Forgiveness in Native-American Experience

Experiences of loss, slight and compromise are common occurrences to many native people in nations that were conquered as a result of the Western European colonial expansion that began in the 16th century.  For example, in what is now known as the United States of America, many native people(s) experienced situations of genocide, ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation as a consequence of this social change.  The anger that has resulted from these injuries has made it difficult for Native-Americans to experience a process of forgiveness as a response to the harm they continue to suffer.

One group of Native-Americans that experienced great loss was the Dakota people.  During the 17th century, Manifest Destiny, the Euro-American principle that the United States were destined by God to expand the virtues of empire across North America, was used to promote an acceleration of territorial expansion.  As a result of this expansion, the native peoples were forced to move to and live on ‘reservations’.  The land of the Dakota tribes became the Dakota Territory on March 2, 1861, until November 2, 1889, when the final portion of the then reduced territory was admitted to the union as the states of North and South Dakota.

During this time period, there were many conflicts and struggles between the native people and the pioneers.  Most notable were the U.S. – Dakota Conflict that took place on December 26, 1862 and the Wounded Knee Massacre that took place on December 29, 1890.  The U.S. – Dakota Conflict was the “largest mass execution in U.S. history” when “thirty-eight Dakota warriors were executed (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”  At the Wounded Knee Massacre, hundreds of Lakota Native-Americans were killed and at least twenty U.S. soldiers were awarded The Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest honor for their military action (Green, J., n.d.).  The Dakota people experienced immeasurable loss from these events: They were removed from their homeland, their way of life was forever changed, and there was a loss of trust between the Dakota people and the non-Dakota people.


The loss to Native-American people is not only an historical occurrence, because loss from these events continues to this present day.  For example, as portrayed in Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (One sky above us: The West, 1996), Albert White Hat (1938-2013), a Lakota man and teacher of Lakota language, at 16 years of age, was sent to St. Francis Jesuit Mission School, a boarding school.  Before that time, he grew up in his traditional Lakota culture ‘of stories’.  The purpose of the boarding school system was to force assimilation of Native-Americans to the dominant mainstream U.S. culture.  The students were not allowed to practice their traditions or speak their native language.  The boarding school system “killed those stories”, and with them, the Lakota culture, and for Albert White Hat, shame resulted (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  In this way, the loss experienced by the Lakota people, as a result of Western European imperialistic economic expansion, is unending.

For Native-American people, individually and as communities, forgiveness is difficult because they experience daily the injustices they currently endure.  Albert White Hat spoke of policy and laws that were imposed on Native-Americans by the white-man’s government and their schools.  These policies and laws, such as the 1851 Treaty in which the ‘Sioux’ tribes lost most of their land, were created with intention to destroy the native people and their culture, and appropriate native people’s land and resources for capitalistic gain to the benefit of non-native U.S. citizens.  In this way, Native-Americans and their culture and history were systematically excluded from mainstream U.S. culture and society.   Native-American people live daily with the injustices imposed upon them by mainstream U.S. culture and its government and policies, and therefore, forgiveness is an ongoing process that, as Albert White Hat said, will not end for hundreds of years (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  Forgiveness is difficult because of the ongoing hardship that must be endured as the result of loss of home, loss of way of life, and a loss of trust, but also because of the shame that results from the oppression imposed on them by a dominating culture.

Shame is a feeling of dishonor, and it is the opposite of self-respect.  Dakota and Lakota people feel shame as a result of living with a morally incompatible lifestyle and belief system that was and is imposed on them by another dominating culture.  The shame experienced through the oppression of a dominating morally incompatible worldview (a moral conflict) presents itself in a different sort of societal relations understanding and expression.

One illustration of incompatible expression is in the worldviews of the Dakota people in contrast to that of the U.S. government, and this is what eventually led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.  The Dakota worldview includes a certain understanding and expression of the notion of ‘relatedness’ as it pertains to ‘family’, ‘friends’, ‘father’ and ‘land’ (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  This is especially important to know in order to understand the Dakota notions of the ‘fatherly’ role of the U.S. government.  From the Dakota perspective, according to Anderson, as cited by Dowlin & Dowlin (2002), “fathers always willingly shared whatever they possessed with their children” and in contrast, the Euro-American use of the word father “means an authoritative, controlling relationship.”  This difference in worldviews concerning family relatedness explains how the territory treaty signing symbolized different meanings for these two groups.

The Dakota and the non-Dakota people held conflicting worldviews as expressed through their definitions and assumptions concerning the concept of ‘relatedness’.  The U.S. government understood the expression of treaty signing “as a way to dominate the Dakota and gain possession of the continent” and by this, the “Dakota were left with confined living areas (reservations), restricted activities, and eventually unfulfilled promises of needed provisions (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”  The Dakota people likely felt resentment and anger due to the fact that they were misunderstood and therefore deceived in such a way that they now lacked self-respect because they lived in a degrading and shameful situation of relative helplessness and poverty.

In a similar way, theses two incompatible worldviews presented themselves in the expression of spoken language.  This was evident when Albert White Hat discussed how the oppressive boarding school system did not allow the students to speak their own language, and insisted on the use of the English language instead (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  The impact to Albert White Hat was that, because of the moral conflict in this situation, he felt shame and an overwhelming anger and he held onto that anger for many years.  At one point in his life, he felt that he had no choice but to kill members of the dominating oppressive culture in order to honor his ancestors.  For Albert White Hat, shame led to resentment, resentment led to anger, and anger led to thoughts of violence (as a way of regaining self-respect) and that blocked the path of forgiveness and healing.

Albert White Hat was feeling a great deal of shame, resentment and anger, and he was thinking violent thoughts, but deep down inside, what he really wanted was to live and to be happy.  He came to this awareness after spending some time fasting and meditating.  One day, when he rose in the morning and faced the East (which, in Native-American culture symbolizes renewal), he came to the realization that he did not want to follow a path of violence, but instead he felt that he deserved to live and to be happy (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  He knew that he had to forgive in order to do so.

As demonstrated in the experience of Albert White Hat, a state of un-forgiveness can be the source of many social ills including substance abuse, and by extension – spousal abuse, and even suicide.  An example of how forgiveness may help in the recovery of substance abuse, specifically that of alcoholism, is told by Sr. Molly Monahan, in her essay, Forgiveness in A.A (2008).  Sr. Monahan wrote that the stories of forgiveness, as told by fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), acted as “a faith that works” to heal.  She said that she heard of others’ experiences concerning the restorative powers of forgiveness. Then, when she reached step five of AA’s twelve-step recovery program, she experienced that she was, as were others, able to forgive not only the transgressions of others, but also her own transgressions.   She wrote that by this experience, she “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity (Monahan, 2008).”  By this account, it appears that a state of un-forgiveness can perpetuate destructive addictive behavior, whereas a process of forgiving can be healing.

Furthermore, a 2011 study, Forgiveness, Depression, and Suicidal Behavior Among a Diverse Sample of College Students, suggested that forgiveness, as a voluntary “coping process . . .may buffer . . . poor mental health outcomes (Hirsch, Webb & Jeglic, 2011).”  The researchers concluded from their study that “forgiveness of self and others could be an important way to reduce the interpersonal distress and depressogenic ‘psychache’ that often precipitate a suicidal crisis (Hirsch, Webb & Jeglic, 2011).”  Therefore, it seems that if a state of un-forgiveness may be a source of social problems, it would be reasonable then, that forgiveness could be a way to resolve them.

An extraordinary example of forgiveness acting as a balm to heal social ills and moral conflict between Native-Americans and non-native people is documented in Healing History’s Wounds:  Reconciliation Communication Efforts to Build Community Between Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) and Non-Dakota Peoples (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The authors of this paper begin their account with an explanation of a moral conflict, explaining how it existed and still exists between the Dakota people and non-Dakota people, and conclude the account with details concerning a model that aids a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is currently in process between these two groups of people.

Dowlin and Dowlin (2002) detailed the moral conflict that existed between the Dakota and non-Dakota people.  They cited Pearce and Littlejohn concerning what takes place “when two incompatible social worlds collide” when they wrote,

1) Each side considers its own position vital and sees the adversary’s position as dangerous; 2) persons set aside feelings and beliefs that don’t fit easily with official positions and statements associated with their ‘‘side’’; 3) valid concerns on both sides are belittled, and important values are denigrated; 4) passion, energy, and material resources are depleted in fruitless and redundant battles; and 5) persons are left frustrated, turned-off, and despairing (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).

The moral conflict between the Dakota people and non-Dakota people cause people in both cultures to misunderstand and distrust one another, to avoid one another, to discount each other’s point of view, and to engage in costly conflict.

As illustrated above in the examples of what led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict and the experience of Albert White Hat, the moral conflict between the Native-Americans and non-native people was evidenced by the incompatible understanding and expression of ‘relatedness’ in their differing worldviews.  Additionally, the colliding worldviews included different notions concerning power relations.  The Dakota maintained a relational, decentralized power structure, while in disharmony with Dakota values, the Euro-American model of power was a hierarchical and centralized system (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).  Because of these differences, the resulting initial response to one another was one of disgust (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The resultant conflicts that ensued led to Native-Americans being forced by the dominant culture, to live in isolation on ‘reservations’.  It is clear to see in this situation how the ignorance concerning each other’s way of understanding, and how the negative feelings of resentment and distrust that each group held concerning one another could result.

