Sem 2 Wk 12
The two-by-four meter portraits of those who came before us immediately catch the eye on entering MLS. Like all imagery though, the response elicited is unique for each of us. If you are a person of colour, female, disabled, or queer, your response might be different to that of other students. Your admiration for lives dedicated to creating meaningful change in society may blend with a cognisance that a part of the reason that you do not resemble those in the frames is by virtue of overtly exclusionary public policies in our very recent past. The historically closed nature of the law, which in some ways continues today, manifests in a number of implicit signals including these portraits .
In response to implicit signals like this, autonomous spaces have been created to send explicit counter-signals. This is achieved by facilitating discussion in environments that are restricted to individuals who identify as a member of a particular minority group and often expanded to include allies. Recent examples include the inter-uni queer mixer, the people of colour lunch, and the women’s portfolio networking night. Consider just two of these explicit counter-signals.
The first is derived from the interactions between minority students and professionals which ameliorates the sense of homogeneity in the law. This is good for the entire community. Students will be far more likely to pursue opportunities including the competitions, MULR/MJIL, LSS roles, overseas exchange, internships and clerkships when they know that people who look like them or share their identity have done it before and been successful.
The second is the message sent in these events, that while someone like you may not have been welcome at the law school in the past, you now are. As a person of colour, this was a message that I appreciated on commencing the course, and it mattered that it was delivered by the LSS with the support of the faculty and the majority of the student body. This was excellently expounded in another piece recently.
The arguments put forward against these events have largely been based on propositions that are either logically flawed or dispelled by social science data. Instead, I’d suggest that they have no deleterious impacts for anyone in the community.
The first proposition is that autonomous spaces are divisive due to their purpose and discourse. Examples given of discourse in the context of race include entrenching white guilt, and propagating reverse racism. The purpose has been framed as a form of reparation for historical wrongs.
Such a conclusion requires the presupposition that the intentions of participants in autonomous events and spaces are antagonistic. Applying one's unconscious biases to assume the thoughts of others is usually an unwise way to prosecute an argument, but importing a hostile intention on another without a reasonable basis is irresponsible. This also shifts the conversation from being deliberative to adversarial before it has begun.
The second argument is that autonomous events are inherently harmful, as the focus upon the inclusion of one group must necessarily be to the exclusion of another group. A recent example was in relation to the people of colour lunch, with the suggestion that it was commensurate to a ‘white-students only’ lunch.
This issue here, is that it is logically inconsistent to frame inclusion as a zero-sum exercise. As an able-bodied male who does not identify as queer, the notion that a women-only, queer students-only, or disabled students-only event could make me feel less welcome seems absurd. Rather, autonomous events are designed to improve on the sense of inclusion for the minority group members with no impact on the sense of inclusion for the majority group members. Alternatively, an event that includes only the majority group (such as a white students only lunch) is unlikely to improve upon the sense of inclusion for the majority group members, while detracting from the inclusion of the minority group members.
The third idea promulgated is that the most effective mechanism to create equality and champion diversity is through entirely non-discriminatory platforms. While this may be a rational framework in an abstract thought experience, in real world applications, this is often ineffective. Numerous studies have shown that special measures and positive discrimination are more effective at achieving targeted outcomes, including inclusion, at a faster rate than universal approaches.
I truly believe that those opposed to autonomous spaces aren’t racist, misogynistic, or homophobic. However, the ideas that have been touted in opposition to autonomous events have the potential to be harmful.
There may be a time when autonomous spaces and positive discrimination policies cease to serve a purpose, but we haven’t reached that point. If we’re genuine about our intention to make law school a place that facilitates and encourages all to seek fulfilment, that means doing everything that we can to ensure that these spaces are a part of our environment. That it comes at no cost is just a cherry on the cake.