Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Trials, Bias, Prejudice, Baltimore, and Polygons

Some social issues that we've been exploring in class recently have given some context for the recent events in Baltimore. 

A couple of weeks ago, we watched the 1957 film 12 Angry Men. It's a classic that remains captivating nearly 60 years later. It's a film that builds slowly (the story essentially unfolds in real time), and the bulk of it takes place in one room. 

I was interested in screening it for the class because offers a number of ways to begin talking about the basics of our legal system, but it's also a great film to watch when teaching writing. The story is built methodically, and the characters are efficiently, but vividly drawn. All twelve characters are distinct and recognizable (if not particularly well fleshed out). 

If you've seen it, you know that film addresses bias and prejudice, particularly the type that most people profess not to have. This idea alone inspired quite a bit of discussion. 

The film is a good introduction to aspects of our legal system. The right to a fair trial is one of them (though how fair the trial actually was is part of the story). The concept of being judged by a jury of peers is another, and we talked about what that meant for the defendant: He was a kid from the slums, and the jury of his "peers" was a group of older, mostly middle or upper class white males. This reflects the time of the film, but jury selection remains an important part of the process. What would a true jury of one's peers look like, and why is that important? 

We've also talked about the concept of unearned privilege and unconscious bias. This is a giant issue, but this video provides a good point of entry for such a complicated conversation: 

We've talked a lot about bias, prejudice, stereotypes, and privilege, particularly terms of race, economic status, gender identity, and other ways in which we tend to view people. The conversations have been open, engaging, and lively. 

Seemingly unrelated, we also spent some time going through this thought-provoking activity: Parable of the Polygons. It involves these little guys: 

The entire post is well worth reading , but here's the gist: All of the shapes are slightly shapist. They don't dislike each other, but they also don't want to be the only one of their kind living in a neighborhood. Here's a breakdown of their rules for happiness: 

While the shapes don't want to be a strong minority in their neighborhoods, they're actually happiest in a diverse situation, as shown in the middle. As you can see on the right, they're actually a little less happy in a completely homogenous environment. 

So each of these little shapes values diversity, but has a small bias. The game allows you to move a shape only when they're unhappy. Under this rule set, it's amazing how quickly the "neighborhoods" becomes segregated: 

Again, reading through the entire post is really worthwhile. Everyone in class was able to work with the site for a while, changing variables and making observations. The big lesson was that small, seemingly inconsequential biases can lead to a larger, systemwide bias. 

All of this eventually led to a discussion of the events in Baltimore, Ferguson, and beyond. We talked about what we had heard about the story (and there were a lot of misconceptions about the basics of those situations), and made some connections about why these issues might be occurring. Why might some communities be so segregated? Why might there be a disconnect between a community and the police department that serves it? What role does bias play in these interactions, and our understanding of them? 

Of course, these questions don't have easy answers, but we've found much of value in the conversation. 

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