Law as a profession has been often ridiculed for its lack of integrity, greed, and immorality. Justice as a profession has been criticized for the joyous self-exiles of its people behind their ivory towers. Some would be even offended by me calling it a ‘profession’. It is a ‘service’ they would claim. I don’t entirely subscribe to the disparaging tone against lawyers, not because I am to become one myself, but because I could claim to vouch for their constant moral and ethical dismembering attitude. Lawyers and judges are taught to understand everything down to its bare bones, to be Socratic, to contest, interrogate, examine, historicize and contextualize everything. But what about emotions and integrity and honour and empathy, I ask? Why must they be buried beneath all the facts? Courts are “courts of law and not courts of justice” as remarked the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. But what about our lives? Must our lives be led in no fashion of justice and fairness?
Facts matter, even so, more in this era, the era of ‘post-truth’ where the Nietzschean subjectivity of truth has been betrayed and misappropriated. Previously ‘lying’ was a widely accepted survival tactic in law, politics, and diplomacy. Today, it is accepted everywhere, from college debates to parliament debates, from lying in a Model United Nations to lying in the United Nations. The facts simply don’t matter. Everyone is entitled to their interpretation and opinion and the freedom of speech that prescribes it, and everyone is right. “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
This was not the background against which I entered my law school two years ago. A famed and very reputed law school in India, currently one of the best, with great excellence in academics and mooting along with its greeting Kafkaesque administration building (I don’t refer to the administration as Kafkaesque, only the building that houses it, that is its design). I entered law school with my mind as an empty slate and a heart full or prejudices, just like everyone else. Two and a half years later, I can claim that the slate is getting filled extensively and my heart is being wiped out of all prejudices. And there is no freedom as such as the freedom from your prejudices, unlearning the learned, forgiving your past self and being reborn as a human being who is willing to listen and who is willing to empathise and act and help. I write today, in a raging age of social media, a democracy that would frighten the likes of even liberal Democrats like J.S. Mill or Bentham or Henry Sidgwick or even our very own founding fathers. I believe this is a dystopia even unimaginable to Orwell, although he did predict much of it, a dystopia where freedom of speech invades the right to privacy and the right against discrimination.
I may be accused of being too harsh against my generation when I call them non-reflective, non-introspective and inconsequential in their thinking. But that is a true depiction of my generation I believe, the generation which wants to die when the memes run out and the notifications stop blinking. Ours is the meme generation. We laugh at everything because everything is a joke, the exception only being ourselves because we are also the generation of narcissists, who are raised to believe that they’re the best, the most beautiful and the best generation, aspirants of the Kim Kardashian fame but not of the greatness of people like Ambedkar. Recently a person (who must not be named), a fellow law student of a ‘great, premier law school’ shared a meme on Dr. Ambedkar which was supposed to evoke a laugh at the irony of the ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ placard placed against the bust of Dr. Ambedkar in a particular place.
Facebook, as may be common knowledge, allows for reactions and comments on the post, the reactions being ‘angry’, ‘laughing’, ‘crying’, ‘exclaiming in awe’, ‘loving’ or just mere ‘liking’. Calls for a rather emotionally erudite platform I must say. There were several reactions to the post, the highest being the ‘laughing’ reaction followed by ‘liking’. There were also ‘love’ reactions to the post believe it or not. The original post (which had been put up by a page) also had a disproportionately high number of ‘laughing’ reactions to the post. What does it mean, plainly, without any legal dissection? People are laughing, not at the irony, but at Dr. Ambedkar being an untouchable in his life. They get the irony but the irony which forms the joke, is to demean Dr. Ambedkar, and they laughed at that. I just let the person know that it was rather ‘insensitive’ to put up such a post. However, the gentleman that I’ve been taught to be, as my family and my profession demands, I didn’t barrage him/her to take it down. I didn’t because that would be ‘moral policing’ and denying the right to debate, and also the person’s right to be wrong. That person, however, who is, as you might have assumed by now, not belonging to any lower caste, shot me off by claiming his/her ‘right to his/her social media’. I was obviously taken aback, although such attitudes are to be expected from a ‘premier law school student’ in India. A counter, however, was quick to follow.
There were calls for a silent and peaceful counter against this, and it started with angry reacts against the person’s shared post. Thereafter followed a post by my dear friend who wrote against the sharing of such casteist memes, which was shared and ‘liked’ and ‘loved’ by multiple students and even professors. A bigger movement against such casteist and racial humour on social media is still desirable and needed.
