Movie Review of A Class Divided: The Influence of Upbringing on the Life of Everyone

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“Oh Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”

The above lines from a Sioux prayer, hit a chord in light of the diverse and divided world we live in. Quoted by the protagonist Jane Elliott in the film “A class divided”, it embodies an attitude and outlook towards each other that would make this world a better place to live in.

One of the biggest takeaways from this movie is the immense impact upbringing has on each and every one of us. It highlights all the concepts of social learning we have heard about for far too long now. If a child can learn good behavior from a model like a teacher or parent, the same holds true for discrimination and prejudice. Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment led to greater understanding in terms of children modeling aggressive behaviours, and now is the time for us to realize that the same modeling is generalized to a wide range of attitudes and behavior children are exposed to.

There is research that points to the role of differing levels of gender salience and classification in the classroom on the basis of gender, and the resultant gender attitudes and stereotypes in children. (Bigler, 1995; Hilliard, Liben, 2010)

Children are often referred to as cultural sponges, and this film justifies why. It enhances our understanding of how and why prejudice and discrimination come into play in such a significant manner in our society. There is evidence that suggests children are not born with prejudice, it is learned from their parents and teachers and other external societal influences. And as the behaviourists state, behavior that is learned can also be unlearned. Thus, giving rise to a faint ray of optimism that even if not completely eradicated, prejudice and discrimination can be reduced, as is seen in the movie as well.

Another learning from this film is the value of empathy and how far it can go to reduce interpersonal conflicts. By being at the receiving end of discrimination, all particapants, children and adults alike, resonated their enhanced understanding of how minority groups may feel on a daily basis and their resolution to bring about a change in their personal attitudes and behaviours.

The movie had several standout scenes that stay with you long after the movie ends. It was especially endearing to see the little children remove and throw away their collars with so much passion, as though getting rid of some form of chains restricting them. One of the children even goes ahead to describe the collars as making them feel like they were “dogs on a leash” or inmates in a prison.

During the exercise conducted with the prison officials, it was interesting to note that lot of the “brown eyed people” who were voicing prejudiced attitudes towards the “blue eyed people” were themselves from groups otherwise considered to be minorities (African Americans and Asians) who may have been subject to discrimination in their own lives. One of them, at the end of the exercise, even said that he experienced a sense of relief that he wasn’t a blue-eyed person.

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The entire exercise with the prison officials is one that leaves you especially surprised. It is disturbing to think that even adults, who are otherwise expected to have a more mature understanding and outlook, are so susceptible to constructed irrational classifications, that they exhibit discrimination against their peers within a short duration. No one seemed to question Elliott, neither on her bizarre workshop that she pretended to be conduction, nor on her vehement badgering and discrimination against a group of people based on their eye colours. The basis of the stereotypes she propogated made no logical sense, and yet no one questioned her when she humiliated the blue eyed people.

Even the blue eyed people seemed to accept their status as a minority with no resistance. Even without any explicit instructions, one man refrained from taking a chair because he said that he didn’t know if somebody would come take it away. When she seemed to target a couple of the blue eyed people, no one from their group stood up in support and voiced out any form of displeasure. One of the brown eyed ladies even made the bizarre association between her nephews’ behaviours and their eye colours, claiming that the brown eyed one was better behaved. She even went on to say that when she had kids, she’d want them to have to brown eyes.

We often like to justify exercises like these saying that it would only be possible with children, since they are more susceptible to messages from their elders. And that adults would not “fall for such things” owing to their maturity and enhanced understanding of the world. One likes to believe that if put in a situation as bizarre as this, we would all speak up and not mistreat our peers. However, this movie serves as a surprising slap in the face, driving home the fact even adults are susceptible to varying forms of social influence. While watching this movie, was reminded of two other famous experiments that demonstrated one’s obedience to authority, even to the point that it conflicts with one’s personal conscience (Milgram’s experiment); and how quickly people can take on assigned roles and identities in situations of power conflict, and even engage in severe forms of harassment to the same end (Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment).

As an Indian, I think the film holds just as much, if not more relevance, considering the varying forms of classification and discrimination that exist in our society. The three primary ones being caste, religion and gender. Any attempts to carry out a similar exercise in India, should be done so around these categories, for it is these stereotypes that children are exposed to the most. Children in India are socialized to accept stereotypes as a part of their lives, and end up carrying forward the same without even realizing. In the recent past, mainstream hindi cinema has approached the topics of caste based discrimination (Article 15), discrimination against Muslims (Mulk) and the patriarchal nature of society (Pink).

Movies like these have certainly increased conversation around these harsh realities, but we still have a long way to go before we are able to come even close to eradicating prejudice and discrimination. Mob lynching against members belonging to a specific religion, caste based discrimination and untouchability, and gender violence are frequent occurrences. For a country as heterogeneous as ours, and with a population as large as ours, there is an enhanced need for sensitivity, which must begin from the youngest citizens in order for us to achieve a more united country.

When labeling an individual as a racist or criminal, one must take a step back to think about where we went wrong as a society. No child grows up in isolation, she is a product of the people she meets, her life experiences and the subtle influences that are always at play through media and such.

Education is not memorizing that Hitler killed 6 million Jews.

Education is understanding how millions of ordinary Germans were convinced that it was required,

Education is learning how to spot the signs of history repeating itself.

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