In spite of the seemingly insurmountable dilemmas caused by clashing worldviews, the Dakota people and non-Dakota people are now beginning a process of sharing and learning, which is resulting in a movement toward understanding, healing and reconciliation between these groups of people.

Dowlin and Dowlin (2002) explained that this movement toward transformation began with the efforts of two men who met on a fishing trip in 1958, Amos Owen, a Dakota and Bud Lawrence, a non-native businessman.  They engaged in “on-going visits, lengthy conversations, shared experiences in the way of family get-togethers, and the eventual collaborative creation of communally shared Dakota and non-native activities, which contributed to increased mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s culture and uniqueness (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).”  This set the stage and a model of action that aids a process of forgiveness and reconciliation at the community, state and national level.

What began in 1963 as a mini-pow wow as an educational opportunity for children expanded to intentional acts demonstrating respect, honor and friendship and the promotion cultural learning opportunities.  It included a ninety mile walk by Lawrence and two other friends from his university in Mankato to Red Wing, Minnesota and another pow wow in reciprocation (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  These reciprocating communal events that demonstrated respect, honor and friendship, and offered educational opportunity continued and expanded and began a healing process between the Dakota and non-Dakota communities (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).

Of special interest are the events that took place that served to commemorate the thirty-eight warriors who perished during the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.  First, Lawrence began a yearly observance to the thirty-eight lost warriors by going to Mankato to offer prayers for the fallen men each December 26th, the day of the massacre (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  Then a pow wow was planned and dedicated to the memory of the lost warriors and took place at the Mankato city ball park (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The event was successful in that many showed up, but it was financially difficult to continue (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  Amazingly, a stunning occurrence happened just before the dancing began, thirty-eight bald eagles circled above the baseball field as if to “solidif[y] the understanding that Mankato events would commemorate the 38 executed Dakota (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”

As a result of these happenings, efforts to continue community actions of “dialog, collaboration, and communally shared experiences” expanded even to the state level and beyond (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.). Especially notable is that Governor Rudy Perpich even proclaimed 1987 to be ‘The Year of Reconciliation’ in Minnesota in observance of the 125th anniversary of the 1862 U.S. – Dakota Conflict (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The result of this effort is that the actions continued and expanded such that a ‘Year of Reconciliation’, a ‘Decade of Reconciliation’ and even a ‘Century of Reconciliation’ was declared outside of Minnesota borders, including actions taken by churches, schools, and governments, and these actions were further supported by the media (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).

What began as a friendship between two men from very different cultural backgrounds expanded to a national level cross-cultural exchange.  What is being created by these types of events is a “place where dialogue, ‘new ceremonies,’ shared meanings, and shared histories [can] take place (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).”  In other words, Native-American history, culture and experience are becoming more and more accepted elements of U.S. culture.

In fact, these same types of methods of reconciliation are now being used in the growing field of Peace and Justice and the practice of Restorative Justice.  One especially pioneering group of individuals that work in the Restorative Justice field is the Mennonite Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists are another group who have historically experienced situations of oppression and extermination by a dominating culture because of their different cultural beliefs.  Many individuals of their group were murdered for their religious beliefs during the Radical Reformation period of the Catholic Church that began during the sixteenth century in Germany and Switzerland, as documented in the Martyr’s Mirror (1994).  This is the group from which the Amish have descended.  Members of the Amish religious sect shocked ‘the world’ by their very quick forgiveness response to a tragic occurrence when an angry shooter killed five students and harmed five others at their Nickel Mines School, in Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006.  In the wake of this tragedy, the Amish community responded with forgiveness and kindness to the deceased shooter’s family.  In doing so, they practiced their deep faith in the ways of Jesus Christ by offering “forgiveness and actively making peace” as an “alternative to perpetual fear” and strife (Kasdorf, 2007.).   The Peace and Justice field and Restorative Justice programs are not forgiveness per se, yet they have similar elements of practice that result in relationship restoration and the healing from transgressions.

In Anabaptist circles, which include the peace churches of the Mennonites, the Amish, the Hutterites, and the Brethren in Christ, Howard Zehr is considered the ‘grandfather’ of the Restorative Justice practice in the field of Justice and Peacebuilding (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, n.d.) (Howard Zehr, n.d.).  The model of Restorative Justice that he advocates incorporates cultural values of both the Native-Americans and the Maori of New Zealand in his philosophy that includes the “core values” known “as three ‘R’s’ – respect, responsibility and relationships (Restorative Justice and Peacebuiding, n.d.).”  Zehr states that the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University “is organized around three central fields: trauma awareness and healing, conflict transformation and restorative justice. Several other auxiliary fields include healthy organizations and community development.  (Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding, n.d.)”  The methods used in the EMU Center for Peace and Justice programs mirror the methods currently being used by the Dakota people.

That the methods used by less dominant cultures are being studied and in turn now used by the dominant culture in order to create spaces for dialog, collaboration, and communally shared experiences in order to foster forgiveness and healing is encouraging.  As cited by Kazdorf (2007), David L. Weaver-Zercher affirmed the notion that “the Amish symbolically function as ‘a saving remnant’ within the dominant culture.  Perhaps this is true also for the Maori and the Native-American peoples and other non-dominant cultures, too.  Non-dominant cultures have been systematically oppressed and excluded even as they have so much to share with the people of the dominating culture; it is comforting that this is now changing.

To summarize, Native peoples experience a great deal of loss including negative social and health effects that are a result of a morally conflicting worldview imposed on them as a consequence of Western European colonial expansion.  The oppression they experience has, for many years, blocked the way of forgiveness and healing.  Yet, what began in the 1950s as a friendship between a Dakota man and a non-Dakota man has become a healing model that has expanded to a national level.  This model of reconciliation aids a process of forgiveness by using indigenous values in order to bring disparate groups together through communal events that demonstrate respect, honor and friendship, and offer educational opportunities as a way of fostering understanding and reconciliation among these people.  This is restoring self-respect for Native-Americans and allowing a space for healing.  These same methods are now being used in other peace and justice programs.  It is clear that the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, effort that is required in order to understand and forgive transgressions may be key to achieving a world of greater justice and peace.


Dowlin, S. L., & Dowlin, B. (2002). Healing History’s Wounds: Reconciliation Communication Efforts to Build Community Between Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) and Non‐Dakota Peoples. Peace & Change, 27(3), 412-436.

Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. (n.d.). Global Anabaptist Mennonite encyclopedia online. [Web page] Retrieved from

Green, J. (n.d.). The medals of wounded knee. Nebraska history [Web page]. Retrieved from

Hirsch, J. K., Webb, J. R., & Jeglic, E. L. (2011). Forgiveness, depression, and suicidal behavior among a diverse sample of college students. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 67(9), 896-906. doi:10.1002/jclp.20812

Howard Zehr. (n.d.). Howard Zehr. [Web page] Retrieved from

Kasdorf, J. (2007). To Pasture: “Amish Forgiveness,” Silence, and the West Nickel Mines School Shooting. Cross Currents, 57(3), 328-347.

Monahan, M. (2008). Forgiveness in AA. (Cover story). Human Development, 29(2), 16-19.

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 24, 2014, from

Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding. (n.d.). Restorative justice and peacebuilding. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Van Braght, Thieleman J., and Thieleman J. Braght. Martyrs mirror. Herald Press, 1994.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Life Choices: Understanding Sources that Shape Our Perceptions and Behaviors

Many people like to believe that we are all solely responsible for the decisions that we make in our lives, and that we are solely responsible for our own life outcomes, too.  Although I do agree that we each should be held accountable for the decisions we make and the actions we take, it is equally important to understand that we do not make decisions and act completely on our own.  Instead, we make our decisions and act within the constraints of a very complex social order.

The following statement by President Obama (that became very controversial) in the speech that he made in his 13, July 2012 presidential campaign event that took place in Roanoke Virginia, communicated how the complexity of life choices and outcomes are shaped by a larger social order.  The president said,

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own . . . The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together (President Obama Campaign Rally in Roanoke, n.d.).

View full speech here:

I will stress that what President Obama said was that, even as we act as individuals, we also, as a society, do things together.  Explaining this, in his speech, President Obama mentioned infrastructure, such as the building of bridges and the connectivity we have achieved as a result of the invention of the Internet.  I believe that President Obama was alluding to (or rather suggesting) how bridges and connectivity are built within a society in other ways, too.

Social connectivity takes place in such a way that individuals learn how to think and act within the constraints of their individual and collective histories, their cultural customs, and through a process of socialization that perpetuates and reinforces the maintenance of cultural and social practices.  For the most part, individuals make important life decisions in such a way that they perpetuate and reinforce sociocultural structures by following social norms, obeying authority, and through the adoption of imposed roles.  What this means is that, even for choices made by individuals, social forces play a major role in the decision-making processes and therefore, social processes also play a major role in people’s life outcomes.

