I watched a video on a friend’s Facebook yesterday it had a big impact. I went hunting for the original video and found it on the PBS Frontline website – A Class Divided. The site hosts the original documentary filmed in 1968, clips as well as commentary and follow up interviews.

I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics/mentality and have a tendency to shy away from organized groups from anything right down to group motorcycle rides because of what often happens to people when they get together in organized groups. Egos come to the front, inhibitions that should be held back may be allowed free rein because in some cases those . We SHOULD have some inhibitions, and we SHOULD contain them in some cases.

When an individual gains a degree of control over a group of people, those participants can be directed to act and think in a manner that they may not normally. Groups can bring out the worst in individuals as easily as they can bring out the best. Bringing different-minded people together under the “right” influential individual can lead to frightening results. Bringing “like-minded” individuals together, or creating like-minded people, can be even more alarming in some cases.

Humans generally think they are forming a group for some “good”, however twisted the logic may be. And to be fair, obviously many positive groups do exist for a valid purpose – education, safety, social awareness, a societal cause. But those that are designed to increase personal gain within a context, or to foster a sense of personal elitism within a sector, those ones are particularly bothering to me, due their self-absorption and potential for harm – physical, mental, or otherwise.

The power of a group has great capacity for both good and bad… and this is a brilliant demonstration of the how relatively simple suggestions can turn a group of rationally thinking individuals into an elitist class level pack capable of vicious cruelty.

Ironically, we also saw a comedy theatre performance last night – Avenue Q – that was a parody on Sesame Street, but a whole lot less PC. One of the scenes/songs focused on racism and implied “Everybody’s a little bit racist…” If you think you don’t have it in you to be a little bit racist, you might be surprised when you watch this documentary.

(For some reason the PBS links don’t embed and break on inclusion, so I’ve mirrored the clips on Youtube and embedded here from there.)

1. The Daring Lesson

Watch an teacher turn her Grade Three class into a racially divided room filled with hatred and ridicule in an unbelievably short period of time.


2. Day Two

The following day, Mrs. Elliott turns the tables and the oppressed students become the superior ones. Each student experiences the feelings associated with oppression.



3. 14 Years Later

Fourteen years later the class gets together for a reunion with Mrs. Elliott and they recall the experience. What is wonderful is the impact the exercise had on them and the fact that it resonates with all of them still.


4. Teaching it to Adults

If you think you are above something like this, if you think you are too intelligent to fall into such a trap, watch this video and realize that the effects of one person’s suggestions and insinuations can be powerful enough to radically change the thoughts and actions of rational adults working in the Corrections field. This could just as easily be you or I, and it is arrogant to think otherwise. The challenge is recognizing the trap before you are mired in it.


5. How the Adults Reacted

In the final segment, Mrs. Elliott continues to antagonize the participants of the workshop and finally discusses with the adult crowd what they experienced and how they felt.

The documentary is a fascinating look at how a group leader can manage to convince a group of people that they are powerless and of a lower class. It is alarming that an individual can manage to empower people with a feeling that they are better than others because of something as simple as eye colour. The same principles can be applied to any situation – you are better because you are: straight or gay, white or black, an athlete or an artist, fat or thin, drive a car or ride a motorcycle, are self employed or work for others.

Mrs. Elliott is a powerful figure and one can only feel disgust at her methodology of belittling and degrading those on the perceived “lower class”. But if she was being positive and cheerful and building up a segment of the population, no matter how large or small, I think the result might be the same, just more subtle since instead of creating immediate hostility she could have created an air of superiority based on one simple and highly insignificant trait. “I am better be cause I ______________” Fill in the blank with whatever you like.

Although this series focuses on racism and oppression it is a good metaphor for seemingly benign things in our society.

The other day at work a woman stopped by my desk and we were chatting about various things. She saw my motorcycle helmet on a shelf and said something along the lines of “You have your ponytail hanging out so the world can see that you are a woman on that bike, right?” I said no, definitely not and she expressed that I should so that the world could see that I was representing the female team! I brushed it off gently by saying that I prefer to keep my hair in good condition rather than try to get all the knots out after it’s been blowing in the wind, and that I am actually planning on cutting it short this summer.

What I was really thinking was “Why should it make me something special because I am a woman on a bike?” I would never think I am somehow special or better because I do. I ride the bike because it moves me through traffic easier, because I can park it easier, because it costs less to run, because it has less of an impact than a car, and most importantly, I ride the bike and the scooter because I enjoy them. They are fun on top of all of those other benefits. I don’t ride the bike because I am trying to be “a part of something” or because I want to be distninctive.

Instead of focusing on what makes us unique, different, or “special”, which only serves to set a group apart, I think we need to spend more energy on recognizing how similar we all are. How we all share basic needs – a home, nourishment, engagement, love. We are all the same at a fundamental level and constantly fostering differences and the egotism associated with unique traits or activities only leads to further divisiveness and segregation. You are not better because you _______ (fill in the blank with whatever you like).

But that’s just my opinion. And I’d be interested in yours.