Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Addressing sexism in the classroom

I so read "Lamb to the Slaughter" with one of my classes. It's a story about a woman who kills her husband when he tells her he's divorcing her. There's a short film by Alfred Hitchcock that opines he's divorcing her because he's having an affair. I asked my class, "Is it ever justified to kill your spouse for cheating on you?" (If you think this is a ridiculous question, consider Mosaic law. Since we have a mix of nationalities represented, I'm always interested to see the lack of consensus on certain points of morality.)

My Brazilian student (it's worth noting for these purposes that he's male) stated firmly, "For a man, yes, but for a woman, no." Stunned, I asked him, "Why?" And looking incredibly puzzled by my question he answered with brows knit, "It's my culture." Later I told him it was also a common practice in my culture also, but he challenged me pointing out that most Americans would call it a double standard. I whipped out the term cognitive dissonance, attempting to explain that just because a society says one thing doesn't mean they always act that way, and that just because a culture is a certain way doesn't mean it's right. We didn't discuss it again. 

Later that week, another student called me over to the corner where he was working with this Brazilian student. Laughing he told me how the Brazilian was a bad guy because he was looking for a new girlfriend while he was still with his current girlfriend. And the Brazilian told me how he was stressed out because his girlfriend didn't trust him and he wasn't sure he could take it anymore. (I met this girl briefly in the subway station late at night. I passed my student on the stairs, cheerily waved and shot him a "Hi!" He shouted in response, "Teacher! I love you!" and his girlfriend snapped, "What? Who is she?!" They were drunk, but you can imagine the dynamic here.) I told him I hoped that wasn't true, because he was a nice guy. But he shook his head. "Maybe I am a bad guy," he said. 

For the record, this is a hill I have decided not to die on. By virtue of actual and pronounced physiological differences, there may be some legitimate justifications for treating men and women differently in certain ways or in certain contexts. And it can be a tall order sorting out what's a legitimate and justified difference in treatment and what isn't. I am prepared to bear the hardship of what I consider to be mistreatment because of my gender. It's a naive statement for me to make, but there it is. Women's rights are necessarily important to me, but they're not as high on my priority list as other things. 

But these encounters have me wondering what the correct and appropriate way to handle these statements is. On the one hand, I don't want to judge my students. I don't want them to feel like something they perceive is cultural is something I perceive as immoral. And for those who wonder, who cares if it's against their culture if they're wrong?, I would point out that they don't think they're wrong and that saying "you're wrong" doesn't productively advance the discussion. 

My word is gold on questions of grammar. If I say a verb is transitive, it is. But on social issues I am an expert only on my own perspective of my own culture. I have no credibility to tell them what is wrong with their culture, even if there is indeed something wrong with their culture. And perhaps my reasoning here is obvious (of course a collaborative and judgment-free zone should be preserved within the classroom) (and that has to be the way it rolls when a large number of students are Saudi and come from a culture that affords men four wives and bars women from driving), but I recognize this idea is difficult for some people when pitted against the other value at play here: the truth.

Because on the other hand I don't think sexism is wrong because my culture tells me so (even though my culture does tell me so.) Sexism is wrong because the highest authority acknowledged by history, by the world (God) says so. It is not okay to be looking for a new person to date while you're exclusive with someone else. It is not okay for women to be punished for adultery when men are not. And while we're at it, it is not okay for one guy to have four wives. It's just not. To my students that may seem like an opinion, but that's truth I am convicted of, knowing my own worth as a human, knowing the principles of righteousness my God has revealed, knowing what is a social good in a western and humanistic society. And if I care about the truth, I should speak it, right?

I love how as a teacher I am uniquely poised to introduce my students to compelling ideas and facilitate an increase of empathy, perspective-sharing, and diversity, all of which I think are inherently valuable things. But those things are not more important than what is right. There seems to be a very delicate line to walk when speaking the truth in love. And I wonder if it's possible to draw a line in the sand regarding right and wrong without leaving some students on the wrong side of the line unequipped with a path of egress. I sense there is a way to have it both ways, but in my allegiance to both values I'm hard-pressed to imagine what that would look like.

Have you ever been in a situation like this? Is it possible to speak truth while maintaining a judgment-free zone in the classroom? How would you leverage this kind of conversion?

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