Law in Contemporary Society

Business as Usual

-- By ChaseLax - 19 May 2015

The readings I most enjoyed this semester were the excerpts from Lawyerland and The Behavior of Law, and, as a result, I felt most engaged in our class discussions concerning splitting and Donald Black’s sociological explanatory framework. While the insights of these works reveal enlightening, if not troubling patterns regarding the human subconscious and the functioning of communities respectively, they also risk intimating a sense of inevitability and may lead one to discount the impact of individual motivation. Consequently, I found Dean Lester’s email announcing the death of Jackson Alberts to be a jarring reminder that much of our social reality is shaped by personal value judgments.

Not Simply Splitting

Though the cause of Jackson’s passing was never announced, both the tone and substance of the Dean’s message induced an all-too familiar feeling of emptiness; five of my classmates committed suicide during my senior year of college, so I recognized the hollowness of statements like “We know we are united in mourning the loss of such a promising member of our community” and knew that the stress of exams would quickly override the momentary sense of shock.

Harkening back to our conversation on the lack of human capacity to fathom tragedy, one might be tempted to view our tendency to quickly move past student deaths as another example of splitting. Just as the horrific events of September 11th resulted in years of litigation over insurance semantics, perhaps the lack of a lasting communal impact could be understood as a means of reconciling our inability to internalize great loss. Yet, more than a year removed from those five suicides, the news of one in particular, the athletically gifted and socially involved Madison Holleran, continues to reverberate. As Madison’s death commanded an immense amount of attention in its aftermath and continues to today, our usual, more apathetic stance must not be solely due to a habitual repression of reminders of events with which we cannot cope.

A Clear Message

Thinking about the loss of Madison and its social impact from Black’s perspective, one may point to her radial location within UPenn’s community in order to explain the increased attention. In line with Black’s theory on centrifugal and centripetal social forces, an integrated victim who had connected with more individuals might logically garner more sympathy. In examining the nature rather than just the magnitude of the mourning over Madison, however, it becomes evident that other elements must have been highly influential. Instead of the non-descript announcement that was employed for the other suicides, the national news articles that covered the story underscored the fact that this student was “beautiful.” With the additional details of her athletic prowess and immense popularity, the clearly perceptible sentiment from the public reaction was that Madison was not the type of person who was supposed to want to kill herself.

The Implication

The unfortunate converse of such a response is that it was not so unexpected for the other suicidal students, like the more eccentric Elvis Hatcher or reclusive Josh Singh, to have that desire, and this implicit justification of the outsider’s plight became even more apparent in subsequent coverage of the incident. Many outlets began to focus more on Madison’s mental health issues, and others allocated the blame towards feelings of inferiority engendered by social media. Regardless of the proffered explanations, the societal insistence that something had gone wrong in this case and the prolonged effort to deduce what exactly that was suggests that in spite of the typical reminders of the availability of mental health counselors following a suicide, maybe schools are not that interested in figuring out why their students are killing themselves in the first place. Boilerplate acknowledgements of student suicides bereft of any meaningful institutional reflection or change is simply, in effect, an affirmation of the low relative value and importance of certain types of individuals.

A Disturbing Trend

Crucially, not only does this implicit personal value judgment stigmatize specific individuals, it preserves the notion of what a particular status within a community entails, potentially preventing students like Madison from seeking out any help that is available, lest they become a victim of the same societal inferences and associations. Unfortunately, this dynamic is also inherently cyclical, as the more we ostracize and discount the worth of those on the periphery, the greater the pressure to fit in, suppress any sense or appearance of vulnerability, and further distance oneself from those who are already isolated. Unsurprisingly, therefore, according to the American College Health Association, the suicide rate among young adults has tripled since the 1950’s.

A Potential Explanation

Various commentators have remarked that Millennials, more so than previous generations, possess an inherent fear of failure. Though the existence of such fear may be indisputable, the epidemic may not just be attributable to a higher innate presence of risk-aversion due to increased student loans, artificially protected levels of self-esteem, and a shrinking market for job opportunities; perhaps this fear has developed, at least in part, as a natural outcrop of how society in general consciously treats and values its members that have ostensibly failed to integrate themselves within a community. Whether we are faced with a withdrawn, suicidal college student or even a homeless person resigned to sleeping on the street and begging for quarters outside of Appletree Market, our propensity to continue on matter-of-factly cannot simply be explained through convenient dissociation or de-psychologized social processes. While these mechanisms may be at work, they are driven by unambiguous value judgments, a phenomenon that applies increasing amounts of pressure and suffocating force to both integrated and non-integrated university students alike.

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r5 - 29 Jun 2015 - 21:43:24 - MarkDrake
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