For example, the suggestibility[1] of U.S. mainstream culture encourages us to embrace a belief in a ‘rugged individualism’ in that we each are responsible for our own individual decisions, actions and outcomes in life.  This ideology can be evidenced in President’s Hoover’s 1928 campaign speech when he spoke of ‘equal opportunity’ as the unique ‘American’ institution that had allowed the U.S. to ‘advance’ beyond all other nations in the world.  He said,

During one hundred and fifty years we have builded [sic] up a form of self-government and a social system which is peculiarly our own. It differs essentially from all others in the world. It is the American system…. It is founded upon the conception that only through ordered liberty, freedom and equal opportunity to the individual will his initiative and enterprise spur on the march of progress. And in our insistence upon equality of opportunity has our system advanced beyond all the world (Herbert Hoover, “Rugged Individualism” Campaign Speech, n.d.).

What President Hoover failed to mention in his speech about the virtues of freedom and opportunity were the number of citizens that were historically excluded from realizing equality of opportunity in the U.S.  For example, in the year that he gave this speech, women and people of color did not have equal rights and opportunity to the same degree that white-skin men enjoyed because of social norms, cultural practices, and even laws.

Women were ‘given’ the right to vote only eight years prior, and were limited by social norms and customs in many other ways.  Likewise, African-Americans and other people of color were routinely excluded from political processes until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, amongst many other discriminatory actions perpetrated and enforced by the dominating white-skinned, male majority.  Therefore, individuals in these marginalized groups did not experience the same degree of opportunity to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ as did white-skinned men, who were afforded the privilege of greater opportunity and participation in mainstream society.

This notion, this false ideology, that the U.S. is a land of equal opportunity has carried forward to the present day.  The rugged individualism that mainstream U.S. culture, through suggestibility, ‘teaches’ us to believe is rather mythical because it is based on a limited (white-skinned male privilege) perspective, which is lacking a larger historical, social and cultural context.

Therefore, with this contextual understanding, it is clear that life choices, or rather the opportunities that individuals may or may not enjoy in life are, for the most part, limited within certain societal contexts, or constraints.  Tod Sloan, author of Life Choices: Understanding Dilemmas and Decisions (Lives in Context) (1996), wrote about decision-making processes in relation to historical, social and cultural context in a related but different way.  He said that he wrote this book as an antidote (or ‘antiguide’) to traditional self-help books designed to counsel people through their dilemmas and make better difficult life decisions.  The argument that Sloan focused on was that clinical psychology, which is used in many self-help books, centers on an accepted wisdom (perhaps wisdom that is based in cultural attitudes that reinforce a western worldview ideology of individualism) concerning peoples’ choices without regard to any context.

What this means is that the limited perspective of clinical psychology does not consider the historical, social or cultural context when attempting to explain the processes involved in people’s decision-making activities.  Sloan asserted that decision-making could be best understood by considering not only one’s personality, but also the context of one’s life history, of social circumstances, and of one’s cultural ideology.  These ideas expand the notion that our life choices and decisions are shaped not only by our own inclination but also by the larger society.

Sloan questioned how people make decisions when faced with the “options” and “constraints” of “going along with the crowd” or else listening to their own “inner voice” when these two options seem to be in opposition (Sloan, 1996, pp. 2-3.)  In other words, he questioned how people might attempt to be authentic by keeping their decisions and actions in line with their character or identity, while also fitting in and benefitting from the larger society, because sometimes these goals are contradictory to one another.

Therefore, in order to reconcile these conflicting values, a degree of self-deception or rationalization, or rather a degree of face-making, in order to fulfill one’s intentions, desires or wishes takes place.  Sloan stressed that when a person’s ability to be authentic is limited by the complexity of historical, social, and cultural constraints, their choices and their freedom are limited, too (Sloan, 1996, p.14.).  Sometimes, life choices are difficult decisions to make, or rather dilemmas, because in order to be authentic in regard to certain aspects of one’s character or identity, it may require one to compromise by way of self-deceptions or rationalizations.

Knowing the human tendency for one to compromise in situations where conflicting values emerge, in order to protect one’s identity, can be key to understanding why some folks were angered by President Obama’s assertion that ‘you didn’t build that’, and that ‘somebody else made that happen’.  This can be explained with a hypothetical example:

If, for instance, I want to believe that I am a good, hard-working individual who has worked for everything that I have, then perhaps I don’t want to know an historical, social or cultural context in relation to U.S. social dynamics.  Perhaps, my self-concept of being a good, hard-working person doesn’t want to look back into history to see how certain social institutions, like slavery, had been built; and perhaps I don’t want to see how other social systems (like racism) have been constructed and maintained over the years, thereby limiting certain individual’s (out-group members) opportunities.  Knowing an historical context would be in conflict with my self-concept, therefore I tend to ignore the historical truth.

Additionally, If I want to believe that I am a hard-working individual who has earned everything I have, perhaps I don’t want to know how mainstream U.S. culture creates social norms, and sets policy in such a way that certain groups are privileged simply by their membership in a dominating group, while those in the minority are excluded and therefore, disadvantaged.  Understanding the social context, inclusive of the ‘authority’ imposed by a dominating mainstream culture would be in conflict with my self-concept, therefore I rationalize against this truth.

Furthermore, because I want to maintain my good-person, hard-working identity, perhaps I don’t want to know that others work just as hard, and possibly even harder than I do, and yet realize situations of disadvantage, such as living in poverty.  Perhaps I’d rather deceive myself and rationalize that I am financially better situated because I have worked hard for my privilege, and that ‘the poor’ are poor because of their own poor life choices.  Once again, my self-concept encourages me to delude myself into incorrectly thinking that I have greater privilege than others simply because I work harder than they do.

Finally, perhaps I don’t want to see that we rely on each other and the complex networks and systems that we create, or rather that ‘we do things together’. Instead, I’d prefer to believe in a western worldview ideology of ‘pulling oneself up by his bootstraps’ rugged individualism than to see a larger perspective inclusive of the connectivity among individuals.  Maintaining this sort of ideology allows me to ignore a larger historical, social, and cultural context in order to rationalize my greater degree of privilege.

Key to understanding the angry response of some folks, to President Obama’s suggestion that it is not only individual agency that creates one’s situation of wealth and prosperity, is knowing that the angry response is a defense mechanism that was activated in order to protect people’s self-concept or identity.  In this way, the suggestibility of the dominating rugged individualism ideology combined with a need to protect one’s self-concept is able to sway people’s opinions (of themselves and others) far from the truth.

Social forces such as following social norms, obeying authority, the adoption of imposed roles, the effects of suggestibility, and a tendency to compromise in certain situations by way of self-deceptions or rationalizations, all play a large part in an individual’s decision-making process.  Because of this, the actual degree of freedom of choice and outcome that individuals have might, in fact, be overestimated.  Another way to look into these social dynamics concerning the influences on decision-making is by examining the results of two important classic psychological experiments.

People are socially connected in the way that they respond to one another, such as how they respond to authority.  For example, social psychologist, Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), during his professorship at Yale University during the tumultuous 1960s, conducted studies, specifically as experiments in obedience to authority.  His goal was to understand how it was that average ‘normal’ German citizens, during World War II, participated in the cruelty towards and the extermination of the Jewish people.  He wanted to understand why those people did not resist the authority and instead act in ways consistent with their own morals and values.  The goal of the experiment was to test to what degree average individuals selected from U.S. society would follow through with the instructions of an authority figure to inflict harm on others, even if against their morals.  The very high degree of willingness to inflict harm on others when told to do so by an authority figure shocked the researchers.  The researchers discovered that obeying the orders of an authority figure, even against one’s morals, was a societal and cultural norm, not only in Germany, but it was a social norm in the U.S., also.

It is important to understand that social or cultural norms make it difficult for people to see clearly.  In other words, because a circumstance seems ‘normal’ to people, it can, many times go unnoticed, such as we hardly notice the presence of air until we have difficulty breathing.  An example of unobserved cultural norms are Milgram’s thoughts concerning obedience as described in his paper, Behavioral Study of Obedience (1963).  In this paper, he wrote that obedience is a “basic element in the structure of social life” and that “[s]ome system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the man dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others.”  It is interesting that Milgram ignored the violent nature of forcing others into actions of submission or defiance.  It is also interesting that he maintained assumptions about the ‘goodness’ of a need for a dominating authority, as did the participants in his study.

The participants were told that they would be assisting in the learning of the “effects of punishment on memory”.  More specifically, they were told,

For instance, we don’t know how much punishment is best for learning—and we don’t know how much difference it makes as to who is giving the punishment, whether an adult learns best from a younger or an older person than himself—or many things of that sort (Migram, 1963.).

The assumption was that the punishment by an authority is good for learning.  It seems that the suggestibility in a common authoritative utterance, ‘I’ll teach you a lesson’ in reference to a punishment, perpetuates the belief that punishment and teaching go hand-in-hand. Milgram wrote in his discussion of the findings of nine “features [that] help to explain the high amount of obedience obtained in this experiment” but he did not acknowledge the violent nature embedded in the assumption that punishment helps one to learn (Milgram, 1963.).  Apparently, neither did the any of the participants, because they went along with the experiment.  Likewise, Milgram did not distinguish benevolent leadership from violent domination.  Perhaps the high number of participants that followed through with the administration of what they perceived to be a ‘Danger: Severe Shock’ to a learner who answered incorrectly was also directly related to a larger social context in that the social norms of mainstream U.S. quite violent at that time period of U.S. history, even as they went unnoticed.

