Law in Contemporary Society

Learning From, and In, Tragedy

The language of violence is at once stark and ambiguous. When we experience outbursts of violence in society, both in our individual minds and in the collective sociality of minds influencing minds, we absorb them through a long-evolved system of defenses. In this process we seek to ascribe meaning to the violence we witness, directly or indirectly, in order to protect our minds and our bodies against danger. At the same time, we dissociate the experience of the violence, leaving parts of the life we are living at that moment—including our inability to make sense of it—contained in separate collections of mental states that protect the "rest of us" against what must be understood but cannot be borne.

Life works this way because doing so conduces to survival. Really smart animals, like an octopus or a hominid primate, do this well: they discern from among the flood of sensory experience and neurochemical reaction the lessons to be learned for the adaptation of behavior from the occurrence of the unendurable, while avoiding the collapse of coherent behavior that would follow from taking all the pain and distress into immediate consciousness. We don't know about the dreams of the octopus, but we can learn from our own.

A lawyer—that is, a person with a theory of social action and a license to make things happen in society using words—tries to dissociate less and discern more when faced with socially tragic and barely comprehensible circumstances. A physician facing sudden casualties from violence may dissociate some aspects of what she must do under the circumstances, but she will—through long training and the self-administered molding of her own personality—concentrate on learning everything she can as rapidly as possible about each patient's condition, determine the medical meaning of all the facts before her, so as to begin triage and treatment. The lawyer's work is not measured in seconds or minutes: we have time to think. We can therefore also imagine, study, review, and in other ways use what we see before us, directly or indirectly, to determine what the violence "means" from our chosen vantage points, and what therefore to decide we need to do in our own chosen ways.

At the epicenter of an outburst of violence, there is shock. Shock is a state of complex immediate dissociation allowing us to meet urgent demands of survival in the presence of trauma, bereavement, and other emotional conditions impossible to regulate sufficiently to allow to reach full awareness. But shock exists on a continuum of dissociative self-protection which we also experience when we are only witnesses, or readers and viewers, to some individual and potentially quite idiosyncratic extent.

As lawyers, we can be—and some of us here probably should be, to make our skills most useful to the people around us—specialized in learning about and affecting social action at such moments. We should be able to sort through the chaos of imperfect information and overwhelming feeling in order to discern what violence has meant, whether it is the violence of John Brown or that of Robert Aaron Long, and to consider possible ways of making things happen in society using words, in response.

As I have said in other contexts, this skill depends on bringing multiple viewpoints (socially, intellectually, and methodologically diverse ones, we would hope) to bear on any social process. We are trying to breed a fuller view, more rapidly, generated from different sets of assumptions and predispositions, and looking for the overlaps that consiliently ground our interpretations and conclusions.

But one aspect of shock—and of the extra-individual isomorphs in the collective mind—is insistent, exclusive, arbitrary focus. At the site of the bicycle crash in which my fourteen-year-old self broke his arm and mauled his face on a ditch full of broken pavement, I wandered around for minutes, unaware of my own injuries, trying to bend my bike frame back into shape with one useless arm. We all do that, in different ways at different times, and one aspect of learning to be a lawyer is building psychological resistance to that process in moments of high social stress or pain.

We are pressed now, this week, to hear what outbursts of violence are telling us under conditions of overwhelming intensity. We are—ready or not—learning to be just a little deeper in our understanding and more imaginative in our response, even though we are facing what we (like everybody else) cannot allow ourselves fully to experience.

Reading carefully others' writing and thinking from their perspectives, using their cognitive and cultural frameworks both to protect and to broaden our awareness, is absolutely necessary if under such circumstances we're to be both perceptive and undamaged by our perceiving. We need, as a community of minds finding meaning and deciding on action, to use one another to sustain and protect ourselves.

I tried to provide with respect to the murders in Atlanta a few starting points, neither too present nor too absent, but I hope enough of both to make interpretation in the presence of uncertainty at least something we could, with appropriate forbearance, begin. We are now evidently in a period of breath-holding before information about what happened in Boulder becomes available. Perhaps we will have the beginnings on our radar by Wednesday, perhaps not. Those who want as a point of departure to compare the statements of police and behavior of news outlets in the Atlanta and Boulder situations will, I think, find valuable insights there.

Breadth and multiplicity of view are what we are, in the midst of all this, trying to cultivate. I hope that in class on Wednesday we will be able to show both what that feels like, and why it is good for us in different and important ways.

-- EbenMoglen - 23 Mar 2021



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r1 - 23 Mar 2021 - 21:27:53 - EbenMoglen
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