Sitting in a university classroom yesterday with undergraduate students, most of whom are 5 or more years younger than I, a sociology activity challenged us all. It involved a story about a married woman who feels neglected by her hard working husband who travels a lot for his job, so when she meets another man who invites her to his house, she spends the night and the following morning rushes home to greet her husband before he arrives back from his latest business trip, but the bridge she needs to cross to get home is blocked by a madman “who kills everyone who comes near him.” The story goes on:
“The young wife follows the river and meets the ferryman but he demands $10 to take her to the other side. The young wife has no money. She runs back to her lover and asks for the $10, but he refuses. The woman then remembers a platonic friend who lives at house (C). She runs to him, explains her plight. The friend refuses to help; she has disillusioned her friend by her conduct. Her only choice is to go by the bridge in spite of the danger, and the madman kills her.”
After reading the short story, our assignment was to come up with an order of “responsibility for the tragedy,” assigning a degree of blame to everyone involved in the story.
My first instinct had me assigning the most blame to the woman, labeling her as “#1.” Second, the lover. But after labeling the first two, I had a thought. I realized that I was judging hastily, and my thoughts were irrational. How could I rationalize that the woman was too blame for her own murder?
After deciding that it was unfair to blame the woman, the madman became my “#1.” I also pushed the lover’s culpability down to #3; it only made sense. Our professor then went down the list of characters in the story and asked students to raise their hand when their top pick for blameworthiness was up to bat. The woman was the first to be called out, and what looked like half the hands in class was proudly in the air.
The plurality in class that had raised their hands seemed to be in agreement. One student remarked, “If she hadn’t been cheating on her husband, she never would have gotten into the situation in the first place.”
When we got to the madman, I fought the responsibility being thrown on the woman for her own murder. “He did it. Saying that it is the woman’s fault is like saying a girl that dresses inappropriate deserves to be raped.”
To my surprise, I hardly received a response in spite of my remark. My professor looked at me like she normally does, as if I’m either a totally incoherent moron or she just didn’t hear what I said. In regards to the other students, I at least expected to hear some snickering, or even someone aghast by what I said, possibly even naively offended.
The point is, I wasn’t trying to be witty or funny. I was trying to offer a credible sociological perspective to the class; a perfectly logical comparison to the course of deduction which about half the class had just revealed they subscribe to. Anyone who says that a woman who made a few poor decisions which, coincidentally, led to another poor decision that resulted in her murder, has no one to blame but herself, shares in the same line of thinking espoused by apologists of rapists who further the myth that scantly dressed women are “asking for it.” Check any rape survivor advocacy website; the myth (or better yet, shameful conclusion) is near the top of the list.
I think the activity I took part in yesterday afternoon sheds a light on who we are, at least as Americans. We seem to have developed a subconscious cultural norm which suggests punishment and getting what one deserves is entirely dependent on circumstance, even when the punishment fails to fit the crime and the retribution is unjustly appropriated.