Perhaps violent cultural norms also explain the results of what came to be known as the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ that took place in 1971 at Stanford University, and which was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.  In this experiment, under the authority of social psychologist, Phillip Zimbardo, participants adopted imposed roles, that of prisoners and guards, and they engaged in their roles with such intensity and negative effect on the ‘prisoners’ (who were having mental breakdowns as a result of the experiment), it was necessary to end the experiment early for everyone’s wellbeing.

The Human Behavior Experiments 2006 from Connected Foundations on Vimeo.

Dr. Zimbardo discussed these events, as was portrayed in the 2006 documentary film The Human Behavior Experiments (n.d.).  He indicated that he did not recognize the change in himself – the move toward violence, even as he was studying why and how other people could act with such cruelty toward others (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).  Professor Zimbardo had transformed into a sort of mad scientist, leading cruel experiments on others.  He said that he did not put and end to his madness until Christiana Maslatch, his soon to be wife, alerted him to his personality change, saying that “the power of the situation has transformed you from, from the person I thought I knew to this person that I don’t know (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).”  Even the researcher, Professor Zimbardo, was transformed by the circumstances of the experiment, “seduced into doing things [he] never thought [he] could (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).

Dr. Zimbardo, an expert trial witness to one guard involved in the Abu Ghraib torturing of prisoners, during the Iraq War, related his prison experiments to the torturing of Iraqi prisoners (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).  He explained that he could see the similarities between the prison experiments and what had happened at Abu Ghraib.  He concluded that the guards were not ‘bad apples’ so to speak.  They were, instead, average people acting within a corrupt system.  They were good people responding to a “cruel environment without clear rules (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).”  It was the system that was bad, not the individual actors.

The system that was bad was a system that created a space and an allowance for people to act outside of less violent social and cultural norms.  They were allowed and even encouraged to interrogate by means of cruel physical and mental abuse in order to coerce a desired response from prisoners.  A new more violent culture was created within the Abu Ghraib facility, in which the prison guards assimilated.

A most telling statement in the documentary The Human Behavior Experiments (n.d.) was when a researcher commented concerning the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’.  He said “they ended up punishing those prisoners as though they had done something wrong (The Human Behavior Experiments, n.d.).”  This is what the prison guards at Abu Ghraib did also, they punished before a conviction.  Yet, the researcher had difficulty seeing that perhaps the ‘wrongdoing’ of the individuals may have been created by an unjust system, and therefore punishment is possibly not the best response.  In other words, the researcher still believed in a violent ideology that was imposed by the suggestions and authority of a larger society that maintains a limited western worldview that stresses the goodness of rugged individualism and denies the reality that we do things together.

The researchers still grappled with the constraints of a very complex social order.  Even as they were drawing conclusions that it is the bridges and connectivity, or rather the systems of a social order that shapes individuals’ decisions and actions, they still had difficulty seeing social norms that suggest the acceptability of a certain degree of violence from select individuals.  They still believed that violence, if done by good people as a way to punish bad people, could be acceptable.  They still believed in the socially constructed roles of helpless victimhood, bad offender, and the punishing authority.  Because of this, they were not open to see that other responses to offenses can be more effective than punishment, or else they would not use such language as they did.  The complexity of the larger dominating violent social order constrained the researchers ideas such that they were not free to consider nonviolent responses to an injustice.  Therefore, even they continued to perpetuate a violent system.

How individuals respond to the dilemmas they face is shaped a great deal by a larger social order.  The decisions they make and the actions they take must be understood in context.  This context includes an individual and societal history, plus social and cultural forces, including the following of social norms, the tendency to obey authority, the adoption of imposed roles, the effects of suggestibility, and a tendency to compromise in certain situations by way of self-deceptions or rationalizations.  This context shapes individual perceptions and behaviors and it influences their decision-making and life choices.  Understanding the complexity of ‘individual’ decision choices can prevent us from yielding to external social pressures or influences such that we are better able to listen to our own ‘inner voices’ and remain authentic to our true selves.

Effective decision-making, that is decision-making that allows one to remain authentic to oneself, involves critical thinking, and that requires an understanding that an historical, social, and cultural context interacts with a person’s thinking processes and shapes their perceptions and their behaviors.


Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Readings about the social animal, 17-26.

Herbert Hoover, “Rugged Individualism” Campaign Speech. (n.d.). Herbert Hoover, “rugged individualism” campaign speech. [Web page]. Retrieved from

The Human Behavior Experiments. (n.d.). The human behavior experiments. [Web page] Retrieved from

The Human Behavior Experiments. (n.d.). The human behavior experiments. [Web page] Retrieved from

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.

Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil. (n.d.). Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil. [Web page]. Retrieved from

President Obama Campaign Rally in Roanoke. (n.d.). President obama campaign rally in Roanoke. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Sloan, T. S. (1996). Life choices: Understanding dilemmas and decisions. Denver, CO: Westview Press.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[1] Suggestibility is a theory proposed in 1955 by psychologist Solomon E. Asch, in which social experiments explained how the use of suggestions (and especially suggestions combined with group pressure) can affect one’s opinions and even sway people’s opinions far from the truth (Asch, 1955).

The Connection Between Privilege and Disadvantage

Situations of privilege and disadvantage are connected in that one situation cannot exist without the other, and they lie on opposite ends of a spectrum. Privilege happens only in relation to disadvantage, and likewise disadvantage happens only in relation to privilege. This does not mean that social dynamics cannot change, because they certainly do change not only for individuals, but also for groups and even societies.

Systems of privilege/disadvantage (which is a very different social dynamic than individual acts of discrimination) have been historically created in such a way that certain members of society automatically receive benefit for the simple reason that they were born into the membership of a privileged group. What this means is that in the U.S. (as in other countries) we, as a society, have historically created social systems that automatically privilege certain groups of people – those groups being the group of men  (male privilege) the group of white-skinned people (white-skin privilege) the group of non-disabled people (able-ism), and the group of heterosexual people (heterosexism), for example. Being born into these groups automatically entitles members to certain privileges:

  • higher paying jobs for men (translates to less poverty for men).
  • less likelihood of incarceration for white-skinned folks (translates to less poverty for white-skinned folks).
  • ease in mobility for non-disabled people (translates into greater work opportunity and less chance of poverty for nondisabled folks).
  • tax and insurance benefits, plus the ability to make medical decisions for heterosexual partners (translates into less poverty for heterosexual couples).

Non-privileged group members do not have the same opportunity to enjoy these benefits to the same degree as members of privileged groups do. This inequality can be seen in socioeconomic status statistics, for example.

In other words, members of marginalized and stigmatized groups (women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community, for example) are generally excluded from participating FULLY in mainstream society, sometimes by discrimination, sometimes by group dynamics that create social ‘norms’, and sometimes even by law. One cannot ‘give up’ the privilege even if the privilege is not wanted, because it is bestowed onto members of certain groups by society in general. The group of white-skinned, non-disabled heterosexual men is the most privileged group in U.S. society.

It is important to understand, though, that a person can be privileged in one area of their life and simultaneously also be disadvantaged in another. Additionally, one can be a member of an advantaged group and NOT FEEL privileged. Likewise, there can be folks who are members of disadvantaged groups who DO realize areas and degrees of privilege. These few exceptions do not negate the reality of the systemic violence that is embedded into the domination systems that we know as sexism, racism, able-ism, heterosexism, and classism, for example. Although we cannot escape the privileges that society bestows on us, those who do enjoy privilege can use their privilege to empower others. Indeed, it is the folks who do have privilege who have the greatest ability (power) and opportunity to change the unjust systems.

A good resource for understanding these social dynamics is Privilege, Power and Difference by Allen G. Johnson.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Silence: A Form of Violence

Silence is a form of linguistic violence. The violence is apparent in what is communicated by the lack of speaking. Or as illustrated in the circumstances of this 18 February Climate Change news report, linguistic violence may present itself as the veiling or suppression of the truth. Purposefully influencing what may or may not be said can be a means for “the powerful alteration of reality”, which is a type of coercion and a form of violence, even when on the surface silence may seem rather benign (Apressyan, 1998). Therefore violent language does not even need to be heard in order to be violent.

Here is an excerpt of the report:
Joyce Labrecque, Andy, Jeri Labrecque, Marc Labrecque, Daniel Labrecque, Luc Labrecque, Richard Labrecque, Robert Labreque, Karla Labrecque, Jules Labrecque, Simone Labrecque, Donald Labrecque, Erin Labrecque and Thera Breau. Published with permission of Karla and Alain Labrecque. Erin Steele/Peace River Record-Gazette/

Meet The Family The Tar Sands Industry Wants To Keep Quiet


Meet The Family The Tar Sands Industry Wants To Keep Quiet

There is an abandoned house in Alberta, Canada, where Alain Labrecque used to live. Tucked in the farming community of Peace River, it is a place brimming with personal history, rooted to his grandfather’s land where his parents and eight aunts and uncles grew up, and where Alain’s own children were born. Now, Alain’s property and the surrounding area are primarily home to large, black cylinders of oil.

The oil is from Alberta’s much-famed tar sands, a large area of land that contains clay, bitumen, and a good deal of sand. Inside the tanks, heavy crude from the sands is heated, until it becomes viscous enough to transport. Many of those tanks currently vent freely into the atmosphere.

