Wisdom and Hope from a Law Student

Third year Mitchell Hamline student, Thomas Dolan, reflects on the semester:

The past few weeks’ classes have felt particularly fraught—with anxiety, with dread, with the grim specter of hopelessness hanging over our every word, but in a strange way, these sessions have been productive in a way others were not.

After learning, over the past few months, how to don our various critical “goggles,” we had to reckon with the fact that, now that we have these goggles, what we see through them will likely take a real and devastating toll on us, both psychologically and emotionally.

To a straight, white male from a background of economic privilege, much of the appeal of this class lay in the opportunity to hear the experiences and perspectives of people whose lives have been very different from my own, and to confront within myself those aspects of privilege that can lead even the most well-intentioned people into serving and reproducing relationships of oppression.

Another point of interest to me was the prospect of really delving into the ways lawyers can recognize and help to dismantle the kinds of toxic, hierarchical systems that have long under-girded our society. If such systems were once invisible, hidden by layers of “tradition” or law, it seems they have grown weary of the shadows, now strutting about in our midst, handily personified by the shambling oafs and dead-eyed charlatans currently infesting the White House.

This course has delivered on both counts, and I’m deeply grateful to have this new set of analytical tools and emotional awarenesses.  But the last few weeks have involved the discussion of an utterly essential parallel skill. We have tried to answer the following questions:

Once awakened to the utter, all-encompassing subjugation, exploitation, and systemic dehumanization built into so much of our reality, how the hell is a person supposed to get out of bed in the morning?

And is it ever okay to take these goddamn goggles off?

Whether one is frozen by fear—as my trans cousin has been since the election; or by hopelessness—like many who thought a Clinton Presidency was as certain as the sun rising again tomorrow; or by guilt, rage, or the sense that there is JUST TOO MUCH [CRAP] GOING ON TO FOCUS ON ONE THING, FOR GOD’S SAKE; we must hold paralysis and resignation at bay. But how?

Our discussions here were difficult, but necessarily so. Thankfully, the group has developed enough trust in each other that we were able to get really vulnerable and specific about our fears and despairs, and nobody seemed to feel obligated to reflexively bright-side anyone else. As a result, what began as a very un-Midwestern baring of our deepest existential anxieties turned into something that—for me—took on a really cathartic tone, and, eventually, a discussion on the very nature, utility, and feasibility of what we might dare to call “hope” in times like these.

We discussed the deeply jarring cognitive dissonance provoked by an abiding faith in Dr. King’s “Long Arc of History Bending Toward Justice” metaphor on the one hand, and Everything Going On in the World Right Now on the other. After decades of being able to take some degree of incremental social progress as something of a given, the psychotically cruel and shockingly petty political revanchism of the Trumpenreich feels less like a political setback and more like watching a gang of feces-flinging baboons eating the Constitution and beating up our dad.

Personally, however, I don’t believe the “Long Arc” theory is refuted by recent events. In my mind, the metaphor describes not a law of nature—like gravity, say—but an observation about the nature of human beings. What I mean is that I don’t think Dr. King meant to imply that there’s some cosmic force compelling the world toward justice, and that if we just wait long enough, things will work themselves out. Obviously, this is not true; if there is any historic-gravitational force at work—that is, if there is a predictable direction in which modern societies drift when people of conscience stop paying attention—it is almost certainly in the opposite direction: toward feudalism, hierarchy, and rule by force. The long arc of history, when looked at from a distance, does bend toward justice, but a closer look reveals that it only does so when there are people bending it with all their might.