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The Inside Joke

This piece has been written by Lakshmi Nambiar (Batch of 2023). This piece was first published as part of Quirk’s #MeToo Special Edition. The full edition can be accessed here.

Being a first year in Law School is like being that one person who isn’t in on the inside joke that all the seniors are sharing smiles about. You see them exchanging sly glances at each other throughout the conversation, and even though you’re all hearing the same words they’re reading in between the lines and you don’t get your reading glasses till you reach the second year (I think). And perhaps that’s the most astonishing, and infuriating, part- that these second years get the joke even though they’ve been here for just a year more than you have.

It begins, strangely enough, even before you step through these hallowed gates. Asking someone in NLS about NLS will reward you with a secret smile and a “you’ll see”. Maybe you’ll be told about the workload or some other superficial aspect but no one ever tells you what Law School is truly like. This, however, is understandable, and acceptable, though it might be the only facet of the inside joke that is, because it’s not easy explaining Law School to an outsider, and as a student you wouldn’t want to put other students off. There’s a reputation to be maintained and the picture can’t be tainted just yet.

The real problem, and the tainting, begins the night before, right after you’ve had your first official orientation, you’ve met the SBA President and VP, you’ve been reassured of the sanctity of this place and that is when the ball drops and the PI begins. You’re asked to perhaps find a senior’s name or do a dance or some other ridiculous task, and it seems like it’s the biggest challenge in the world. And at that moment to a first year, who is looking for acceptance from a new community, that is truly what it seems like because aren’t these the people we’ll spend the next four years with? Will they think I’m lame if I don’t do this? So the next facet of the inside joke is this- that none of it really matters. The seniors who PI you the most, most probably won’t be the seniors you take advice from, or even interact with that much.

And before you dismiss this article as a whine piece, let me tell you why this is a problem. This inside joke is undoubtedly where the senior-junior power dynamic is rooted. The joke is that these seniors can make first years dance around making them think that this matter. And while, perhaps, this is all in good spirit and it is hardly representative of what senior-junior interactions will be beyond those first few days, it leaves a lasting impression- that the opinion a senior will have of you matters, that what this senior thinks of you can spread to other seniors, that these seniors have some dominance. And there are few people in Law School more impressionable or vulnerable than a first year on her first day in a completely alien environment.

The next facet of the inside joke comes at a Law School party, an alien bubble within an alien environment, when a first year is offered a sip of Coke, and the first year is unsure about it, so he’s persuaded a bit, and everyone around him is drinking… The slight mocking laugh and the “we’ll see” when you refuse, shows just how pervasive the joke is- that everyone will end up drinking no matter how firm their no is at this party. And a no that isn’t entirely respected is a problem that extends to more than just drinking, as the past few weeks have shown us.

I’m not saying that in either of these cases a first year is forced into something they don’t wish to do – the common argument is that they can always say no and that no is respected. But the problem with the existence of a power dynamic itself is that it’s not that easy to say no, and a no is seen as an invitation to persuade. For first years in a new place where we’ve been told right from the first night that seniors matter in Law School, these seniors are easily in a position to influence you- to make that unsure no a yes.

The problem doesn’t manifest in people who enjoy being PIed or who are ready to drink- the real dilemma lies in the grey area. The power dynamic begins with these facets of the inside joke, when juniors buy into it because they desperately want to fit in. And when the inside joke is rooted with little things like these social interactions it becomes easier for it to spill over into instances of sexual harassment, and blurred lines and grey areas in these cases have far worse impacts as we have so evidently seen.

The inside joke goes much deeper than this though- it’s next facet rears its ugly head when you’re having a conversation and you give your opinion about a certain person, let’s call this person the Studly Senior, who has seemingly achieved every milestone Law School considers worthy, and is charming and helpful and friendly. During the course of this conversation you might see a few seniors exchanging secret smiles and perhaps they will say “let’s see what you think next trim” and this leaves you confused and doubting your opinions.

The problem here is two-fold. First, is that in Law School your opinions are supposed to be your own, without influence (supposedly), and accordingly you’re not let in on the inside joke. Now, however, that is pointless because you know the inside joke exists and you’re grasping at straws trying to figure out what this opinion should be. Second, is that as the past month has shown us, this Studly Senior can fall from the high pedestal you’ve placed them on leaving you shocked and hurt, and doubting what little judgement you were able to trust being in a new place with new people. Because you find that the senior who gave you the best relationship advice can also be the senior who was abusive in their own relationship, the senior who helped you pass Economics also made several inappropriate passes at you in the process, and the senior who you have trusted the most you suddenly find yourself doubting, though you have no cause to, yet.

I understand that this is paradoxical- the inside joke allows a senior to influence a junior’s opinions but not revealing it makes said junior vulnerable. But this paradox can be resolved quite simply. By not revealing the joke you’re causing doubt, and thus enforcing vague opinions, but at least by telling them your opinion you’re giving them clarity, even though you might be enforcing opinions. In both cases you’re enforcing opinions, so that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to keep the joke an inside one.

Instead, give juniors facts to work with- Law School is a blooming grapevine, so give them the right grapes, and make them understand that learning to discern the bad grapes is a crucial skill and one that mustn’t be prone to influence by anyone, not even the Studliest Senior.

And all of this is necessary, now more than ever, because as a community we’ve been shocked by the course of events in the past few weeks, the stories that came tumbling out alleging sexual harassment. And if we wish to move towards a space that is free of this, or at least a space where we are allowed to talk about it, and find it easy to do so, the inside joke and all that it represents is a concern that needs to be addressed.

Because how can we expect a victim to find it easy to speak up if we live in a space where a senior has a certain power over a junior, where social situations lead to blurry lines and where opinions are based on gossip and influence and not fact?

Essentially the power dynamic needs to be broken, the inside joke needs to be revealed to show that seniors don’t necessarily matter simply by virtue of them being seniors, and that Studliness is not absolute.

But what really is the inside joke? I might have identified certain facets of what I think it is, but I’m no veteran or stalwart to truly give you an answer. But, here is what I think it is.

I should warn you, the joke is not funny enough to be an inside joke, which is why it is guarded like precious cargo- because revealing it is giving up your power. Perhaps this is why second years revel in it, they have just found that power- after a year of desperately wondering what it was.

In Law School knowledge, the ability to spread and find gossip and being able to appear studly is power. The inside joke is this- there is perhaps truly no senior who has the knowledge to teach you, the gossip to swindle you, or the studliness to influence you. But if you knew that – how would they control you?

#FirstYear #positiveinteraction #NLSIU #powerdynamic #PI #metoo #LakshmiNambiar #seniorjunior #abuseofpower #fresher #insidejoke

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