This American Life’s segment on The Cruelty of Children was troubling, but ultimately hopeful. All of the stories had to do with power–who has it, how it is used, and how it is accommodated. David Sedaris’ story about making fun of “sissy boys” although he himself was one, illustrates a common phenomenon. People often try to align themselves with power to escape being victimized themselves. It takes a great deal of courage to step outside of the group norm and, as they say, speak truth to power. Ask yourself how many times you’ve been in a situation in which someone in your group has made a ugly joke about a racial, ethnic or religious group or someone’s sexual preferences. Were you uncomfortable? Did you speak up? Did you laugh along?
Ira Sher’s story, “The Man in the Well” was a very frightening illustration of the powerless suddenly finding themselves with power and making a choice to abuse it. In our society, children hold far less power than do adults. Children are told by adults what to do and they are expected to comply. In this story the roles were reversed and a group of children found themselves with the power of life and death over a grown man. The group chose to exercise their power by allowing the man to die. Any one child could have broken ranks and alerted an adult, but none did. One has to ask oneself what models did these children have, what lessons had they learned that they chose to exercise their power negatively.
“The Experiment” by Vivian Paley was more hopeful. The view of that little classroom so closely reflects the historical interactions of dominant and subordinated groups. I am thinking, in particular, of the issue of racism in the United States and the struggle to integrate the public school systems. David Sedaris also alluded to this in his piece. The segregationists were like the little girl who could not bear to give up the ability to oppress and dominate her classmates through exclusion. Just like the little girl, the segregationists were convinced that their dominant position vis-a-vis the subordinated group was somehow a “natural” and justifiable occurrence. They expressed doubt that such a thing could change or that change should even be attempted. Yet today, social and professional interaction among all races in the United States is much more common. This is not to say that that those who enjoy oppressing and exploiting others have not been creative in coming up with new ways to perpetuate inequalities, but I believe, like Vivian Paley, that it is the business of the government (represented in the story by the teacher) to express unequivocal support for social equality in its laws and to provide no legal support for those who would exploit and oppress.
Surely, we, as adults must look at ourselves and be aware of the behavior we are modeling to the children around us–not just what we say, but the reality of how we live. We may say that social interaction among the races and ethnicities is fine, but how many friends do we have outside of the group with which we identify? Do we bring them home? Do we break bread with them? Racism and the like are learned behaviors. What kind of teachers will we be? Click the link below to hear two show tunes, from South Pacific and People respectively, that explore this subject. The guitarist is Paul Pieper. The voice is my own.