Friday, October 30, 2015

The Crucible, Indeed

Today, I watched a class of teenagers who, I believe, showed signs of having been bullied. Oh, not by each other or by students outside of the class, but by the society in which they live -- a society that forcibly silences those who speak about things that are controversial or that might transgress "proper" thought.

We are studying Arthur Miller's The Crucible. (As many of my regular readers know, for me, the high water mark in all writing is shared by Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck.) In one of the last scenes, when the "court" of the Salem witch trials has decided to try to get John Proctor to confess to witchcraft in exchange for his freedom, Proctor speaks with is wife, Elizabeth. She, during the conversation, tries to take some of the blame on herself herself for his previous infidelity; she says,

John, I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept... Forgive me, forgive me, John - I never knew such goodness in the world!

This is very, very complex. It is no simple shift of blame onto a frigid housewife; it is no chauvinistic pen that Miller wielded. The forgiveness that Elizabeth asks for is the opposite weight on the scale; the one that balances out Proctor's repeated requests for forgiveness from her for his transgression; forgiveness she thought was not hers to give. Knowing that she seeks forgiveness -- a forgiveness he has emphatically denies she should even have to ask, as he takes all of the blame for his infidelity -- means that they have finally reached a level of true "marriage." Knowing this, Proctor turns to the magistrate and says: "I want my life." 

Back to my students. When I asked them to discuss this, I saw reluctance in their eyes, so I pushed a little: "Is Elizabeth right? Does she need forgiveness?" Nothing. "Could it possibly be that a woman who is cheated on might be, in part, at least, responsible for her husband straying?" Now, I saw fear in their eyes. I had purposefully put them onto dangerous ground -- a technique I have used before; for it is a dangerous ground I intend to lead them safely away from. But for things to work, they have to come with me; they have to talk. They would not. 

I could see the invisible hands of the Internet masses clapping down on their mouths. I could see them thinking of all of the people who have spoken unpopular thoughts and gotten drowned by the current of popular philosophy. I could see them thinking of the online petitions made to have TV personalities dismissed for saying the wrong thing. They were afraid to speak. 

All things considered, that's what you call "irony." 

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