In the spirit of Halloween, we’ll be reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers for October. While Monster is chockablock with themes for discussion, one issue that resonates in particular relates to a fundamental social issue: how society distances people by dehumanizing them. Indeed, the book’s title corresponds to protagonist and incarcerated youth Steve Harmon’s own experience of this distancing: “I’ll call [the story of my life] what the lady who is the prosecutor called me. Monster.”
Much work has been done across the social sciences to demonstrate how we feel more justified about treating others as second class citizens when we convince ourselves to practice moral disengagement. We let ourselves off the ethical hook by arguing that some groups of people don’t deserve the civility of the golden rule. Sadly, this fixes nothing; it merely reinforces divisions, and feeds right back into oppression.
Prisoners are frequently victims of moral disengagement. While corrective officers can be required to undergo training in cultural awareness, an effort that seems derived from hopes to prevent dehumanization of prisoners, the rest of society is left to its own devices. It’s easy to separate ourselves from — and pass judgment on — offenders when they’re behind bars, wearing a prison uniform. And, arguably, mass media’s coverage of high profile cases invites us to practically turn passing judgment into a sport, reinforcing notions that free people are somehow intrinsically different – better – than those who have been convicted.
In other cases, prisoners are victims of moral disengagement by choosing to treat others as lesser. Often, gang-related crimes that lead to imprisonment require mentally separating initiates and members from non-members and enemies. Similarly, when offenders are imprisoned, they may participate in moral disengagement as a mechanism to achieve social status. Situations like these evidence a grisly cycle of choosy personal ethics.
The frightening truth is we have more in common with prisoners – or any group we deem “other,” be it based on religious, sexual, racial, or another sort of bias altogether – than some of us would like to believe. Just as teachers’ expectations influence how students perform, biases and expectations of one group in society can impact another group’s behavior. It is unlikely that talking about and treating incarcerated individuals as inferior will motivate them to do anything other than realize low or criminal expectations.
What we require is a change of attitude. Let’s remember that people who finish serving their time in prison will re-enter society. They’ll stand in lines with you at the grocery store and the gas station. Or, in the case of incarcerated youth, they’ll file back into classrooms, libraries, recreational centers. Think hard about how you want these men, women, and children – your neighbors, your students, your fellow citizens – to behave. Then, let your own behavior towards them indicate expectations of success.
Join the Conversation!
I’m excited to discuss moral disengagement, expectations, and many other poignant themes in Monster with Books Unbound participants next month. We invite you to read along with us and pose your own questions to the group. Check the blog later in October to see how B.U. members respond!