Ashley Mitchell

This Bridge, This Back, This Baggage: Pleading Humanity Part II

This blog post is Part II in a series that attempts to explain why factoring in an argument about humanity in the practice of law is important? No, better yet, this post attempts to explain why considering arguments for the sake of humanity matters. It may go without saying that my response is certainly not a conclusive one. In fact, I encourage engagement in the “comments” section on this premise, as well as feel free to express similar anecdotes and thoughts about your own experiences.

In her March blog post, fellow-Writer in Residence Valerie L'Herrou, had this to say: “We tend to envision history as (to borrow a phrase from evolutionary science) punctuated equilibrium: life goes on, and then some large event comes along to change things. In law, we tend to think of legal history as those large cases decided by the Supreme Court: Marbury v. Madison, Gideon, Miranda, Brown v. Board, Roe v. Wade, Windsor, Citizens United. Society is changed, and history is made. Most of the lawyers making this sort of history have been men. But feminist historians have argued for a different way of viewing history, one that has helped change the way that we conceptualize it.”

Essentially, unique human perceptions can lead to new ways of conceptualizing old ideas. Sometimes those re-conceptualizations are revolutionary. Most of time those, as WIR Valerie so aptly states, “Lawyers change society, and thus, history. They change it grandly, through cases that make the news. They change it subtly, through daily work that goes unnoticed by anyone except the people they have assisted. Lawyers change the course of people's individual lives, and by extension, our society.”

Yet, as powerful as the legal profession has been in changing the civil nature of our society, it remains a conservative profession, and likewise, ideas such as true and pure “equality for all” can be characterized as radical, unrealistic, scary, or even an undesirable, ideal. Even for those who feel that ideas such as equality and justice are the highest of ideals, seeking such ideals oftentimes feels like a vain effort. At some point, these types of people feel as if: If I have to explain it to you, then you will just never understand.

Even with that said, here is my attempt to explain it: 

What does it mean to “plead one’s humanity”?

Literally speaking, the statement may be more powerful broken down into its components. As present and future lawyers, we often use the term, “plead,” loosely, but it means to “make an emotional appeal,” or “to present and argue for a position especially in court in another public context.” Of course, as aspiring and practicing lawyers we know this.

Humanity means “the human race” or “human beings collectively”.

Together, the phrase can be interpreted literally as arguing that one is a human being and should be treated accordingly.

What does a plea for one’s humanity look like?

In a law school discussion, the usual suspects include the following examples:

  • Arguing that the way that a woman dresses does not indicate unwarranted sexual attention advances. Why? Because women are human beings.
  • Arguing that being Black or Latino does not indicate danger sufficient to arouse automatic suspicion and action from law enforcement. Why? Because ethnic minorities are human beings.
  • Arguing that being a teenager does not indicate trouble sufficient to arouse a stranger to shoot and kill them and claim self-defense. Why? Because teenagers are human beings.

It matters that practitioners and future practitioners recognize that these arguments are valid because, essentially, one’s humanity matters. We all have a right to exist independently of anyone’s judgment of another’s very existence. The law is presumptively written to protect that right and should be defended and upheld as such. It’s unfortunate, though, that there exist times when one must first argue that they are human to be treated as one, under the law. 

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