Monday, September 16, 2013

"An Ancient Tale": The Humanist Response to a values-based assignment

Trigger Warning: rape.

One of the interesting aspects of Business school (B-school, what have you) is that you get to discuss all sorts of hypothetical situations and you usually do it first in a small group (my team has 5 members) and then as a larger class -- where it's usually much more difficult to voice your opinion or have a good, thorough discussion. My team is composed of 4 incredibly sweet and gentle individuals (5 if you include me, though I'm not sure that's quite a fair assessment of me) with rather varied and diverse backgrounds. For future reference, our team composure:

A: Male, American Military, Married with 1 child
B: Male, South American, Married, Background in Supply Chain
C: Female, Indian, Married, Background in Marketing
D: Male, American, in a steady relationship, Background in Public Policy
E: Female, American, Single, Background in Technology.

I'm E. In case you hadn't guessed.

For tomorrow's assignment in our Teams class, we were asked to read and discuss An Ancient Tale by J.B. Ritchey. You can read the assignment as well as the first four questions here: An Ancient Tale

As soon as I read this story, I knew I'd be bringing an unpopular opinion to the table at our group discussion, particularly since my first reaction to this story was pretty visceral. Well, not the story itself, but the implication of the questions.

The link above actually does a good job of explaining the reasoning behind the exercise: help people understand different weighted ethics and moralities that others impose on the world around them. By assigning blame in a situation like that of the princess in the story, we can better understand the relative weights of the beliefs of our peers.

A summary of the case at hand: A princess is married to a wealthy lord who's always out visiting neighboring kingdoms and she thinks he might be cheating on her. A handsome vagabond comes along and she's all, "yeah, you're kinda cute!" and they go gallivanting off to do some away-from-home cheating. But the vagabond leaves her and she realizes the only way home is through a dangerous forest. She goes to her god-father for help and apologizes for her actions, and he forgives her but refuses to help her through the forest. She goes to a white knight who says he'll help her, for a fee, but she has no money. So she decides to brave the forest on her own, where she is found by an evil sorcerer who has a dragon eat her. The End.

Ok. So the big questions on this case are who is at fault? The case only provides you the options of the princess, the husband, the vagabond, the godfather, the knight, or the sorcerer.
Who's the second-most at fault?

My team was split between the fault lying with the princess (personal accountability, yo!), and the sorcerer (guy is convincing dragons to eat people. Not cool, bro).

The reasoning my team delivered was that the sorcerer told the dragon to do it. Alternatively, if the princess hadn't left home with the vagabond, she never would have been in the position to have to go through the forest in the first place. 

Firstly, I want to address that I recognize that the point of the exercise is to generate discussion and high levels of emotional response. The author wants to encourage a conversation about personal values and how it affects decision-making. And in that way, this assignment does exactly what it's supposed to.

BUT. It's problematic because it reinforces harmful societal norms.

I agree with none of the given options. And the dragon isn't an option, but even if it were, dragons don't really exist, which means their relative morality and ethical basis is not exactly a given. I guess I can't really buy that the sorcerer is the end-all-be-all of a dragon's actions. I've read plenty of stories where dragons can talk, reason, and have moral values. I've also read stories where dragons have entirely different moral structure than human society. Them's the breaks. 

Moral aptitude: unknown

What DOES exist is society pressure and victim blaming.  You may have guessed this from my trigger warning up top, but what I see here is an allegory for rape.

Here we have a girl. Maybe she  spends an evening with a guy friend when her boyfriend didn't know what she was up to and maybe she got drunk. She made some bad decisions. When she's ready to go, she realizes she's on the other side of town and she's got to get home. There's a bad neighborhood in between here and there. She calls a family member and admits her wrong-doing but he says he won't help. She calls a taxi, but it turns out she has no money to pay for a cab. She decides to brave the walk and go on her own. A stranger sees her walking home and encourages his friend to rape her, which he does.

Who's at fault here?

The girl's just trying to get home. The actions (or lack of action) of the people around her is not a reflection on her or her previous actions. It is NOT karmic payback. It is NOT deserved. A girl (or guy) walking home should be able to walk home unmolested regardless of their previous decisions, regardless of their character. It's is not the girl's fault for being on the wrong side of town, for being out late, for taking that path home, for wearing something revealing. It is not the boyfriend's fault for not being attentive to his girlfriend. It is not the guy-friend's fault for not escorting her home or kicking her out. It is not the relative's fault for deciding not to take her home (yes, it's a dick move, but his personal accountability in this situation is nil). It is not the taxi cab driver's fault for not driving her home when she had no money. There may be some maleficence to the stranger who encourages the misdeed of his friend and certainly, he's not a good person. But the person who is at fault here is the person who harmed the girl, the rapist.

This representation did not play well with my team. In fact, it made them very uncomfortable. As a graduate from an all-women's liberal arts college, this kind of interpretation is front-and-center to me, but my peers at this larger co-ed institution are less inclined to lean this way or be comfortable with a discussion centered around a topic like this. Some would say this is a feminist issue, to which I say it's not. It is a humanist one: Be a human being. Treat others like human beings. These rules, regardless of gender should result in something like a happy ending for stories like the one above.

What makes this such an interesting case is the lack of availability of the dragon as an option for the person at-fault. You're given any other choice but I suggest that the choices provided are an unacceptable reflection of victim-blaming and apologist behavior in our society. The consequence of being drunk is a hangover. The consequence of being on the wrong side of town is sore feet from walking home. The consequence of cheating on your husband is guilt and maybe STDs and/or pregnancy if you didn't use protection. Not getting eaten by a dragon. By accepting the options given as our only choices, we're continuing a myth that a person's actions are a defining aspect of their 'story' and that karma is an acceptable defense for bad things happening to people, rather than addressing the real problem of those who acted in or performed roles in the negative event.

From a humanist point of view, I reject these options. Let's change the narrative and the followup questions to ask: As a human being, what are my rights? As a human being, is it ok for my rights to infringe on others'? As a human being, what are my responsibilities?

1 comment:

Alison said...

Wow - what a thought provoking blog! I agree that eating people and rape are unacceptable. Period. End of story.

What I responded to is the "all or nothing" nature of the assignment. What if more than one thing is true at the same time? I think personal responsibility and self-care are underestimated in these stories. Yes, there should not be rapists out there. But before you head across town to visit anyone, you need to think about how you are going to get home! People need to be held accountable for their choices. I had a friend Carry, whose friend who had been drinking at a party, asked him to go with him on an errand. Being the good guy and perhaps "people pleaser" that he was, he said "Sure!" The driver got in an accident, walked away, and Carry died. Carry made a bad choice and it cost him his life. If the woman walking home had been stabbed and killed, for her the issue of "fault" is irrelevant - she is dead. So I agree with you Lauren, but I also think we need to encourage woman and men to think about personal responsibility for their own safety. I wish some of the world's realities were different - but I think we can make smart choices for ourselves, regardless! Thanks for sharing about your day!