecondEssay 1 - 04 Apr 2016 - Main.JinduObiofuma
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-- JinduObiofuma - 04 Apr 2016


The performance of protest has become a proxy for actual social change. One could say this has come about largely without comment, but the irony of the situation is that comment—in the modern medium of liberal activism—abounds. At this point, it might seem fitting for me to delve into some smug literary badge like “and therein lies the problem,” before launching into a dramatic description of my grievances and patting myself on the back for discovering yet another flaw in the modern movement we like to call liberal activism. This is not that. For me, this is a stop gap. This is a brief acknowledgement of a problem which will still trouble me tomorrow, but by then I will have turned back to more pressing matters.

The problem as I see it—not to be confused with “the only problem”-- is this. In today’s largely public, social media mix of what it means to be a liberal in a tradition of activism, the heart of that tradition seems to be falling to the wayside. Increasingly, in this new age of Bernie Sanders stans* , Black Lives Matter hashtags and HeForShe? campaigns, people are liberal, but we’re not all that active.

About a month ago, I attended the Beyond the Bars conference put on by Columbia’s School of Social work. Half asleep and haunted by the ever-approaching deadline of my moot court memo—5pm that very evening--I told myself that I would get in, attend my friend’s panel and get out. I had been doing what I thought of as meaningful work for a couple of months by then, and although I don’t think I walked in with any particular chip on my shoulder, I was confident in my role as a budding agent of change. As my companion and I made our way into the morning welcome rally, I noticed there was a bit of a buzz, an urgency to the atmosphere. Nobody there was at rest. There were no smugly folded hands or presumptuously cleared throats. The setting was academic, but the energy was hardly that. As I walked in, carefully picking my way past people who didn’t look or sound anything like those people I had been surrounding myself with-- however voluntarily-- for the past few months, I’m ashamed to say I was still going over the machinations of my brief in my head. I’d hardly settled into my seat when the whole room rose to their feet to welcome the organizers of the conference. As each of the students finished introducing themselves, they stepped back until only one Black man remained at the center of the makeshift stage. It was clear this man was ‘’ the boss.” Small and slim in stature, he was dressed in all black. Black hoodie. Black tee. Faded black cargo pants tucked into scuffed doc martins. His brown eyes were sharp and took in the room as he said “we cannot afford to treat injustice like an academic exercise as long as people are rotting and dying at its hands.” The words, which in a “normal” academic setting would have dropped the room into a stunned and sober silence was met with cheers. In a room full of academics, students, community organizers, formerly incarcerated men and women, social workers, and other change agents**, it became very clear that the unrest was not borne from discomfort or uneasiness but from the urgency within the room. These were people who had long since understood the gravity of their battles. There was no place for performance. There was no time for empty action. I realized I was surrounded by people who carried an awareness of the consequence and levity of their actions; they knew people were dying and time was of the essence. And in this academic setting, they carried that urgency with them.

That urgency is rare, and its rarity is unsurprising in this age of hashtags, media attention, and obsessive over-analyzed thought pieces, all of which purport to be doing something—and indeed they are doing something---but they are not always doing the things that need to be done. People are still dying, but we are blinding ourselves to their plights, even as we “engage” with them. If one person shares a million articles about an issue, tweets about it, zealously discusses it at every open opportunity, we applaud that person for “being involved”. The problem is we have lowered our standards of what it means to be involved.

Direct engagement is something that is largely missing in this modern wave of liberal activism. To be fair, this is not the case across the board. We have people risking their lives and limbs for incredible causes every day. However, this is not the norm. Speaking to my peers in the western world, from whom I don’t assume any great moral distance, we can’t afford for a sense of urgency about others to be a rarity. We tweet and march and pen and protest, but these are things largely done in the comfort our own circles of liberal friends. We shy away from throwing ourselves against the issues we purport to care about. We close ourselves off from the people those issues affect. There is no urgency. There is no engagement. And this is what we must fix if we mean to live the lives we say we want. To be liberal is to do more than vote Sanders and to be an activist is more than tweeting #Black Lives Matter. We have to engage with the communities and issues we claim to care about. And we have to act as if we know that our action or inaction has consequences. In case you haven’t heard, people are dying.

* A Stan is a superfan; this term originated with the song “Stan” by Eminem in which a superfan becomes obsessed with the rapper to the point of self-harm; the term is often employed in association with celebrities with intense fans; ie. Beyonce stans are really intense; you can’t say anything about her without getting at least a few of them on your case. ** I later found out I was the only lawyer (law student) in the room.

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