“Empathy”, Dr. Cornel West writes in the ‘Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society’, “is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it.” This is what law schools in India don’t teach. Speaking with all your eloquence, when you must, standing up when the roof above someone else’s head falls down, taking to your ego when the collective justice of a society is robbed of its value. Mooting is a big activity in a law school, especially in law schools in India. Students go to great lengths to defend their non-existent clients of a non-existent country, a non-existent jurisdiction, in a non-existent case and in a non-existent court. Somehow, they’re all very convinced about their reality. But what about the real people and the real cases? That is apparently what they’ve not been taught to stand up for. When my multiple Dalit brothers and sisters were offended by that post, a few of us did stand up for what was right, for what was just and against what was wrong, but that was just a few of us. The rest enjoyed their time either in splendid isolation or in working on a non-existent case for a non-existent client and many others laughed away wildly at the outrageous post. And I don’t blame them because that is what they have been taught to do. That is our teaching. They don’t teach justice in law schools in India, they teach only law.
I’d run out of space and words to describe the kind of oppression against the SCs and the STs in my college, a place where people are to speak the word equality as a wedding vow, a place where we had come supposedly to ‘broaden’ our minds. All that we have broadened till now is our legal acumen. In the future, we plan on broadening our pay scales and that’s about it. I am of course not discounting the people who are still conscious, who are self-reflective and who are critical thinkers, the people who stand up and who stood up, few of them who I’m honoured to have as friends, batchmates, juniors, seniors, and professors. But if we are to call for a real intellectual vocation, I’d say that we are still at a very apathetic nascent stage. Don’t get me wrong. Our education is fine. We are taught all of the great liberal thinkers, from the Sandels to the Rawls to the Ambedkars. It’s just the learning where we are failing. We are failing in learning because we are not reflecting and we are glued to memes and the social media. Our rivers of thought are running dry and the streams of consciousness have no source to flow from. We are speaking, but only when we are debating or mooting. We are thinking, but only when we are writing papers or exams. I fear the day they put legal and political theory and ethics out of syllabus, that’ll be the day all the moral and ethical anarchy will be validated.
I’m not utterly hopeless and pessimistic about my country. I have no right to be until I have given it my life. I do however hold a very nihilistic view when it comes to the caste issue. Even today, 18 million (39%) of the 46 million worldwide slaves happen to be in India. At the root of this problem is, of course, the caste system which has perpetuated it over millenniums and centuries. The reasons you see are not restricted just to the elite Brahman class, or the rural uneducated milieu. It is everyone, although I can’t speak for everyone, I know I can speak for the ones who are perpetuating this through memes on social media. Some happen to be my close friends, others close relatives.
Earlier this year, Harvard revoked admission of at least 10 students for sharing offensive and obscene memes in a private Facebook group chat, sometimes even joking about sensitive topics such as the Holocaust. This was a very responsible action taken by the University and serves a very strong message to racists. I wish such an action was taken against the person and the people in my college who shared that particular meme. Why? They are equally guilty, and if we are to maintain ‘global standards’ as we so often boast of, we might as well learn our lessons from places like Harvard.
Joking about social tragedies is not funny and should be taken up very seriously, firstly by the social media groups and secondly by the institutions that these offenders belong to. Yes, they’re offenders and I will not shy from tagging them as such. Sure we cannot have an Orwellian thought police, and Puritanism and sainthood is not something I prescribe. All I ask is for people to keep their filthy thoughts to themselves because once it is out, in the social media where there are multiple viewers, it actually is capable of hurting one particular religion, caste, and class of a society. To put it simply: the erstwhile monopoly of information rested with the print media and the corporate media houses, and the monopoly of knowledge, in pure Foucaldian terms, rested with the elite Brahman class (at least for India). Today, both the ‘monopoly of information’ and the ‘monopoly of knowledge’ have shifted to ‘the people’ and ‘the citizens’. This is essentially why today more people are listening and following Kim Kardashian than a world changer like, say, Edward Snowden or Julian Assange.
Neo-liberal policies and attitudes of governments also have a lot to contribute to this change but that requires an entirely different space to be discussed in. Since the ‘people’ control the news, the news reaches people way faster and the reactions are hence as fast, usually all knee-jerk reactions. There is no cyclical resting point for the news. Think of this. Would such a casteist joke be put up on a newspaper previously? No. But social media allows for all of this intellectual carnage and hence people’s responsibility for their speech expands manifold. Yes, great, the freedom of speech has been expanded, but that shouldn’t mean that my liberty and my personal sanctity and heritage and culture should kneel down in front of the Damocles’ Sword of ‘freedom of speech’. So I ask, can’t we learn a bit of justice and empathy too, in a school of law?
Swagat Barua Gujarat National Law University. I am also the founder and managing editor of Catharsis Magazine, founder, and editor of the Indian Journal of Constitutional & Administrative Law and founder and managing editor of the Journal of Political Theory & Philosophy.