Sunday, June 05, 2005

Stories We Tell Ourselves

I've been thinking alot about the challenges I face when I try to get students to think more critically and compassionately about other people. What we are often combatting are deeply entrenched cultural interpretations of others' behavior or circumstances that must be broken down to get students to actually care, relate or empathize with the so-called pariahs, broken down, or miscreants of our society. I am not trying to get them to have more sympathy for--say mass murderers, rapists, or even violent bullies. I am trying to get them to be less judgmental of pregnant teenagers, the homeless, single parents (most often mothers) drawing from TANF.

The real work here is breaking down, piercing through the powerful ready-made cultural interpretations of these folks: sexually promiscuous, slutty girls; irresponsible, lazy freeloaders, or foolish women who mated and/or married a "dog." Even I fall victim, to these schematas.

But, then, I try to think hard about a problem like teenage pregnancy. It helps to study it in a far away context for the moment, to try and unsettle those pesky cultural interpretations at work. Yesterday, Sharon LaFraniere in "AIDS, Pregnancy and Poverty Trap Ever More African Girls," reported on plight of young girls in Mozambique due to the AIDS epidemic and consequent high rates of orphans and poverty. The story leads with a recounting of how Flora Muchave, 14, was hoodwinked into sleeping with an older man who promised to "take care of her." Her father already died of AIDS, her mother would soon follow, and the family was unable to sustain themselves. She believed this older man, and that left her pregnant with 4 bucks.

As I read this story, I wondered if my students would blame Flora for getting pregnant. Would they impose their middle/upper-class (and often puritanical) values on this young woman? Would they consider her just a "fool" for believing the older man? Would they scold her for not using contraception? Or, would they be disgusted with him? I hoped the latter. But, I never know what will happen when I present these sorts of cases to them. Can they actually understand how desperate Flora's situation is? She is 14, an orphan from Mozambique (not the U.S.), where the AIDS virus is killing off her family, her village. She has not been able to sustain an education, she has no access to birth control (much of this can be blamed on the Bush "global gag rule"), and she has no family security or stability.

Now, add on top of this already desperate situation that she is female. She is young, and female and soon learns, like many other young women in this situation that she can make money to support her family by selling her body. When I reflect on this fact, I get depressed. What sort of culture gets off on 14 year old, poor, and desperate girls? What value, if any, do these men place on a young girls' life? Where is her right to grow up without hating herself? Without degrading herself? And, the bonus prize for this incredibly low self-esteem is pregnancy.

Now, back to the U.S.: what are the important differences between young, poor, U.S. women who get pregnant and this woman from Mozambique. (Obviously, there are differences). But, we have a lot of similarites: lack of education, economic insecurity, unstable homes, little if any access to contraception--but more importantly comprehensive seuxal education. Our U.S. girl grows up learning that her body has cash-value, while simultaneoulsy learning to hate herself.

The other day in a car ride back with three of my friends (all women with Ph.D.s) I asked: how many of you grew up in this culture without hating some part of your body, or being ashamed of your sexual behavior (whether you bought into puritanical notions or not)? Of course, we all learn this.

Now, back to these powerful cultural interpretations I have to pierce through to get my students not to judge Flora (except, the U.S. version of Flora). I have to force them to see these girls on their own terms, to suspend that powerful cultural script that tells them to see her behavior as a "bad choice" or "foolish choice." Anyone who teaches, and teaches students to think critically and compassionately, can attest, I am sure of how exhausting this process is, how draining. And, when we are really honest with ourselves, we have to remember that we have to keep expending that effort on our own selves over a lifetime. It is simply a lot easier to let the stories we tell ourselves, the ones we inherint from a deep seated disgust with human fraility, to do the work for us.