After Auschwitz: Next Steps… The Jane Elliot Experiment

As ambassadors of the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, Lilly (lillyraining) and I were asked to engage in a Next Steps project, with the aim of sharing what we had learned from our visit to Auschwitz with a wider community. We chose to imitate the Jane Elliot experiment.

The Experiment

AIM:

– To enable deeper understanding of how it feels to be either a bystander or a victim of discrimination.

METHOD:

– A Year 8 Religious Studies class was given a survey (see below) which enabled us to determine the number of students with particular eye colours.

– The following week, we took over one of their lessons and explained that the government had decided to pilot the Nuremberg Programme (bear in mind that these pupils had not yet learnt about the Nazis so were unaware of the name’s origins) which aimed to segregate brown-eyed children from the rest of the school on the basis that they were socially and academically inferior. We argued that this would benefit both the brown-eyed pupils (who could now work at their own pace) and those with ‘superior’ eye colours (who would no longer be hindered.)

– Fabricated statistics were provided, all explaining the detrimental effects of the brown-eyed gene on society.

– It was stressed that if the pilot was successful, the Nuremberg Programme would go on to affect society on a wider basis meaning both higher education and job prospects would be implicated.

– The class was then separated, with the six brown-eyed pupils being placed on a cramped table in a corner whilst their classmates were able to sit where they pleased; the former received scrap pieces of paper and poor resources whilst the latter used Netbooks; their teacher focussed predominantly on helping those in the class with ‘superior’ eye colours. Having brown eyes ourselves, myself and a fellow ambassador were ‘allocated the job’ of working with the six excluded pupils.

– Everyone in the class was given a sheet to fill out ‘for government purposes’ in which they were asked to give feedback on the programme.

– At the end of the lesson, a presentation was given which revealed the true experiment, explained its aim and gave some background on the Holocaust.

– We ensured that every pupil understood that both the research and the Nuremberg Programme were fabricated.

RESULTS:

– Initially, there was a high level of disbelief and protest with one girl questioning: ‘Isn’t this discrimination?’

– Then came a degree of fear amongst the brown-eyed pupils as they realised the wider implications of the programme. What seemed most important to them was that their friendship groups would change. One boy became distressed at the idea that his younger, also brown-eyed, siblings would be affected too. A couple began to express a feeling of injustice: they were amongst the highest achievers in the class. When we explained that we understood there would be exceptions yet the measures were still necessary, they became frustrated: they were outraged at the idea that their once-bright futures were effectively ruined.

– It wasn’t long before the brown-eyed children began to act up, began to put on ‘stupid’ voices and neglect their work; the principle seemed to be: if you’re going to treat us as inferior we will become inferior.

– Meanwhile, the majority of the ‘superior’ pupils appeared to have recovered from the initial furore, had accepted the change and were getting on with their work.

Some feedback:

“I feel sorry for them.”

“I agree because not everybody works at the same pace… its probably in there genes.”

“We won’t see our friends and we won’t be able to sit with them.”

“You have got 99% of the diversity correct.”

“I don’t want to get treated different because of the colour of my eyes.”

“If it works then great!”

“If it does work I refuse to go along with it.”

Personal Response

I found the whole experiment very difficult and emotionally draining. Particularly upsetting was having to prevent the students from talking to their blue-eyed or green-eyed friends; such incidents were used as examples of the ‘disruptive nature of brown-eyed people’ and the ease with which both groups accepted such discriminatory chastisement was disturbing.
As we called the class for de-briefing, the tightening knot of tension- caused a) because the whole thing was just so horrible, and b) because I was worried that someone would suddenly shout ‘It’s all a lie!’- was released. Cruelly perhaps, I let out a laugh of relief as their faces became a spectrum ranging from anger-annoyance. I was grateful that they no longer wore expressions of the suppressed and apathetic.
Several of those directly affected remained indignant though, which worried me: had we actually done something worthwhile, or was the whole thing simply unethical?
This doubt was only fleeting, however. After some initial confusion, the feedback received was largely positive and one student managed to summarise what, for me, was our objective: the experiment gave an ability to understand discrimination on a level far beyond the capacity of any PowerPoint presentation.

The Jane Elliot Experiment
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You’re well gay

The etymology of the term ‘gay’ is very interesting. Originating in the late fourteenth century, it initially denoted happiness and frivolity. By the seventeenth century, however, it had adopted negative connotations with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it as ‘addicted to social pleasures and dissipations… Of loose and immoral life’, and by 1890 it had become interlinked with female prostitution. The year 1935, though, saw it edging somewhat closer to its contemporary meaning with ‘geycat’ referring to young male homosexuals.

   Today, ‘gay’ is defined as: ‘(of a person, especially a man) homosexual.’ And yet it is quickly becoming a pejorative term(predominantly amongst young people) to replace ‘rubbish.’ Thus, ‘gay’ no longer exclusively relates to sexuality; it is also an insult. 

   So how long will it be before this derogatory definition appears in our dictionaries? And, more importantly, should it?

   Whilst ‘gay’ is rapidly adopting negative connotations, no other word has as yet offered to assume the definition of ‘homosexual.’ There was a push recently, notably involving human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, for ‘queer’ to do just that, but this is generally accepted as having a much broader meaning, encompassing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people alike. Moreover, the reclamation is only regarded as appropriate for exclusive use within the LGBT community due to its harmful past. So, for now,  we have a homonym (excuse the terrible terrible pun.)

   We can presume that the two definitions once went hand in hand, with homophobia transforming the once-neutral term into an insult. Today however, the majority of young people argue that ‘gay’, as an insult, has no sexual connotations whatsoever, suggesting that its use is not consciously homophobic. Nevertheless, many people argue that this negative evolution shouldn’t be allowed as it is possible that the lexical ambiguity may still introduce or reinforce homophobia in children. After all, a seven-year old child who has been calling broccoli ‘gay’ since he could speak cannot then be expected to accept his uncles’ civil partnership without question. There may even be some transference of meaning, either consciously (with the rationale that the two definitions must be interlinked as in many other cases, for example ‘nurse’, in either sense, refers to the act of caring) or subconsciously (it may be difficult to shake off the word’s negative associations.)

   The alternative view is that lexical evolution is vital to the progression of language; it shouldn’t be interrupted.

  

 

It would be interesting to conduct an experiment to ascertain the relationship between the derogatory use of the word ‘gay’ and homophobia. I would hypothesise a positive correlation but this doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with the latter argument: I am not homophobic and, as far as I know, it is not a low exposure to the derogatory version of ‘gay’ in childhood which has caused this. Rather, I consciously choose to avoid the word ‘gay’, in the negative sense, for I am aware it can cause offence. Therefore, any such experiment would need to establish the causal mechanism between the two variables before coming to a conclusion as to whether or not we should allow the term ‘gay’ to adopt a second, and negative, meaning.

Image 1: https://punchaday.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/fanny/