Critiquing The Law And Discomfort

This semester, in my philosophy of law class, my students and I have attempted to work our way through a collection of ‘critical legal studies‘ articles; these run the gamut from critical legal histories to feminist legal theory to critical race theory. The reactions of my students to these pieces, and in particular to the second and third members of the list just made note of–represented by the writings of Catharine MacKinnon and Alan Freeman respectively–has been instructive.

Feminism makes men uncomfortable; for different reasons, it also makes women uncomfortable. It induces discomfort in men by reminding them of their privileged position of power; it induces discomfort in women by reminding them of this imbalance, and sometimes, of their own complicity in maintaining it. Both these reactions were on display as we read and discussed MacKinnon in class, especially in her claim that the ‘legal point of view’ is just the ‘male point of view.’ Her discussion of rape law, and especially of how the law understands the crucial notion of ‘consent,’ brought vital aspects of her critique together; no other component of her writing, not even the infamous ‘in a patriarchal, sexist society structured by forces of masculine domination, all sex is rape’ claim, made the students as uncomfortable as this discussion; they might have realized their own implication in the critique they were reading. They might also have imagined, like most other legal subjects, that whatever the messiness and infinite complications and entanglements of human sexuality, those were all magically resolved by the cleansing antiseptic force of legal formulations, categories, and reasoning. Not so; instead, seeking refuge in law as a response to the ‘problem,’ the ‘crime,’ of rape had merely allowed for the further institutionalization and entrenchment of sexism and male prejudice, now disguised as societal reason.

Talk of racial discrimination too, especially in a society like the US, induces discomfort. It reminds some that their assumed positions of merit and power rest on shaky, morally suspect, foundations; it serves notice that a dishonorable history underwrites this supposedly glorious present. And as in feminist legal theory, it points to how a supposed dispenser of fairness and justice is instead, in point of fact, the repository and the engine of social prejudice. The rhetoric on display here is similar: a claim is made to the rational dispensation of justice, to only be guided by ‘logic’ and ‘evidence’; the results as in the case of rape law, are eerily similar: claims of racial discrimination disappear when subjected to the inspection of the legal lens; the perspective or point of view of a central actor, the ‘victim,’ is ignored. Here again, an uncomfortable silence descends over many in the classroom; a reminder has been served that the assumption of a calm working out of an impeccable meritocratic logic serves only to mask the violence done to those finding themselves stuck with the short end of the legal stick.

Sometimes my students are curious and ask about what happened to the ‘critical legal studies movement’; I respond that the discomfort they experienced as ‘mere’ legal subjects in attempting to tackle its claims would only have been a  fraction of that experienced by those on the inside: the practitioners and theoreticians of law themselves. They would have actively sought to assuage their discomfort; the institutional displacement of critical legal studies would have suggested itself as a possibly remedy.

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