When the Law Becomes Oprah-fied

In the field that I know best -- the academic -- the therapeutic orientation has assumed a dominance amongst both students and professors that would have been unthinkable just twenty years ago. It is almost inconceivable, in fact, that an institution once shaped by the merit principle -- the conviction that intellectual achievement alone should determine an individual’s success, regardless of family name, affluence, or status -- should now so widely discriminate according to life story. Students have always been keen, of course, to make excuses for poor work or missed deadlines, and most professors used to regard their hard-luck stories with the irreverence they deserved. But never before have students shown such unassailable confidence that their stories would, like an academic Open Sesame, guarantee the lifting of penalties. And never before has their confidence been so well-placed.

What used to be understood as the normal stress and drama of student life -- difficulty concentrating, jittery distractedness during in-class tests, anguish following a breakup -- have all now become bona fide life crises or even disabilities that exempt the sufferer from regular course requirements. I receive letters regularly from the Student Academic Success Service at my university demanding special accommodations for so-called disabilities that include depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and phobias. The accommodations range from copies of the lecture notes to extra time for exams and assignments and even a deferral of course requirements for up to one year. I am surprised now not that so many students have had themselves classified as disabled but that many more do not, so wide is the array of symptoms and conditions (weak memories, exam anxiety) for which accommodation can now be secured with a simple referral from a doctor or psychologist. The result is that an entire generation has grown up in a world where rules are changed, or abolished, so long as one has a compelling story. It is impossible to imagine that such a regime does not fundamentally alter one’s understanding of rules -- weaken their regulatory power, dilute their meaning -- whether one has ever personally flouted them or not.

If this phenomenon occurred only in the academic realm, it would be dismaying enough, but the fact that it has spread so rapidly into many major areas of North American life is deplorable and alarming. Canada’s justice system is now so fully imbued with the therapeutic mandate that Aboriginal offenders are identified in Canada’s Criminal Code for shorter sentences on the basis of their racial history and the stories of widespread community dysfunction it putatively explains. An entire Ontario town -- Caledonia -- has been terrorized by Native law-breakers who have been allowed to get away with outrageous behavior, with police watching but not making arrests, because of the guilt-inducing power of unresolved Native land claims. The Occupy Wall Street movement with its filth, violence, and contempt for the law is often not only tolerated but even celebrated in progressive circles for its claim to protest “the negative and destructive consequences of decisions made by people in power.” Israel is held to an entirely different standard of response from its terrorist adversaries because of the manufactured Palestinian story of eviction and homelessness. The examples could be multiplied.

A peculiar sanctity attaches to these stories almost in inverse proportion to their verifiability. To speak of verification, in fact, is understood to reveal a failure of one’s humanity. When the Canadian government chose to conduct a Truth and Reconciliation inquiry into physical and sexual abuse at Native residential schools of the twentieth century, it decided that the testimony of abuse victims would not be subject to the forms of cross-examination usual in a legal proceeding. Aboriginal survivors’ words would carry a weight of authority immune from such questioning. One may well wonder how such testimony could be relied upon, given that many of the events being described occurred decades in the past and are thus subject to the distortions of memory over time. To suggest, however, that Native residential school survivors might misremember their experience or even might exaggerate or lie for financial gain, or merely to claim their moment at the center of sympathetic attention, is to confess a form of cultural insensibility that few Canadians would openly avow. In confirmation of what the postmodernists have been telling us for years, all it takes to make history is to craft a compelling narrative.