How do our beliefs about difference influence the ways in which we see and choose to interact with each other?
Over the next five lessons, students will examine the human tendency to divide ourselves into groups. They will also consider how groups decide whom to include and whom to exclude as well as the benefits of being part of an “in” group and the consequences of being in an “out” group.
On the first day of this two-period lesson, students will respond to a reflection by a student named Eve Shalen, who describes the feeling of being excluded by her peers and how her strong desire to belong influenced her decisions one afternoon on the playground. First, students will reflect on times when they felt included or excluded from a group, as well as times when they may have included or excluded others. Then, after reading Eve’s story, they will consider why we humans have a need to separate ourselves into groups and how these groups play out at our schools and in our local communities. Finally, in a journal response, students will provide words of advice to Eve Shalen for how she might hold on to her identity while also being part of a group.
In the second class period of this lesson, students will look at the range of responses individuals have when they choose how to react to exclusion, discrimination, and injustice. After first defining bystander, victim, perpetrator, and upstander, students will respond to questions about how the students in Eve Shalen’s story reacted and discuss how the universal desire to belong can influence how we respond in the face of injustice or unfairness.
The “In” Group provides an opportunity to discuss themes such as conformity, peer pressure, and belonging—themes that resonate with students’ own experiences and that have shaped the behaviour of individuals throughout history. Often when students think about acts of injustice, they divide those involved into two groups: the victims and the perpetrators. Yet others contribute to the prevention or the perpetuation of injustice. For example, a bystander is someone who witnesses or knows about an act of injustice but chooses not to do anything about it. On the other hand, when confronted with information about an unjust act, an upstander takes steps to prevent or stop this act from continuing.
That being said, bystander and upstander behaviour is not always so clear. For example, under the label upstander, we often list those who take a variety of actions, including resistance and rescue. However, upstanders might also include those who are able to maintain a part of their identity despite opposition, such as people who continue to secretly practice their religious faith despite persecution or others who refuse to give up hope in the face of injustice and adversity. The term bystander can be even more complicated. In most dictionaries, it means a person who is simply “standing by” or who is present without taking part in what is going on—a passive spectator. But some scholars, like psychologist Ervin Staub, believe that even passive spectators play a crucial role in defining the meaning of events by implicitly approving the actions of perpetrators. The choice not to act or speak up is still a choice.
It is important to recognise that it is not these labels themselves, as words, that matter; it is the way we think and talk about the actions (or inactions) of others that helps us both understand history and make connections to the choices we all make in the present. In addition, it is important to remember that individuals and groups usually do not fit into only one category. Instead, they may move into and out of these roles throughout their lives.