As the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world and the key ingredient of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and with production value that is expected to nearly triple by 2018, the Canadian tar sands have become an unseen symbol in America. For some, that symbol represents jobs, energy security, and economic prosperity. For others, it’s pollution, addiction to fossil fuels, and a threat to a livable climate. What generally is not conveyed, however, is an image of the families who live there, and who have been there long before the tar sands boom.

Continue reading Climate Progress News Article here.   


Apressyan, R. G. (1998). Violent speech. Peace Review, 10(4), 587.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Framing Our Perceptions

When I became a mother, how I perceived the whole world changed.  Before that time, I was influenced much as ‘mainstream U.S. culture’ is influenced:  By the media.  I was a typical consumer.  I had notions that what I should do with my life was to work hard to ‘get ahead’ and work hard – play hard.  I lived my life for me, never questioning whom it was that I was trying to get ahead of, or whom it was that I was leaving behind.  Additionally, I did not realize that another way of perceiving my lifestyle was thinking of it as one of over-consumption.  My way of thinking changed as a result of my decision to homeschool my children.

At the time that we decided to be a homeschooling family, my husband, Bill, and I, decided to lighten our work schedules to make time for teaching.  Because of our then limited income, we determined that we would become a little less wasteful, a little more resourceful, and a lot more self-sufficient.  My new reading genres included topics such as thrift, frugality and homesteading.  This lifestyle of teaching our children also led me to my own new learning adventure, including learning a new way of life – a more-with-less lifestyle.

I discovered the more-with-less ideology from a cookbook, The More with Less Cookbook (1976), by Doris Janzen Longacre.  This cookbook contained simple recipes and suggestions on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources.  I also read its companion book, Living More with Less (1980), also by Doris Janzen Longacre.  This book offered its readers a pattern for living with less and a wealth of suggestions for simple, sustainable, sane and healthy living.  These books taught me ‘another way’ to frame my thinking.  They opened my eyes, transformed my worldview, my value systems, and my way of life.  This other way is a way of consuming less of the world’s limited resources while at the same time living life more.  The more-with-less books, by Doris Janzen Longacre are about food, consumption, and social justice.  I’ve come to think of the more-with-less concept as a way of creating a world of greater social justice, or rather different way of thinking about getting our ‘just desserts’.

In retrospect, I can see that the dominant culture’s influence had a major impact on my youth, including my opinions, decisions, and actions.  Yet, at that time, I did not recognize that fact.  I lacked knowledge concerning the social realities of ‘others’, and especially of others in what we, in the western world, now label ‘developing countries’.  I did not have a very good understanding of my own situation of extreme privilege in relation to worldwide realities.  It was not until I had a need to learn another way of living for my own personal wellbeing that I became conscious of how little I knew.  I can see now that my knowledge was especially lacking concerning other ways of thinking related to resource scarcity and how people choose to relate to one another, and how they think of personal wellbeing.

In my youth, during the Reagan years, I bought into the political propaganda of that time.  Many people (including myself) loved him for his trickle-down economic policy, which became known as “Reaganomics”.  Reaganomics, by decreasing tax rates, also increased the wealth of the wealthy and it also increased the consumption ability of the not so wealthy.  This increased ability to consume felt like increased wellbeing to me.  Businesses loved Reagan because he deregulated industry.  This helped to keep prices low, and also created notions of wellbeing that I bought into.  His stand against the U.S.S.R., and all things communist, provided the country with an opposition and therefore also a patriotism to root for.  This felt good to me, too.  While Ronald Reagan was president, it seemed that economy prospered and it felt as though I was prospering, too.  I now know that although the country enjoyed high employment rates, and a rather prosperous few years, Reagan also made a lot of decisions that were detrimental in the long term.  In reality, national debt increased, and this is what allowed for the impression of prosperity.  His actions against the air traffic controllers strike acted to dismantle the power of organized labor.  The deregulation of many industries helped business prosper, but at the cost of the environment. His escalation of the Cold War against the U.S.S.R. helped to increase the number of nuclear weapons on the planet.  His new laws for drug offenses increased incarceration rates and the racial disparities in the prison population, while doing nothing to curb illegal drug use. Today, I now know that we live with greater environmental concerns, greater amounts of national debt, a new industry based on incarceration with its new form of slave labor, and we have an income disparity larger than ever before. It is clear to me today that the negative impacts of the economic policies of this skilled actor (that seemed very good at the time) still plague us today.  I can see by my change in worldview in circumstances of politics and social justice that our modes of thinking and perceiving the world are not fixed, but rather, they are influenced and can and do change over time.

My most current knowledge of world affairs no longer comes exclusively from popular culture news sources.  It now comes primarily from a new education.  The combination of homeschooling my children, and learning about alternative (less-consuming) lifestyles had led me to desire a college education (something that I previously did not have the privilege to pursue) at a rather late stage in my life.  This is how my political opinions have been persuaded, by my new education.  Today, I am very glad for my new greater awareness and understanding of the world and my place within it.  In retrospect, I can see that although my youth was very ‘real’ to me, I truly lived in a sort of fantasy world that was based more so on a white-washed history and that of myths than it was on reality.

I also now have a new understanding of wellbeing.  My priorities have changed.  I no longer attach my self-worth to my socioeconomic status or my ability to gain material possessions or to my ability to consume.  I now think of wellbeing in terms of quality time with my family, and how satisfied I am with my overall life outcome.  I now think of my life in relation to the past and the present and also in relation to the experiences of others on a worldwide scale.  I have found that I have become a much more grateful person, realizing the degree of privilege that I possess.

My new awareness allows me greater choice and opportunity than what I had before.  This is mainly because I now have a more expansive view and therefore understanding.  I am able to see from perspectives inclusive of other’s viewpoints.  I am less likely to think in terms of either/or and right or wrong.  I am also beginning to see the world less objectively and more relationally, instead.  The framing of my thoughts is changing according to the new information I am gaining.

One very important change in my awareness is that I now understand that many of my thinking processes, like everyone else’s, may very well be short of being completely rational. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), in his conversation with Richard Layard at the London School of Economics (Thinking Fast and Slow, n.d.) explained how the human mind works in non-rational ways.  He referred to the ‘fast and slow’ thinking as system one, and system two.  System one is a fast, automatic, effortless, intuitive thought process, but it has a weakness in that its intuitive nature is prone to errors.  System two monitors and controls behaviors.  It is slower, more laborious and a more accurate process; yet it is prone to “paralysis by analysis”.  What this means is that our brains “produce mistakes” when they do not have skilled knowledge for the questions they must respond to.  In these types of circumstances, they use the information they do have (including unskilled intuitions and strong emotions) to make a “consistent story” that may be very convincing and compelling, yet prone to error.  The subconscious thinking of system one does a great majority of the brain’s work, and it does it very efficiently, but sometimes at the cost of rationality.

Marketers are aware of this shortcoming in people’s ability to rationalize, and this is why they appeal to people’s emotions rather than rationality when selling products and services to make a profit.  This leads to the reason that a psychology professor was a recipient of a Nobel Prize for economics.  Kahneman questioned standard economic theory that assumes people have consistent and stable preferences and use them to make rational decisions.  Against popular belief, Kahneman proved that people do not always respond to situations rationally.

This new understanding of people’s thinking errors carries implications for the importance of public policy and government regulations.  If people are rational then there is no need to protect them from their own mistakes, but if people are not always rational thinkers, and they are prone to making highly predictable mistakes, then perhaps a degree of policy and regulation is warranted as a means of protection against predators.

Public policy and government regulation are important safeguards against predation by unscrupulous business practices, and so is education.  Kahneman stated that his main reason for writing the book Thinking, Slow and Fast was to “educate gossip” by introducing more sophisticated concepts concerning how people make decisions.  He said that giving people this knowledge along with a terminology and a language to use, would help them in finding and correcting their own thinking errors, in addition to thinking errors of others.  The purpose of his book was to bring awareness of our individual and collective cognitive biases, so that we may protect ourselves against them.

This is, in a way, what the more-with-less books did for me, because they corrected my thinking biases.  I had grown up in a very individualistic culture, and one that is based on economic principles established on a need to compete for limited resources.  The more-with-less books taught me that there are other ways of thinking about resources and economy.  For example, instead of competing for resources, I learned that we could conserve resources.  Likewise, instead of competing with one another, we could work together cooperatively and in collaboration with one anther.  This new way of life, one that I am still attempting to develop, is credited to Doris Janzen Longacre, because she gave me a new language to use, and a new way to frame my thoughts.  Likewise, my education is continuing the process by introducing more sophisticated concepts, terminology, and language such that where my mental processes may fall short, I can be aware of the tendency so that I may safeguard myself, and perhaps others also, against them.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Understanding Influence in the Workplace Under Competitive Markets

Psychologist, Robert Cialdini, PhD. author of the popular book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1993), wrote about six rules or principles of influence. Among these is the rule of reciprocity. The rule of reciprocity is understood as “one of the most widespread and basic norms of human culture” that “requires that one person try to repay what another person has provided (Six Principle of Persuasion Summary, n.d.).” This social norm creates a social obligation such that the recipient of a gift is expected to repay the giver at some time in the future. According to Cialdini, the rule of reciprocity can be beneficial to a society because it creates in a person a sense of future obligation that assists them in the development of relationships including exchanges and transactions that are beneficial to society.


