Speak Now

We’ll see about that.

Last year, I wrote a Very Serious Piece for 1Ls with advice on how to succeed at law school. However, given the events of the past year and the current state of the world, I thought I’d write something more lighthearted.

But then Charlottesville happened.

According to the President, there were “very fine people on both sides” in the streets of Charlottesville. According to the President, there were “very fine people” chanting “Jews will not replace us.” According to the President, there were “very fine people” waving swastikas and torches.

As it turns out, many people disagreed with the President, including members of his own cabinet. Dean John Manning wrote that “[t]he acts of violence, extremism, and bigotry by these white supremacist groups demand clear and unambiguous denunciation,” rather at odds with the President’s suggestion that there were very fine white supremacists in Charlottesville. 3L Tyra Walker has written a piece on Charlottesville as well, drawing a comparison with the history of the Nazis.

And yet I am here saying all that has not been enough. Now, I do not point the finger at Gary Cohn, or Dean Manning, or Tyra. No, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Lawyers – and law students – are a naturally cautious and wary people. Only too often will we shy away from voicing any political opinion for fear of annoying a future employer, client, or Senate committee. How many lawyers, who are only too happy to churn out brief after brief, contract after contract, have written a word on recent events? How many law students (though by no means only law students), who will complain endlessly in private about politics, will say anything in public on such matters, lest that utterance mark them in the future as a person of conviction?

What does it say about us if we are so concerned about that hypothetical Senate confirmation hearing that we will not even lift a finger against hate (or at least not without the protection of Facebook privacy settings)? What do we stand for if we cannot stand against Nazis and white supremacists? How can our profession declare we are for justice if we cannot even declare we are against the plainest bigotry?

It is true that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it is also true that in the long run we are all dead. We mustn’t be satisfied with the fact that this too will pass, for real people will live – and die – while we wait. These episodes of hate and division cannot pass quickly enough, and they will pass all the more slowly if we do nothing. And yet, for the most part, we do nothing.

But wait, it gets worse.

The road to neo-Nazis killing a woman in broad daylight is a long road. Society does not reach such a point overnight. And yet, as we trod that road, it was not ambiguous whether we were on that path or a more enlightened one.

Only too often during the 2016 election did self-professed patriots – in the face of clear evidence to the contrary – endorse the President as a person who would advance America’s interests. They did so with knowledge — either constructive or actual — that the President would likely prioritize his family and himself over the American people.

Who of us spoke up then? Who of us was brave enough to not only recognize the threat, but to take proud and public action to avert a crisis?

Historically speaking, HLS students and alumni have not been fence sitters. Rather, they have put their lives on the line against such forces of hatred and tyranny. On the fourth floor of the Langdell Library, there is a memorial to the dozens of HLS students and alumni who died fighting against fascism in World War II. A few feet away from that memorial lay the lunchbox of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was not only an HLS alumnus, but an officer in the Union Army. Besides Justice Holmes, 284 other HLS students and alumni fought for the Union in the Civil War.

We are fortunate to not yet become embroiled in such a thing so terrible as war. I do not ask any of you to literally fight for what is right, only to speak up for what is right. As former HLS professor Elizabeth Warren said at a recent town hall, “it matters when you speak out.”

And so, I encourage all of you to speak, and especially before a controversy becomes a crisis. Individually, our voices may be small. But we need not a megaphone when we all speak. And we must all speak against racism or intolerance. When you see something, say something. Make your voice heard. If nothing else, you can always write to us.

For better or for worse, there are many whose minds have been made up.  There are many people who have thrown their lot in with hate. As with the parable of the prodigal son, we should welcome such people back into civil society when they are prepared to turn away from bigotry and intolerance, but not until then.[1]

However, for each committed white supremacist, there are many more people who are watching from the sidelines. The proponents of hate lure such observers with promises of economic prosperity and of social elevation. These promises are tempting. Indeed, many people were so lured in the 2016 election.

Contrary to an all-too-common refrain, it is our job to educate others that these promises are false and would in any case come at an unconscionable cost. As another Republican president once said, “with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” And as law students and future lawyers, our work is in our words.

I hope that more violence may yet be averted, but I know that more controversy and strife is inevitable. Where will today’s Harvard Law School students stand? What will we say? That is for each of you to decide.

The opinions expressed herein are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Record.

[1] Tolerance is not a cudgel, but a contract of mutual respect. When one party breaches (say, by being Nazis), the other parties to the tolerance contract are no longer obligated to uphold their end and tolerate such behavior.

Jim An is the editor-in-chief of The Harvard Law Record and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.

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