[BPSDB]This programme was a rerun of Jane Elliot’s famous experiment that demonstrated that “superiority” and “inferiority” of different groups is a social construct.
In brief: forty years ago, Elliot divided her class of (entirely white) schoolchildren into two groups based on eyecolour and then told them that blue-eyed children were inferior in every way to brown-eyed children. The children went along with this: the brown-eyed began looking down on the blue-eyed and, more significantly, the blue-eyed began doing less well in their schoolwork. Elliot did not set up a control group where the brown-eyed were deemed inferior. A pity, because if she had, and the brown-eyed in that group had begun to slide academically, this would have increased the strength of the thesis that the worth of a person cannot be deduced from a physical attribute and that any differences that do manifest are social constructs. Such an experiment will not be done now as it is rather unlikely that any ethics committee would pass it.
Nevertheless, Elliot made a valid point: the discrimination on the basis of eye-colour was purely arbitrary yet acting on it caused real problems for the blue-eyed. The obvious inference from this is that the arbitrary division of society by skin colour is going to result in the group deemed inferior not achieving as much and that this difference also is a social construct.
The experiment as shown on Channel 4 used 21st century British adults, not 1960s American schoolchildren. One might expect that this would have some effect on the way the
victims experimental subjects reacted to the scenario but regretably, this does not seem to have occurred to Elliot, who was plainly thrown whenever anybody departed from the script she carried in her head.
She had a very aggressive attitude to the subjects (who, until the experiment started, had no idea what was going to happen; they had merely been told that it was a “social experiment”), particulary the blue-eyed. At first I assumed that she was merely acting her part but in the post “experiment” interview, she continued to exhibit the same attitude. Nastiness is obviously her default setting. When the groups were separated at the start, she explained to the brown-eyed how they were going to be the superior group. At this point, one young man stated that he had no wish to be an aggressor and requested to be transferred to the other group. To my mind, this suggested that modern adults are less likely to accept arbitrary authority than 1960s schoolchildren but it would appear that Elliot did not want to consider this. She had him thrown out of the study.
It became increasingly plain that Elliot had a preconceived notion: “whites are racist”. She kept banging on about whites needing to be shown what being on the receiving end of discrimination was like. Now I will admit that, as a white male in a white-majority society that is run by whites, I have no direct experience of discrimination and the same can be said of the white subjects. However, this is a long way from saying we are racist.
Ironically, Elliot appeared to be so focussed on ‘white equals racist’ that she missed evidence that supported the idea that priveleging one group arbitrarily can lead to discriminatory behaviour; possibly because the person exhibiting the behaviour was black.
Pearl, the black woman in question, said that whites “needed to be taught a lesson” – plainly feeling that the blue-eyed were responsible for racism she had experienced simply because they were white. Guilt by association. Blood guilt even. I’m so glad she’s not my boss.
At the end of the experiment, all subjects were given an intelligence test. Elliot plainly wanted to demonstrate that a priveleged group holding the levers of power will rig things to look like they deserve their priveleges. However, she did this very crudely by giving the brown-eyed the answers in advance. A woman in this group kicked up at this and pointed out that the results were meaningless as Elliot had cheated.
At this point Elliot truely demonstrated that she was no scientist. The objector was an experimental subject so her reactions were an outcome of the experiment. Elliot did not see it and castigated her for “preventing the group from learning anything”.
The conclusions I draw from the programme (which was no doubt carefully editted) was that if you privelege any group members of that group are going to oppress the non-priveleged (yes, Pearl, I am looking at you now) and that some people will object to injustice – even if they are beneficiaries of the injustice. Society has moved on at least a little in the last four decades. Elliot plainly has not.