Monday, July 13, 2015

Just Another Day in English Class. In 1950.

After doing Hamlet with my English classes some weeks back, we followed it by reading the short story titled Stone Mattress. The story is brilliant and modern and pairs nicely with the play. Using both pieces springboarded us into conversations about the difference between justice and revenge, as well as a discussion about the degree to which people are responsible for their choices. As Laertes declares at the end of the play, "the king is to blame!" Shakespeare is tantalizingly unclear about what all the king is to blame for. Hamlet's actions, heinous as they are, would not have been done had his uncle not killed his father in order to gin succession. Likewise in Stone Mattress, the story's protagonist seems justified in committing a carefully planned murder when you realize the extent to which her "victim" once victimized her.

In conjunction with our reading I had students read three different versions of the same story. In the story the main character is stranded far from home in the middle of the night, which is only accessible by ferry. The character has forgotten their money and, despite pleas to former friends as well as the boat captain, nobody will help the person. Desperate, the character goes home on foot across a crime-riddled bridge, knowing it is dangerous but feeling out of choices. The character is murdered when the highwayman realizes they have no money to steal. 

In the first version, the protagonist is a woman who is having an affair (a series of affairs), and is trying to get home so that her husband doesn't catch her. Those who refuse to help are former, jilted lovers, as well as the boat captain.

In the second version, the story is identical except for the genders. The husband is the adulterer who is desperate not to be caught.

In the third version, it is a woman again, but she is a single, widowed, mom working across the river and desperate to get home before her children wake up. The outcome, however is the same.

At the end of the story (they only saw their version) students were asked to determine which of the characters was most responsible for the death of the main character.

Over two classes of reasonably enlightened, modern 18 year olds, here were the results:

75% of respondents in the first story primarily blamed the woman for her own death....the second choice was the man who actually killed her. 

This result is not actually unexpected. I pulled the story from a psychology lesson plan about the just world hypothesis--it is human nature to expect that people will get what we think they deserve. I really stirred everybody up when I said, "so you guys think that the penalty for adultery should be death?"  There was plenty of backpedaling after that! They asserted that they just were trying to say that our actions have consequences and that we cannot escape the results of our choices.

It was a good conversation, and I can get behind a lot of what they are saying. Our actions do have consequences, and we do have to be careful. Except....

There is a glaring problem when we look at scenario two. An identical case except for gender, remember. Only 25% of respondents blamed the man for his own death. Most blamed the highwayman and a few blamed the boat captain. 

So when we look at all their high principles about karma and a belief in a just world, it all really melts away. Even in 2015, women are still held to a higher standard. Men who have affairs are just not as responsible. The discrepancy shocked me. And maybe horrified me a bit too.

As for the third result? 95% said single mom not responsible...even though she too forgot her money, the mistake most directly related to the outcome.

The funny part was that the students seemed pretty chagrined by the outcome. Most voting students insisted that their vote would have been the same regardless of if it had been about a man or a woman, but I have my doubts. They squirmed hard when their own biases were revealed. 

No comments: