Daily RC Article 69

Objectivism vs Narratives

Paragraph 1

In recent years, a growing belief that the way society decides what to treat as true is controlled through largely unrecognized discursive practices has led legal reformers to examine the complex interconnections between narrative and law. In many legal systems, legal judgments are based on competing stories about events. Without having witnessed these events, judges and juries must validate some stories as true and reject others as false. This procedure is rooted in objectivism, a philosophical approach that has supported most Western legal and intellectual systems for centuries. Objectivism holds that there is a single neutral description of each event that is unskewed by any particular point of view and that has a privileged position over all other accounts. The law’s quest for truth, therefore, consists of locating this objective description, the one that tells what really happened, as opposed to what those involved thought happened. The serious flaw in objectivism is that there is no such thing as the neutral, objective observer. As psychologists have demonstrated, all observers bring to a situation a set of expectations, values, and beliefs that determine what the observers are able to see and hear. Two individuals listening to the same story will hear different things, because they emphasize those aspects that accord with their learned experiences and ignore those aspects that are dissonant with their view of the world. Hence there is never any escape in life or in law from selective perception, or from subjective judgments based on prior experiences, values, and beliefs.

Paragraph 2

The societal harm caused by the assumption of objectivist principles in traditional legal discourse is that, historically, the stories judged to be objectively true are those told by people who are trained in legal discourse, while the stories of those who are not fluent in the language of the law are rejected as false.

Paragraph 3

Legal scholars such as Patricia Williams, Derrick Bell, and Mari Matsuda have sought empowerment for the latter group of people through the construction of alternative legal narratives. Objectivist legal discourse systematically disallows the language of emotion and experience by focusing on cognition in its narrowest sense. These legal reformers propose replacing such abstract discourse with powerful personal stories. They argue that the absorbing, nonthreatening structure and tone of personal stories may convince legal insiders for the first time to listen to those not fluent in legal language. The compelling force of personal narrative can create a sense of empathy between legal insiders and people traditionally excluded from legal discourse and, hence, from power. Such alternative narratives can shatter the complacency of the legal establishment and disturb its tranquility. Thus, the engaging power of narrative might play a crucial, positive role in the process of legal reconstruction by overcoming differences in background and training and forming a new collectivity based on emotional empathy.

Topic and Scope:  

Forms of legal discourse; specifically, how the various forms of legal discourse affect the workings of the law.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to define the objectivist principle that informs much of legal discourse, describe its problems and one proposed alternative. The main idea emerges fully in the middle of third Paragraph : Legal reformers wish to replace the objectivist model with a legal model based on personal stories in an effort to smooth out inequities in the legal system.

Paragraph structure:

Paragraph 1 is long and seems to cover a lot of ground, but in actuality boils down to a discussion of one main concept, legal objectivism. Judges and juries need a basis upon which to determine who is telling the truth. Historically, that basis has been objectivism, a theory that the author goes on to define and then attack. The author states categorically that objectivism is flawed (“there is no such thing as the neutral, objective observer”) and then spends the rest of the Paragraph  supporting this claim. By the end of Paragraph 1, the topic is evident, as is one belief of the author, but the main idea of the passage, where the author is going with all this, is still yet to come.

Paragraph 2 tells of the harm done to society by adherence to the objectivist principle in legal matters: It confers an advantage in the trial procedure to those fluent in legal discourse, and disadvantages those who are not. In other words, a system based on the assumption of objectivist principles is inherently unfair.

Paragraph 3 introduces an alternative offered by some legal scholars: A narrative system based on personal stories. Unlike the objectivist principle, these narratives favour emotion and experience and thus offer a true means of expression for those not fluent in legal discourse. According to the reformers, the use of personal narratives can help curb the inequities in the legal system and from lines 49-58, we get the impression that the author agrees.

The Big Picture:

  • Section management is a crucial issue in Reading Comprehension. Your goal is to tackle the passages that are easiest for you early on and to save the toughest passage for last. This way, if you run out of time, at least the questions you don’t get to are ones you may have had trouble with anyway. But how do you decide which passages to jump right into and which to hold for later? Well . . .
  • You should have an idea as to the relative difficulty of a passage by the middle of the first Paragraph.  Here, the topic may have turned you off; it’s fairly dry and the writing is somewhat complex—and just look at the first sentence! Many test-takers would be better off leaving a passage like this one for later, but that decision is always an individual one. There is no universal right answer as to the best order of handling the passages, but as long as you decide the order that’s best for you, you’ll be taking control of the test.
  • Always be on the lookout for statements of authorial opinion. Here, the author doesn’t propose the new legal methodology; she merely relates an alternative proposed by others. But the author does have opinions on certain issues. For example, she believes that objectivism is inherently flawed, and that this flaw has led to societal harm. Furthermore, in the last sentence, the author endorses the reformers’ position by stating that the proposed alternative “might play a crucial, positive role in the process of legal reconstruction . . .”

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