Critical Reflection

We left off yesterday worrying the nut of how to decide what to do, and when and how to do it.  I have continued to worry that nut, to some (I hope) productive end: I have learned that in order to engage effectively and responsibly in any kind of sustained action, I need to practice critical reflection to identify goals, methods, obstacles and tools for such engagement.  (Apologies in advance for my abstraction.  I’ll get more concrete, I promise.)

As I have written elsewhere (plug here for Margaret Johnson’s and my new book:, critical reflection pushes me (all of us?) to explore and uncover the assumptions through which I (all of us!) tend to pass any information that comes our way — including how we define and categorize people we perceive as needing our assistance.

Through critical reflection, I self-consciously place myself within the particular context in which I am operating:  Specifically, I recognize that I, as a lawyer and a professor, am someone with (relative) power in the legal and political system — in that I knows its rules and how to use them; and I have access to channels of communication and influence.  That is what I bring to the table.

Through critical reflection, I self-consciously evaluate my power and ability to act in relation to the other characters involved in the  particular context in which I am operating:   Those other characters could be judges, other lawyers, government officials — all of whom also have inherent power in the legal and political system.  But the other characters are also protest movements, community organizations, other professionals, affected communities and individuals, etc..  And while those kinds of entities might NOT have the embedded power that I and other lawyers and professors have, they have their own power, emanating from different sources.  Critical reflection helps me identify, assess and make intentional choices about engaging with those sources of power.

Through critical reflection, I recognize impediments to my (and others’) power to function in the particular context I’m operating in:  My gender, for example, or my apparent sexual orientation; my age; my experience; my familiarity with particular areas of law or procedural practice; my time availability; my energy level; my confidence, etc.  Through critical reflection I have learned to pay attention and notice which of these kinds of things might undermine my effectiveness and/or get in the way of my engagement.  Critical reflection also helps me identify the power of the other characters, and any impediments on their ability to participate and engage effectively.

So basically, I use critical reflection to identify:

  • my general goals
  • my specific goals
  • my strengths (sources of power)
  • my challenges (impediments to power)
  • others’ strengths (sources of power)
  • others’ challenges (impediments to power)

I do this reflection by reminding myself to be humble both about how much power and knowledge I have and can contribute; but also about how much power and knowledge I DON’T have and shouldn’t try to contribute.  I remind myself not to be afraid to ask questions, to seek help from others with more expertise, to acknowledge that I am not the only one with power, drive, passion, commitment and determination.

I think what I have come to realize is that to engage in long-term resistance and rebuilding, I need to keep my spiritual and intellectual and emotional house in order.  I need to understand WHY I want to engage in resistance before I decide what to do and how to do it.  Critical reflection is my tool for gaining this understanding.

It’s not all navel gazing — this reflection does lead me to action — but it’s a marathon, people.  We’ve gotta pace ourselves.

Stay tuned . . .