Steep Climbs

"When day comes, we ask ourselves
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?"


I had no intention of staying up until two in the morning to finish checking final exam papers, but I tuned in to Joe Biden's inauguration and decided to watch until the end. Something about going through my students' answers on legality, moral justification, Dworkin's hard cases, and MLK's nonviolent direct action made me realize how important it is to be reminded that for our institutions to work, we must not lose sight of people. Actual people. Citizens are not some abstract concept — our laws affect us directly. Words have a tangible effect on us. When leaders see their constituents as humans, rather than mere pawns, change - the good kind - can happen. 

*

I've had the privilege of being invited to teach at the University of Makati School of Law last semester. I taught Philosophy of Law to wide-eyed and eager first years. I was just as eager. More than just teaching them the law, I felt it was important to impart the wisdom behind it — especially given everything that's happening. Why do we need it? How can it be used for the greater good? And to what extent should it shape our lives? A lot of people treat the law as merely a weapon: it has the power to command, to sanction, to delineate. But, again, in practice, when you go to the courts, and you see actual people on the receiving end of these words, you realize that these laws don't exist in a vacuum. They affect people in a real way. When drafted haphazardly or when applied irresponsibly, it is incredibly damaging. But when used for good, it can help heal.

The class was receptive and responsive to these concepts, mostly because of their diverse backgrounds. The block had a former criminology student, a radio journalist, working parents, media practitioners, government employees, accountants, members of the LGBT, fresh college graduates, breadwinners — all walks of life, from different parts of the country. It was a good learning experience for me as well. I discussed the readings I assigned through the lens of my own experience. But most of them were able to process them through interesting and more meaningful angles. Listening to their perspectives every meeting was confirmation that the profession thrives with diversity. The law is enriched when we consider the input of people coming from different backgrounds. Finding a more equitable common ground is only possible when we consider the concerns of many, and not just the select few. 

Most striking to me, though, was how earnest they seemed in just wanting to be good and to do good. Since the time I graduated from law school, things have gotten much worse. And I cannot imagine the exhaustion and hopelessness they must feel having to learn about these concepts at a time like this. Instead of feeling discouraged, however, I felt the desire — even the desperation — to want to do well so that they can contribute in some way, somehow, in the future. Discussions with other faculty members also echoed the same sentiments: they're really trying. The dire circumstances of this administration weigh heavily on all of us. Everyone is suffering and being apathetic is just not going to cut it. If there's a silver lining to all this, it's that more and more people are realizing that things have to change. And they want to play a part in doing that. 

*

I read Joe Biden's book, "Promise Me, Dad," last year, mostly in the dark, during a power outage caused by a typhoon. To be honest, I had no real investment in his campaign or career prior to that. And even after having read it, I don't think I have a complete picture of who he is as a politician. (It is, after all, a memoir, so much of the narration has to be taken with a grain of salt since he's telling his version of events from 2013 to 2015 — of course, he had to downplay some conflicts and play up others.) The book covered only a very limited period of his life: during the last few years of his vice presidency, when he was dealing with his son Beau's cancer diagnosis, handling matters regarding Iraq, Russia, and Crimea, and considering whether he was going to run for the 2016 presidential elections. But it was a good distillation of who he was, essentially: a person who has grappled with sorrow and defeat — many times and in many ways. 

Biden survived the death of his first wife and baby daughter, raising his two toddlers who survived that car crash, losing Democratic primaries, not being endorsed by the President, and having his eldest son succumb to cancer. He had to loan from Obama for his son's medical bills, he overcame a stutter as a child, he was not a particularly excellent law student (#relate). He wasn't, by any means, a brilliant guy. Maybe I'll always have a bias towards people who have swum through the depths of grief. Maybe I'll always wear grief on my sleeve, or like a small flag brooch pinned to my emotional lapel. But there's a reason for me to believe that he is likely to lead well because he's no stranger to struggle. He knows how to listen. He certainly can't change US politics (their history is much too tarnished for any one person to ever change their legacy). And we still need to be vigilant about how their policies greatly impact other countries, including our own. But in times like these, even though the bar is so low, his capacity for compassion isn't such a bad thing. 

I really wish the Philippines follows suit soon. The shamelessness, the duplicity, the corruption of this administration in the middle of a pandemic — it's sickening and terrifying. I can't wait for us to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It still seems so implausible. But I can't help but feel hope. We have to. It can't be that far off, can it?

*

Triteness notwithstanding, I honestly believe that the most important thing to teach law students is the notion that knowing the law places you in a position to help. Ironic, since law school tends to attract the self-absorbed, pompous, power-hungry types. But it shouldn't be that way. And even if it were, it should change their perspective. 

It was serendipitous that I got assigned to teach that subject. Preparing the syllabus meant I had to go through different readings and reacquaint myself with these concepts again (which, if we're being honest, slipped through the cracks of my mind when I was taking this subject in my first-year law). While the teaching environment this semester was challenging, it also opened more opportunities for me to converse with students in a less stringent way. During the first day of class, most of them were honest about their personal struggles, as well as their feelings of intimidation regarding a philosophy subject. But it was encouraging to me that these students responded well to the syllabus, and that, as shown by their performance in class, they were able to grasp early on that the stability of our institutions depends on how well our laws are upheld and to what extent they bend towards justice and equity. 

*

The rest of the climb still seems steep and daunting. I honestly don't see 2021 being that much different from 2020. It will take years, maybe decades, before the damage of bad leadership is undone. (Duterte is a monster.) But hopefully, it will come sooner than later. I have to trust that it will happen if only to keep myself afloat. Teaching certainly helped: if I could instill that in my students, I could certainly make myself believe that too. And if they can make me believe that there are so many people out there who want to learn more to be able to do more good, then there's reason to hold out hope. 

Wishing that the words by Amanda Gorman, the young 22-year-old poet laureate who spoke during the inauguration, can serve as both a compass and an affirmation:


"But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust."

— The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman


(P.S. And here's to hoping it will take the art, the poetry, and the optimism of the young — our generation — to steer us towards better days too.)

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