The Turmoil of Studying Law: Falling Inside the Outside

by | 11 Mar 2021

“ …for the language I spoke was that of the world from which I came.”

Khalil Gibran, The Madman.[1]

I write this piece as my course on critical legal thinking comes to an end.[2] I am now a peculiar embodiment of imperfect juxtapositions – of hope and despair, empowerment and vulnerability, knowledge and inexperience, and most pertinently, of complicity in my critique. My journey with critique began with deconstructing myself. My certitude with myself as singular began to slowly unravel when I started to see the limitation in my dialectics. The idea that “I am who I am not” began to dissipate when I began to love the “other”, when journal entries from the past resonated with me over time while meaning their “opposite”, and when I tasted the bitter reality of caste privilege after sugar-coating it with ignorance. Am I the words I write, or the words I do not reveal? At this point, all that I know for certain is that nothing I know is certain. Critiquing has enabled transition in my personal, political, and jurisprudential ways. I find that my self can no longer be one single term, for neither the term nor the self exists in the singular.

As an upper-middle-class Brahmin, the legal system made sense to me. I entered the law school space and found little possibility or use in an “artificial bifurcation of thought and feeling”.[3] I was not wont to bifurcated thinking. My “own special knowledge” and my commonsense resonated with the law.[4] My default setting carried me forward for the most part and I managed to get ahead.[5] “Pseudo-leftist indoctrination” inside the classroom made me feel like an outsider.

The inside-outside dichotomy is tricky and ephemeral. The dialectics that made sense to me were shaken when I attended a summer school program at Harvard University. At the epi-centre of privilege, a host of White professors taught us of human rights violations in the “third world”. Experiencing racism firsthand in the United States turned my inside out. What was it about being there that made me listen to them and ignore my professors from back home? What ranked a foreign experience higher that of JNU? The more I think of it, the more I realise that it required having to be an outsider to understand inequality deeply. Perhaps it was timely engagement with literature and my own experience as an outsider in this prestigious location. Maybe it was the prestige of the space I was in. Perhaps it was the guilt from realising that those on the outside could better understand the faults I ignored while I was inside. The more I see, the more I question, and the more troubled I am by the paradox of having to be outside the system to understand the flaws in it. This begs the question of law and legal education itself. Should it be separate from the people it rules?

Legal education takes place in a field of pain and death.[6] I am complicit in the violence of law without having the onerous burden of interpreting it. The belief that law is the panacea to pestilence automatically assumes its infallibility. The clean boundaries that it draws in order to achieve justice appear to be the origins of injustice. In denying law’s own complicity in its promise of emancipation, us law students might pass the bar but fail the cause. Living in fool’s paradise, we trade in lessons on abstractions of justice, ideals of liberty, and knowledge of all that is wrong with our society. The discourse remains confined to the walls of the ivory tower, our Global University, built with the spoils of a clandestine practice of extraction and exploitation. Academics who question social and political realities are deemed hypocrites. Seated in the heart of privilege and using it to his advantage, Duncan Kennedy’s exaltation to a change in the system while being in it is not hypocrisy. [7] It is honesty. It comes from respecting difference and seeing the flaws that had helped him reach where he was.[8] He compels law students to “criticize without utterly rejecting, and to manipulate [it] without self-abandonment”.[9] Similarly, Davies warns her readers of engaging in dialectic without dialogic.[10] Dialogue with the so-called ‘other’ becomes important because we can recognise our complicity in our efforts to corrupt. I look at their work and find a sense of comfort and hope moving forward. 

After reading Western, male philosophy that sought a single, uncontaminated source of law, critical legal thinking came as a startling yet comforting change. The strict boundary between law and not-law is akin to a blot of ink on tissue; bound to spread and merge. We try to create meaning through difference.[11] This requires delineating an inside and an outside. We ascribe value and privilege to one over the other.[12] In doing so, we fall prey to the Western legal conceptions of following a logocentric approach in finding a definite meaning through exclusion. I see the faults in the inside. It is glaring, yet unnoticeable to the naked eye at the very first instance if that eye is not trained to observe. The training is crucial and indispensable. We see it in Indian celebrities facing flak for their hypocrisy in condemning racism in America while endorsing fairness creams back home. Indians all over are questioning the willingness of the average upper-middle-class citizen to stand with Black lives and their protests while blatantly ignoring Dalit experiences or the Anti-CAA efforts at home. We do not see our vices as quickly as we point out someone else’s. 

I often ask myself whether I am allowed to feel miserable for the racist comment I received when the things I said back home were far more violent. When you become the site of suspicion and subjugation, commonsense ceases to be ubiquitous, and language no longer remains benign. The literary accounts that I was made to read made no sense to me until my body could understand for my mind to follow. My roots had grounded me in the belief that the mind is more potent than the body. The global experience taught me otherwise and drew me closer to home in unthinkable ways. To soothe my discomfort of the inside and the outside, I find solace in the development of queer theory. In pointing out the crucial flaws of mainstream, bourgeois feminism, queer theory expands its reach to account for a whole range of genders and sexes. It takes an insider to step outside to move back within. 

The constant back and forth makes my head spin. This frenzy leaves me confused, yet curious as to where I lie now. Am I on the inside or on the outside? My linear journey to find the meaning of law, justice, and truth (if there is such a thing) has wavered. In seeing the judiciary fall prey to politics, prejudice, and bias while maintaining the façade of objectivity, the legal system I envisioned on entering law school has slipped from beneath my feet. Yet I remain suspended, levitating without crashing into an abyss in its absence. My caste and class hold me in good stead, be it during a global pandemic or in the quotidian experiences of life. The liminal space I inhabit is a cusp of both the inside and the outside. I live in aporia. I live with the protection of the legal system as I continue to critique it. My Dalit brothers and sisters cannot share a similar comfort. My screams are protected under one law while theirs are silenced under another.

There seems to be no single solution to the problem. It risks having to move from one space to another. There lies a danger of becoming the villain we critique, or the benefits of finding solutions to this problem. In overthinking and essentialising, we run the risk of losing the plot. I began this essay as I ended my jurisprudence course. I end this essay as I begin my jurisprudential journey. While I know not where I lie, I do believe that there is a greater comfort in knowing that we do not know, than in being oblivious to the same. 


[1] Excerpt from Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Other Language’ from his book titled ‘The Madman’. 
[2] Now knowing the limits of language in possibly meaning what we write and do not write. Margaret Davies, ‘Asking the Law Question: Postmodernism and Deconstruction’ (1994) Sweet & Maxwell, LBC Information Services, ISBN 0 45521 242 2.
[3] Mari J Matsuda, ‘When The First Quail Calls: Multiple-Consciousness as Jurisprudential Method’ (1992) Women’s Rights Law Reporter 213, p 8.
[4] Ibid, p 9.
[5] David Foster Wallace, ‘This is Water’. Accessible at: https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/this-is-water-by-david-foster-wallace, accessed 16 June 2020. 
[6] I deviate from Robert Cover’s acclaimed opening statement in ‘Violence and the Word’, wherein he says, “Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death.” 
[7] Duncan Kennedy, ‘Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchies’ (1982) Journal of Legal Education.
[8] Ibid at 3, p 591.
[9] Ibid, p 600. 
[10] Margaret Davies, ‘Ethics and Methodology in Legal Theory: A (personal) research anti-manifesto’ (2002) University of Wollongong. 
[11] Ibid at 2, p 366.
[12] Ibid.

1 Comment

  1. This is too good Kamya

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

POSTS BY EMAIL

Join 3,879 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.

blank
blank
blank
blank
blank
blank
blank