When people ask what I do, I answer that I’m a disability rights lawyer and prepare to inwardly cringe when they respond with something like “Thank you for doing good.” I did not quite understand why I cringe until ruminating on these thoughts of a fictional public interest lawyer:
“One did good for others not for the others’ sake, nor for oneself… This seemed to suggest that there was no reason at all to do good, and yet it did feel like an imperative. She did it for some kind of abstract notion, perhaps, an idea that this was part of making their time the early days of a better world. Something like that. Some crazy notion. She was crazy, she knew it; she was compensating probably for some lack or loss; she was finding a way to occupy her busy brain. It seemed like a right way to behave. It passed the time in a way more interesting than most ways she had tried. Something like that.” Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140.
I think people assume I’m doing “good” in a conventional sense of the term that I help individuals in need. And many of my fellow public interest lawyers do good for others’ sake in this sense. They engage in one individual representation after another, helping one person to avoid an eviction, another to obtain special education services, the next to be discharged from the state hospital, and so on, while the system keeps chugging along finding new people to oppress.
I find achieving good outcomes for individuals does feel satisfying, yet I decline opportunities for such satisfaction. I avoid individual representations in favor of pursuing systemic reform–e.g., class actions, prison investigations, legislative or regulatory change–even though victories, if any, are fewer and farther between. Thus, I do not do good for others, but rather against the status quo, the system, the hierarchy. I would not even call it “good,” for this distinction marks a fundamental difference in conception between an advocate who works within the system as it was intended to redress an individual’s suffering versus one who works within individuals’ suffering to expose, embarrass, and undermine the hierarchy controlling the system.
Of course, ultimately, this systemic work is for others, and not just for the individuals suffering in a particular case. It is for all of us, because the hierarchy oppresses everyone, not just the marginalized, though the marginalized are the lens through which we can most clearly see the contradictions characterizing systemic injustice. As a bonus, if we can change the lot of people at the bottom, we raise the floor for everyone — and we might even benefit from their inclusion in society.
But I harbor no illusions that systemic reform is actually likely to result from my efforts. For the most part, I will toil in vain, providing some solace to the oppressed who tell me their stories but little relief because the oppression is so widespread and entrenched. This prospect could be an argument in favor of advocates who achieve discrete outcomes on an individual basis, drops in the bucket though they are. But my work feels like an imperative, and probably does compensate for a lack–a lack of feeling I belong in our society–and it certainly is interesting. And I can hope I am taking part in “making [our] time the early days of a better world. Something like that.”