Saturday, February 27, 2010

Center. Margin. Villain. Hero.

I thought this article was fascinating: "Shylock, My Students, and Me". What's most interesting to me is how the students' mass reaction to The Merchant of Venice has changed over the years, from sympathy with the dominant, majority culture within the play to sympathy with the oppressed, minority culture. Now everyone identifies with Shylock--everyone has been oppressed in some way, they've been made to feel different, like an outsider to the dominant culture.

Cohen (the author of the article) points out that the new generation of students are the ones who have been sensitized to diversity and oppression in school. I don't remember getting much of that training in high school, but it was a huge part of my college orientation. If I remember right, the closing session of orientation was a cringe-inducing small group discussion where each person was asked to share some way in which they had been marginalized. At least, it was cringe-inducing at the time; having passed through the system now, I could probably handle it. Even find it meaningful. But oh, how I wanted to jump out the window at the time.

Like Cohen, I don't want to say that this impulse to identify with the oppressed is a bad development, but it feels incomplete. The move from hiding your victimization and dehumanizing the outsiders to cherishing your victimization and dehumanizing "the insiders" (whoever they are nowadays) represents less progress than could be desired.

Simply put, we haven't learned that your position in the center or on the margin does not determine whether you're a hero or a villain.

Or does it? You tell me.

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