Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sexism and Other Hate

So I gave my comp students the Jane Mayer essay to read, the one about how the show 24 is teaching Americans that torture is a necessary and cool act?

This essay here, for those of you who haven't seen it yet:

We're at the point in Comp II where we are writing our own argument essay, and at that point in the semester I'm working with them on evaluating other people's argument essays, and I thought this would be a nifty exercise -- lots of them will have watched 24, I think, so they'll be interested in the essay, and it's a well-done piece of work, with lots to chew on.

So I have them work on a critique of it in class.


Most of them couldn't decide what the thesis of it was. Fifteen minutes into the session, I had to call a halt and redirect: "Okay, yes, she's talking about torture a lot. But that doesn't mean she likes torture. She's quoting Surnow as saying there are lots of ways to torture. She's quoting Surnow as saying he would torture someone to save his wife and child. What is she saying about torture?"

"She doesn't say anything," one student objected.

"She does," I said, holding onto my patience with all my teeth. "She wrote the whole essay. Her essay is saying what about torture?"

They want a thesis statement underlined in the first paragraph, or at the very least the last paragraph, you see. And Mayer hasn't given them one. So there is no thesis. Aargh!

But they finally got it.



Then, they had to come up with things that worked, things that didn't work in the essay.

It was like pulling teeth.

They did well at finding things that worked, because I have done, apparently, a really good job at showing them what good writing is. But at things that didn't work -- well, all of them wanted to claim that her thesis was wrong. Torture isn't bad! She's wrong to say it is bad. She's thinking like a girl, one kid said: that's what's wrong here.

The holy fuck, I said, do you mean by that?

Except I didn't say holy fuck. Only I wanted to.

Thinking like a girl, I said, restraining myself. What do you mean by "thinking like a girl"?

You know, he said.

I don't, I said. Tell me.

Like, with her emotions. Not with the facts.

I studied him. Show me where she does that in the essay, I said. Will you?

He knew he had fucked up, but he could not see why. He scowled. The whole thing, he said. She's not thinking about getting results, she's just thinking about how torture is wrong.

No, I said. Show me in the essay where she uses her emotions to argue and not facts.

He sulled up at me and would not speak.

I don't think she does that, I said. She brings in the guy from West Point. She brings in the soldiers from Iraq. She uses fact throughout, as far as I can see.

She leaves out other facts, he argued. Stuff that disproves her point.

Well, write that down, then, I told him -- sort of snappily, I'm afraid. Don't say she's using emotion instead of fact. Say she's leaving counter-arguments out.

And more of the same.

It was the same when I gave them the atheist essay. Atheists are evil, and that's all they need to know. It's right to torture our enemies, and that's the only fact they need to hear.

Man, am I discouraged today.


Bardiac said...

Maybe it would help to bring in some narratives from torture victims? Elaine Scary's *The Body in Pain* would be a potential source.

Also, you might find it helpful given the audience to look at some of the Vietnam PoW books and how they talk about torture. It's important to remember that our soldiers were tortured, and despite extensive training, told the torturers anything.

Maybe, alas, you students would find male American voices more convincing?

Cynthia said...

I agree with what bardiac says. Maybe what they need is the voices of Americans who were tortured. (Of course, there are those like McCain...)

Also, regarding the thesis statement: I think this demand from your students for a thesis statement in the first or last paragraphs is a result of the NCLB testing. My teenaged son is required to place a thesis statement in both first and last paragraphs in order to pass the writing test for graduation. I'm hopeful he won't be totally ruined as a writer.