The Moral Rhetoric of a Civilized Society

By Susanna Menis

This year the annual Socio-Legal Studies Association Conference was organised by the University of Bristol Law School. I was able to attend thanks to the support that the Sociological Review Foundation offers to Early Career Researchers.  The main venue was the breath taking neo-gothic Will Memorial Building. The conference involved a tour of Bristol Street Art, a must, given Bristol’s rich heritage. An experienced guide took us through the hills of Bristol city centre, where pieces from Banksy and STIK were revealed to us. Why am I telling you this? Well, the tour’s learning was significant, not least because it showcases the conflict and struggle street artists faced up until a few years ago. It is only recently that Bristol Council has embraced a collaborative approach with these artists, commissioning street-art as part of renovative infrastructure projects. These changes set the scene for the themes of the conference. These have covered topics such as Access to Justice; Art, Culture and Heritage; Graphic Justice; Law and Music; Law, Politics and Ideology; Property, People, Power and Place.

The Socio-Legal Studies Association embraces an interdisciplinary approach and is organised by ‘streams’. With over sixty sessions across three days, covering more than twenty streams, I decided to concentrate on the Law and Emotion stream. The session I presented considered the aspect of emotions within legal education. Two presentations were of interest. First L. Bleasdale and S. Humphreys from University of Leeds, discussed the issue of resilience in law students. It was argued that undergraduate students lack the resilience required within Higher Education and workplace environments. The authors suggested ways as to how the resilience of law students can be supported and enhanced. Second, C. Strevens from University of Portsmouth focused on teachers’ wellbeing, something which strongly resonated with the recent UCU concerns. Here, the focus of research was less on productivity, more on motivation. The presentation drew our attention to the need to emphasis the value of those activities which may not be classed as a priority on a personal level but nevertheless part of the role. For example, in the case of research-oriented roles, marking can be perceived as an activity that distracts from one’s research priorities. Strevens’ recommendation is to highlight the social attributes of marking, that is, the value feedback has on students’ academic development.

Finally, I was excited to present my own paper The Moral Rhetoric of a Civilized Society or: Consent- it is a Defence When We Say So.  This is part of a research paper that I am currently in the process of writing. It concerns the construction of unlawfulness in the context of consensual sexual intercourse leading to harmful consequences. The aim of this research is to understand how emotions affect judicial decisions. The traditional understanding of emotions as uncontrolled impulses and therefore inevitably distinct from something as ‘reasonable’ as the law, has been challenged. I argue that the (ir)rationality of the law can be at times explained through the rationality of emotional expression, where I endeavour to assess the case of ‘disgust’.

Judging by the several questions that followed, it appears that the attendees found the topic interesting- the chair of the session said that it was ‘thought provoking’. Also, two colleagues approached me at the end of the session complimenting me for the interesting presentation. As an Early Career Researcher, the opportunity to present research ahead of publication and to get feedback is particularly valuable. Significantly, attending the conference allowed me to network and share common grounds of research with colleagues coming from all over the UK.                

Susanna Menis is an Honorary Researcher and an associated lecturer at Birkbeck London University, School of Law and at the Open University. Susanna teaches criminal law and the English legal system as well as several topics in criminology. She has been a member of the Independent Monitoring Boards of prisons for several years and she has researched the historical development of women’s prisons in the UK and the issue of ‘prisoners’ reformation’. Susanna is also interested in scholarship concerning law and emotions as well as cultural criminology.   

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