Learning to sell out

BY LENA LAMB

Sellout. The term is simple and its connotations obvious – to most. It’s a derisive term applied to those who have traded previously professed ideals for a cash payment or other reward. The term also implies betrayal of people to whom one has a perceived duty of loyalty. To members of closely-knit, oppressed groups, it can be a terrible insult. In the Harvard Law School community, however, it is yet another term with a very confused meaning, destroyed by a culture that is infinitely tolerant of hypocrisy and by training that allows us to rob any term of its power – particularly one that challenges our elite positions.

The cultural position of a sellout in the HLS community is quite interesting. Like many other words over the last several years, it has become the property of its intended targets. Those HLS students who have made the decision to abandon their beliefs in such concepts as justice and racial, gender and sexual equality (or to push them aside for a short period of their entire professional lives) in exchange for the financial and other benefits of working for the defenders of the racist, patriarchal, homophobic status quo will banter the term “sellout” between themselves as a way of defusing its power. If someone who has made a different choice were to confront these students using that term, however, she would commit a major social faux pas.

The entire social atmosphere of the 2L year is centered around the efforts of liberals to justify their choice to actively participate in oppression – both in their work and in the culture of their prospective firms – in preparation for their future employment. Indeed, for many people who identify themselves as members of oppressed groups, a significant aspect of their careers will consist of only actually “being” their identity when it comes time to fill out employer surveys on diversity. After all, importing external social concerns (especially those derived from one’s sense of self) into one’s legal analysis is clearly incorrect and anti-legal. The primary purpose of legal education is to remove our previous identity connections and replace them with the professional identity of a “lawyer.” Things are a bit easier for those students that simply believe in liberal conceptions of justice and equality but do not identify themselves with an oppressed group; all that will be required of them will be turning a blind eye to the consequences of their work and to the ontological torment of their friends and colleagues.

To prepare us for the necessity of ignoring our complicity in perpetuating inequalities and violating previously held beliefs, we practice during our second year of law school (except for those precocious students that got an early jump on the rest of us). We tell ourselves that we need “experience” in order to do good work and that is why we’ve decided to go into large corporate firm work.

This gets even easier if we can get a couple of public interest employers to tell us to get some firm experience first: “See, it’s not our fault -it’s just the way the system is set up.” Of course, we never question that system or challenge it. Or, we tell ourselves that it’s our loan debt that “forces” us into large corporate firm work. We conveniently forget that the LIPP program is quite generous and completely resolves this problem – which gets us to our personal favorite excuse: That we can’t live on the amounts made available by LIPP. Now, last we checked, LIPP pays all loans up to somewhere in the high thirty-thousands of dollars of income. For comparative purposes, a couple of years ago the median income for a family of four in the U.S. went over $40,000 for the first time. But we couldn’t possibly survive on an income of around $40,000. There are a number of people here in need of a serious education on what poverty actually is.

Of course, this is a short and by no means inclusive list of the multitude of excuses we make to justify selling out or to undermine the force of the term. Harvard Law students can be a relatively creative group when it comes to justifying their elite positions. And it is completely inappropriate to point out just how hypocritical we’re all being. Anyone who used the term “sellout” aggressively with the intention of forcing people to confront their hypocrisy would be immediately marginalized. After all, no one wants to feel uncomfortable with what we “have” to do. Far be it from us to point out anything of the sort.

Comments