We can think of baby showers as one type of social exchange, and we can think of taxes and social security as another type of exchange or transaction, for example. These types of transactions ‘work’ when we believe that we may/will receive a future payback ourselves.  Because of the rule of reciprocity, we are more likely to give when others have need. It is understood that this sense of future obligation helps us to be more giving and sharing human beings.

Yet, the rule of reciprocity may be used not only in beneficial ways, but instead it may be used in coercive ways, too. Many times, it is the rule of reciprocity that calculating and manipulative marketers use to trap their victims. This is because it is known that the reciprocity rules can motivate exchanges in such a way that one side is able to extract profit (that is realize a gain, not an equal exchange) from the other. This coercion works because the recipient of a gift is generally eager to remove the feeling of indebtedness that they feel when they receive a gift.

Understanding the mechanics and using the rules of reciprocity can influence an unsuspecting victim of influence. I will share with you an imaginary experience of this type of coercive behavior that might occur in the workplace.

Imagine, if you were a woman, how you might respond if you were given, by your new supervisor, a single stem rose on your first day of employment.  Would you feel warm and good, like the giver really cared about you and others who worked for her?  Imagine also, if the employer you worked for was a distributor of consumer goods, and the common practice was that the supervisors passed out ‘discards’ – that is the product that will no longer be sold, but discarded – was handed out to employees in small quantities, items such as paper plates, napkins, stationery, etc. instead of being thrown into the trash.  Would this make you feel good because it demonstrated that the company cared about the environment and did this as a form of recycling?  Might you also think that your employer cared enough about you that they were willing to give their products, (which are the best, of course!), to you, free of charge?

What I have come to realize is that small gifts such as these – trinkets and trash really – can prompt overworked and underpaid workers who receive very little benefits to be very, very loyal in return. This loyalty can be so great, that it can result in a situation such as one that I have become aware – a company policy that its part-time employees receive communication each time they work that they are required to report all time spent in work-related activities. Why would an employer need to reinforce with their work team that they need to submit all of their work time? That is a very good question. Perhaps it might have something to do with an employer’s manipulation and coercion methods.

I have heard descriptions of such manipulative work conditions, which some women I know endure.  The example I have heard is that in this job (this is a job that very few men will accept), the women sometimes work even without receiving financial gain.  This is because they work within their ‘budget hours’ and yet they comply to the demands to do what needs to be done to accomplish what is told to them to be ‘their required’ tasks.  This means that it is common practice that they work ‘off the clock’ (perhaps through their lunch ‘break’) to get their tasks accomplished.  I’ll explain why they might be doing this.  Their loyalty (gained by methods such as those described above), as part time employees, includes ‘ownership’ of their departments.  Part of that ownership is ensuring that payroll budgets are complied to, that required tasks are completed, and that the employer (and the big-box-retailer which it supplies) makes a profit requiring growth over last year’s sales.  Sometimes, the ‘required’ work shifts consist of so few hours (even a half-hour or less) that financial gain to the employee is ‘used up’ in transportation costs to and from ‘work’.  This means that the part-time crew that keeps the product on the shelves work in various situations where only one side of the relationship is receiving profit at times.

It seems that this particular company is a very good marketer, indeed. It is considered the number one industry leader in its category, and it has developed the same style marketing tools to manipulate its workforce as it uses in persuading its customers to buy its products. I have now become more aware of how employers may use manipulative methods to coerce and manipulate their workforce. I will no longer live with the cognitive dissonance that results when my work duties require that I act in ways that coerce or manipulate others.  Additionally, I will no longer allow small gifts and trinkets to manipulate or coerce me into feeling a sense of loyalty to somehow repay.  In fact, as a personal protest against such unfair business practices, I choose to gain knowledge concerning the business practices of those companies with with I do business, and I favor the companies who better maintain fair business practices.  It is very clear to me that understanding how the rule of reciprocity works can help people avoid coercive and manipulative behaviors of others and their negative impacts.


Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. Six Principles of Persuasion Summary. (n.d.).

Six principles of persuasion summary. [Web page] Retrieved from

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Challenge Those in Power to Share Resources More Fairly

Chasing Out the Moneychangers

Illustration by Daniel Zollinger  Image Source:  Beware of Images

Challenge those in power to share resources more fairly, isn’t this what the stories of Jesus teach us? We can read in the stories of Jesus life, that he taught those disempowered people who lived on the fringes of Jewish society – those who were stigmatized and excluded from society, such as the gentiles, the women, the disabled, and the widows, for example, a way to regain their power. These folks were disempowered and poor because those in power created systems for the purpose of excluding them from fully participating in society. To address this injustice, Jesus taught marginalized peoples to come together and challenge those in power to live more socially responsible lives: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the ill. He also challenged all people to make friends with their ‘enemies’ and share the earth’s blessings with them.  We can relate the stories of Jesus teaching people about social responsibility and methods to create greater social justice to our own lives today.

Today, the ‘1%’ are keeping too much of the profit and wealth (which their workers actually produce) for themselves, and this great wealth is the source of their great power. This creates an imbalance in power and also an unequal access to resources, resulting in a disruption to the functioning of the ‘ecosystem’ of the economy by limiting diversity. Limited diversity is not resilient or sustainable. We can see how this is true in the example of nature and relate that to economic theory.  When there is a population explosion (think of economies of scale), a die-off (think of times of economic downturns) always follows.  We can see how this is true with the ‘ecosystem’ of the economy when we see that unrestricted growth produced by ‘economies of scale’ is not good in the long term.  Consider the economies of scale, and how large entities have limited diversity such that when one entity faces risk, all of the population is at risk.  This risk is why some entities are considered ‘too big to fail’.   To have a healthy and sustainable ecosystem (including economic ecosystems), it is necessary to maintain diversity. We would do well to learn from and imitate nature. When those in power do share their power and resources more equally, they allow for increased diversity, increased resiliency, increased productivity, and increased wellbeing for all.

Image Source:

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Theorizing the Nature of Forgiveness

The idea of forgiveness is complex because it has several dimensions.  For many, forgiveness is considered a human virtue that can act as a path toward healing for victims, transgressors and relationships alike.  In addition to viewing forgiveness in this way, it may also be thought of as an alternate choice to a human inclination of a fight or flight response toward a transgression.  It can also be understood that there are different types of forgiveness in addition to different theories on the purpose of forgiveness.

First, different types of forgiveness may be thought of as having different characteristics.  This way of thinking about forgiveness has been explored by Michael E. McCullough & Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, in The Psychology of Forgiveness (2002).  They have categorized the notion of forgiveness as a psychological construct consisting of several dimensions.  They identify the application of forgiveness as: 1) a characteristic of social units, 2) as a personality disposition, and 3) as a response.

What this means is that forgiveness is socially contextual.  That is, the nature of forgiveness depends on the types of relationships in which they occur in addition to the nature of the transgression being forgiven.  Therefore, forgiveness is a characteristic of relationships or social units.

Additionally, a person with a propensity to forgive is a relatively positive and agreeable person.  There is a correlation with the advancing of age and a relatively positive and agreeable personality that has a propensity to forgive.  In this way, forgiveness correlates with a relatively agreeable and positive personality disposition.

Also, forgiveness takes place when people experience a change concerning how they think about, feel and act toward those who have hurt them.  This happens in such a way that their ideas, feelings and actions become more positive over time.  Forgiveness in this way is a response to a transgression.

Therefore, the act of forgiveness can be thought of as an intersection of the increasingly positive attitude and actions of someone who has been harmed as a result of their own personality disposition, and their response to the social relationships in which the transgression occurred, including the nature of the transgression.

Yet, there are not only different characteristics or types of forgiveness, there are also different theoretical perspectives concerning the purpose of forgiveness.  For example, forgiveness may be understood as a relationship-building tool.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), Robert Enright, one of the earliest researchers on forgiveness, understood forgiveness as a process that may be used to build and maintain interpersonal relationships (Enright & Zell, 1989, p. 99.).  Thought of in this way, the act of forgiveness takes place when one develops a kind attitude toward a transgressor such that one has “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering the underserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her” (Enright, Freedman, & Rique, 1998, pp. 46-47).   Because Enright believed that the purpose of forgiveness was to build community, he asserted that forgiveness could only be directed toward people, and not situations (Enright & Zell, 1989, p. 53.)  To Enright, the purpose of forgiveness was to build and maintain community.

Another theory on the purpose of forgiveness is that it may be understood as a way to free oneself from a role as a victim.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone, and Lee (1999) understood forgiveness as a change in one’s thought process and emotional state whereby a transformation takes place in which one gives up living the role of the victim.  This sort of transformation takes place by freely letting go of negative emotions (including anger and resentment) toward a transgressor, and freely letting go of a desire for revenge, punishment and even restitution.  This change takes place even after a realistic assessment of the harm and an acknowledgement of the transgressor’s responsibility.  To Tangey, et al., forgiveness in this way, is a cancelling of all debts, so to speak, in order to free oneself from the bonds of victimhood.

An additional way of thinking about the purpose of forgiveness is that its application may reduce interpersonal conflicts and increase the likelihood of more agreeable interpersonal relationships.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), according to Mc Cullough and his colleagues, forgiveness has a pro-social motivation such that an avoidance of a transgressor and/or a desire for revenge toward a transgressor are both lessened, while at the same time, a desire for positive action increases.  In this way, and over time, a victim’s benevolence toward a transgressor increases (2000; McCullough et al., 1998, 2000a, 2000b).  According to Mc Cullough’s theory, the purpose of forgiveness is to reduce interpersonal conflicts.

Although there are various perspectives and theories about the different purposes of forgiveness, forgiveness may, in fact, be a means of healing from any hurtful situation or event.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007) Thompson and her colleagues (Thomson et al., 2005), offered a very broad understanding of forgiveness as a “freeing from a negative attachment to the source that has transgressed against a person (pp. 279-282.).”  With this understanding, the act of forgiveness may be applied to oneself, another person, a group, or even a situation or event that is harmful or out of one’s control (Snyder & Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.).  This perspective or theory on the purpose of forgiveness offers inclusiveness such that forgiveness may be the way to heal from any harm.

The complexity of the subject of forgiveness includes the intersection of types of forgiveness and the purposes of forgiveness.  Forgiveness should always be understood within the context of the relationships in which it is applied, and the nature of the transgression.  Forgiveness may be a characteristic of relationships, a personality disposition, and/or a response to a transgression.  The purposes of forgiveness may include to heal oneself, others, and/or relationships from any harmful situation or event.  The notion of forgiveness is multi-dimensional in that it is a response to a transgression that is dependent upon one’s perspective and personality disposition in addition to the social context in which it occurs (including the nature of the relationships and the transgression), and its intended purpose.

Yet this very inclusive view of forgiveness can be expanded even more.  For example, in his speech, The Psychology of Forgiveness, (2008) Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, approached the subject of forgiveness through a scientific lens, by which he offered insights into the healing powers of forgiveness.

Dr. Luskin’s understanding of forgiveness is inclusive in that it is an intersection of the forgiveness ‘types’.  To him, forgiveness is a response to harm, such as interpersonal unkindness, human failings, life’s unpredictability and difficulties, or simply the horrors experienced as part of being a human being.  The response is that the victim of harm alters a negative disposition by practicing the elements of forgiveness such as goodwill, patience and compassion.  This practice results in a transformation toward an agreeable and positive disposition and it has many benefits including the reduction of harmful stress and the improvement of emotional, physical and relational health and wellbeing.  Therefore, Luskin understands forgiveness to comprise of each of the three types:  forgiveness as a response, forgiveness as a disposition, and forgiveness as a characteristic of social units, but he also understands forgiveness in another sense.

Theoretically speaking, to Dr. Luskin, forgiveness is a psychological therapeutic approach to letting go of the stress of un-forgiveness as a way to regain and maintain emotional, physical, and relational health benefits.  What Dr. Luskin proposed in his speech is that the ‘practice of forgiveness’ can be taught to individuals (and groups) such that as they apply the elements of forgiveness to their daily lives, they will realize the associated health benefits such as cardiovascular health improvement and breathing improvement, and therefore live healthier and happier lives.  In this way, Luskin’s theory concerning the purpose of forgiveness is much like Tangney’s:  Forgiveness is a transformation of one’s own way of thinking and feeling that frees oneself from a role of victimhood and restores health and wellbeing to the individual(s) who practice forgiveness.  Luskin’s approach to the subject of forgiveness is also broad and inclusive and in this way, he also aligns with the theories of Thompson, who understood forgiveness as a way for anyone to heal from any type of harm.

To Dr. Luskin, the act of forgiveness is one of purposefulness.  His intention is to teach a method of forgiveness in such a way that anyone may use it in order to receive the emotional, physical and relational benefits that it has to offer.  His broad and inclusive approach to the subject of forgiveness has the primary focus of teaching others how to use forgiveness as a means of releasing stress that is caused by any type of harm in order to increase one’s own emotional, physical and/or relational health.  Dr. Luskin’s very inclusive view on the subject of forgiveness is that it can help anyone heal emotionally, physically, and/or relationally from any type of harm.

My own perspective concerning the subject of forgiveness is that forgiveness is purposeful, personal and multi-dimensional or multifaceted.  I can see this by the different lenses with which I view forgiveness:  The different dimensions (purposes) for which one chooses to forgive, and how the ‘types’ of forgiveness intersect.

For example, I discussed the emotion of anger in the subject of forgiveness as it relates to a nonviolent social change ideology, explaining that anger toward an injustice may used in a purposeful way in order to fuel a thoughtful response, such that situations of greater social justice may result.  I also related forgiveness as a kindly and healing response to harm when I explored this concept in Zora Neale Hurston’s short story The Gilded Six Bits (n.d.).  I also related forgiveness to process that takes place over time, and may even be an ongoing practice.  I explored this when writing about Albert White Hat’s story of forgiveness, Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (One Sky Above Us, 1996).

In these examples, I viewed forgiveness as a purposeful response to an injustice and/or a harm (depending on the social context), plus a change in attitude and action (personality disposition), and as a characteristic of social units in that the initial harm may be transformed into a greater social good either by improved personal wellbeing, improved social relationships, or greater social justice in general.  For this reason, I tend to think of forgiveness as layered or multi-faceted rather than being of different distinct types.

Additionally, in the examples of forgiveness that I examined, I found that the purpose of forgiveness might include healing oneself, to heal others, and/or to heal relationships from any harmful situation or event, depending on context.  For this reason, my ideas concerning forgiveness align with Tangney’s theories (as cited by Snyder and Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.):  Forgiveness is a transformation of one’s own way of thinking and feeling that frees oneself from a role of victimhood and restores health and wellbeing to the individual(s) who practice forgiveness.  I also understand forgiveness with a broad view, attempting to take in many perspectives.  Therefore, my ideas concerning the purpose of forgiveness also align with the theories of Thompson (as cited by Snyder and Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.), who understood forgiveness as a way for anyone to heal from any type of harm.  And my ideas of forgiveness also aligns with Luskin, in that forgiveness can be a purposeful method of healing oneself, others, and relationships.

To me, forgiveness is a personal choice, and sometimes relational response to any possible harm, such that an ongoing process of moving toward an increasingly positive attitude (and perhaps actions) occurs in a way that brings about greater emotional, physical and/or relational healing to those harmed, to the transgressors, to relationships, communities and even societies, depending on the context of the transgression and the social relationships in which it occurred.


Hurston, Z. N. (n.d.). The gilded six bits [Web page]. Retrieved from

McCullough, M. E., & Witvliet, C. V. (2002). The psychology of forgiveness. Handbook of positive psychology, 2, 446-455.

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from

Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J. (2007). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

“The Psychology of Forgiveness”. (2008). (Theology Institute Annual Conference: Forgiveness ) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

If One has Forgiven, Why Might it Then be Necessary to Forgive Daily?

Sometimes, forgiveness is an ongoing process.  For example, in Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (chapter 12 of One Sky Above Us:  The West, a Film by Stephen Ives, 1996), Albert White Hat (1938-2013), a Lakota man and teacher of Lakota language, at 16 years old, went to St. Francis Jesuit Mission School, a boarding school.  (Before then, he grew up in his traditional Lakota culture ‘of stories’.)  The boarding school system killed the native Lakota language stories, and their culture, and for Albert White Hat, shame resulted.

The policy and laws, of which Albert White Hat spoke in this short film, were those imposed by the white-man’s government and the white-man’s schools upon the native people.  These policies and laws systematically exclude(d) Native-Americans and their culture and history from mainstream U.S. culture and society.  The policies and laws were/are imposed by the dominating culture and were/are unjust and they were/are intended to destroy native people and their culture, and appropriate native people’s land and resources for capitalistic gain and to the benefit of the rich, property-owning (property-stealing) capitalists.

The impact to Albert White Hat, as a result of these injustices to Native-Americans and their culture, was an overwhelming anger where he felt that he had no choice but to kill in order to honor his ancestors.  Yet, he wanted to live and be happy.  He felt that he deserved to live and be happy.  He knew that he had to forgive in order to do so.

For the Lakota people (as is the case with other Native-American people) it is a daily reality to forgive what was done/is currently being done to their people, their culture, their land, and their entire way of life.  Because Native-American people live daily with the injustices imposed upon them by mainstream U.S. culture and its government and policies, forgiveness is an ongoing process that will not end for hundreds of years.


One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from;

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 7, 2014, from

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Gilded Six Bits: A Complex Story of Forgiveness

The Gilded Six Bits, a short story written in 1933 by Zora Neale Hurston, is tale about forgiveness.  The story takes place in a small African-American town of Eatonville, Florida, in the early 1930s.  It is a complex tale of love, desire, indiscretion, anger, fear, uncertainty, disappointment, bewilderment, need, reconciliation, and finally, acceptance.  The main plot is that Joe Banks reconciled with his wife, Missie May, who betrayed him and bore him a son, which may not even be his child.  In this story, a complex process of interdependence and forgiveness is revealed.  Yet this simple plot contains many subtle layers.

The Gilded Six Bits from Frank Scallo on Vimeo.

When thinking about Missie May’s betrayal, it is important to question, “How could an African-American woman buy her husband the sort of gift that (presumably) white-skinned women provided to their loved ones during that time and place?  Where did any woman find paying jobs during that time and place?  What kind of jobs were they?  Who were the type of women that got hired?  What sorts of jobs were offered to uneducated African-American women at that time? Were good paying jobs available to African-American women who lived in isolated African-American communities?”  The situation is very complex.  Embedded into the story are social dynamics (and inequalities) that are connected to economics, race, and gender.  I think it would do us well to not apply our own contemporary standards of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ to Joe and Missie May’s actions.  Instead we can learn from their responses to the injustice that existed all around them.

Consider the injustice in the intersection of gender/economic inequality.  At that time in history, it was a social norm that women depended on men to provide income for the household.  Consider also, how Joe Banks treated his wife under those circumstances.  Joe Banks initiated a game with his wife each week after he was paid.  The game was that he would throw money at her and she was to chase him and catch him and search him to find the gifts he was hiding in his pockets.  This resulted in a playful sparring and displays of affection and love.  Yet, in a way, Joe Banks bought his wife’s affections and set the stage for future outcomes.

I wonder if Joe was truly aware of what his actions communicated?

Joe would throw money to the floor (to the floor ! ! !) for Missie May to retrieve and place next to her dinner plate.  Missie May would say,

“Who dat chunkin’ money in mah do’way?” . . . “Nobody ain’t gointer be chunkin’ money at me and Ah not do ’em nothin’.”

Why did Joe do that?  What message did that send to Missie May?  Joe treated Missie May like she was for sale and he was buying her affections.  Was he aware of that?  Perhaps not.  I suspect he was just living life in the way that history and society shaped it for him.

I believe that Missie May was coerced into positions of prostitution because of a situation of desperate poverty.  Remember, this story took place in the southern U.S. in a very poor African-American community during the Great Depression.  This was only 70 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and 31 years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s success with the Civil Rights Movement.  This context indicates the level of oppression and poverty that these folks endured.  Consider the description of the community, the house, the yard, and the rather bleak disposition of that time and place.

It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support . . . But there was something happy about the place.

This was an impoverished place during a time of great austerity.  Missie May relied on her husband to provide for her, and he treated her like a prostitute in return.

Joe degraded Missie May in other ways, too.  Consider the way he encouraged a game of touch-me-here and touch-me-there search-my-pocket-for-trinkets.

“Unhhunh! Ah got it! It ’tis so candy kisses. Ah knowed you had somethin’ for me in yo’ clothes. Now Ah got to see whut’s in every pocket you got.”

Joe smiled indulgently and let his wife go through all of his pockets and take out the things that he had hidden for her to find. She bore off the chewing gum, the cake of sweet soap, the pocket handkerchief as if she had wrested them from him, as if they had not been bought for the sake of this friendly battle.

“Whew! dat play-fight done got me all warmed up!”

Isn’t that the sort of grooming that dirty old uncles do with their nieces and such?  I see no love in this, only manipulative behavior.  The actions speak, “If you want what I have – then give me what I want in return.”  Joe bought his wife.  He owned her.

Joe not only treated his wife, Missie May, as though she was a prostitute and for sale, he also dominated over Missie May in other ways.  He controlled what she was allowed and not allowed to eat.  Consider how he denied Missie May of the spicy potato pudding that she made.

Missie May reached for a second helping of the tater pone. Joe snatched it out of her reach.

After Missie May had made two or three unsuccessful grabs at the pan, she begged, “Aw, Joe, gimme some mo’ dat tater pone.”

“Nope, sweetenin’ is for us menfolks. Y’all pritty lil frail eels don’t need nothin’ lak dis. You too sweet already.”

“Please, Joe.”

“Naw, naw. Ah don’t want you to git no sweeter than whut you is already.

He also controlled what clothes she would wear and what activities they would enjoy.

We goin’ down de road a lil piece t’night so you go put on yo’ Sunday-go-to-meetin’ things.”

Missie May protested that she did not want to be objectified, but that she wanted to be treated with respect, instead.

“Don’t you mess wid mah business, man. You git in yo’ clothes. Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath. Ah might not look lak one, but if you burn me, you won’t git a thing but wife ashes.”

Yet, Joe insisted that she go, and he paraded his wife as an objectified showpiece to a known womanizer, “Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places–Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on.”

“Go ‘head on now, honey, and put on yo’ clothes. He talkin’ ’bout his pritty womens–Ah want ‘im to see mine.”

Missie May had no interest in meeting this man, or in his money, but it was Joe that insisted that she go.

“Joe, Ah hates to see you so dumb. Dat stray nigger jes’ tell y’all anything and y’all b’lieve it.”

All throughout this story, Joe was in control, manipulating Missie May, leading her to where she would go and what she would do, even sometimes against her will.

Missie May had no interest in the man or the lifestyle of Mr. Slemmons.  It was Joe who desired riches, and recognition.

“Good Lawd, Missie! You womens sho is hard to sense into things. He’s got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain and his mouf is jes’ crammed full of gold teeths. Sho wisht it wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.”

“Ah don’t see whut de womens see on ‘im. Ah wouldn’t give ‘im a wink if de sheriff wuz after ‘im.”

Missie May did not want the gold coins for herself; she wanted them for her husband.

The impression I received was that Missy May was raised the daughter of a prostitute, and it was feared by her mother-in-law that Missie May would follow in her mother’s footsteps.  Joe’s mother said, after the baby was born,

“You ain’t ask ’bout de baby, Joe. You oughter be mighty proud cause he sho is de spittin’ image of yuh, son. Dat’s yourn all right, if you never git another one, dat un is yourn. And you know Ah’m mighty proud too, son, cause Ah never thought well of you marryin’ Missie May cause her ma used tuh fan her foot round right smart and Ah been mighty skeered dat Missie May wuz gointer git misput on her road.”

Missie May might very well have come from a home where her mother lived a life of prostitution.  If so, this is the way that Missie May learned to survive.

It is a fact, that for millennia, women have sometimes used the only way they could see possible to earn an income.  One reason that they do this is because society excludes them from other forms of gainful employment.  They want or need to provide for their loved ones (or even themselves), but see no other way to do that.  It is also a fact, that for millennia, men dominate over women.  Many women learn that it is safer to submit quietly, as then they are less likely to experience a violent reaction from a rejected man.  Additionally, women are expected to submit to a purity culture, and men are not.  Women who do otherwise are many times stigmatized and penalized.

Consider also the injustice of the intersection of racial/economic inequality.  Joe was impressed with the display of wealth and braggart personality of Mr. Slemmons.  Joe desired what Mr. Slemmons had.   Because Missie May loved her husband, she wanted him to wear fine gold decorations as Mr. Slemmons did – and Mr. Slemmons explained that white-skinned women gave their loved ones gold coins.  So Missie May devised a plan so that she could give a fine gift of gold coins to her husband, but her plan backfired when Joe arrived home unexpected.  If Joe had not been so impressed with the trappings Mr. Slemmons displayed, perhaps Missie May might not have made the choice that she made.

I wonder if Missie May would have chosen different actions if life was different for African-Americans in that time and place, than it is was.  If Missie May wanted to provide her love with fine gold coins (as she was told that white-skinned women did) where would she have access to such?

In the face of their imperfect responses to the gender and racial economic injustices, the husband and wife spent some time in anger, fear, uncertainty, disappointment and bewilderment over what had taken place.  Yet their dependency upon one another kept them together.  They each filled a need for the other.  It was the recognition of their need for one another that allowed them to reconcile and realize a new place of acceptance in their lives. Both Joe and Missie May learned to accept their imperfect responses to the oppressive situation and desperate poverty in which they found themselves.  They came to a place of acceptance that each of their actions rose out of situations of great poverty and the racial injustices that had shaped their lives.  They learned to forgive their individual and collective responses to unjust social systems.  One was not ‘more guilty’ and in need of greater forgiveness than the other.

Social pressures shape an individual’s actions. Recognizing a larger perspective may soften the hurt and open the door to a process of forgiveness.  It is easy to rush to a judgment concerning Missie May’s guilt and Joe’s good heart.  It was good that he was able to forgive Missie May and he even pointed out to Missie May that she should forgive herself too.  I believe that the main point of the story was that these folks should forgive themselves and each other for the very difficult situation in which they currently found themselves.  Their actions rose out of situations of great poverty and the racial injustices that had shaped their lives – people for sale !  They learned to forgive their imperfect responses to an unjust economic system.

Applying this teaching to our own lives, we can understand that none of us are perfect and that we depend on one another for our own wellbeing and survival. When we realize our own imperfections, we can find it easier to accept others’ imperfections. Additionally, other’s actions may be the result of how we treat them. Joe and Missie May came to terms with each other’s imperfections. Joe forgave Missie May for her indiscretion and accepted the gift of a son. Missie May forgave her husband for paying her for affections with the gilded coin when she once again joined in with the playful payday routine of coin tossing and searching for gifts. Forgiveness is being able to see beyond one’s own and pain and suffering and being able to take in the perspectives of others.  Forgiveness is about recognizing that we need each other, and its about acceptance of human imperfections in both self and other.

By this tale, Zora Neale Hurston communicated the complexity of human interdependence and relationship.  Perhaps one of the author’s intents was to explore the social injustices that take place where the intersection of racial, gender, and class inequalities meet.  These are all evident in her very short story.  Perhaps another intent of the author, was to also examine the injustice in the systems so that an individual’s imperfect responses and actions to an unjust system can be forgiven.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.