Majority Rules

In high school, I took a class in civics. There I learned a number of life lessons—some intended, some not so much. For one of our class projects, our teacher told us we were forming a new country on an island. As a class, we would have to decide which laws would govern us.

He split us into small groups, instructing us to brainstorm rules for our new society. Then we’d share our ideas with the entire class and vote on which ones would become law. My group came up with some basics—sensible ground rules common to most civilizations: don’t kill, don’t steal, respect other people’s property. When we were asked to report back to the class, most of the rules discussed were meant to protect the island’s citizens and mirrored the types of laws we have in the United States.

One group of boys came up with a different rule, however. They decided that whenever a girl was on her period, she would be banished to a hut on the far side of the island so no one would have to deal with her being “on the rag.” (I am not making this up.)

As you might imagine, the girls in the class had a problem with this. Not only was the notion crass, it was blatantly sexist and demeaning, which we quickly pointed out. Although we were vocal about our objection to this proposed law, the other boys in class laughed and joined in, agreeing that the rule was a good idea. (Apparently it never occurred to them that offending every girl in the room might mean they’d never get a date for prom. I can’t speak for my female classmates, but it occurred to me, and I vowed I’d never date any of those guys. Life lesson number one: life is too short to date jerks.)

There was only one boy in class who treated us with respect and was brave enough to stand up for us. He said the rule was unfair and tried to get the other guys to stop being sexist. I can only imagine the grief he got later for his troubles, but I felt gratitude for his courage and disgust that no other guy in the room stood with him.

I thought our instructor would come to our defense, turning a negative situation into a teachable moment by speaking about equality. He didn’t. Instead, he put the matter to a vote. “Majority rules,” he said.

This only exacerbated the situation because there were more boys than girls in the class. Even with our one male ally, the motion passed easily and became law.

While I understand that the teacher was trying to provide a lesson on democracy, I learned something different. I learned that a majority vote can create both good laws and unjust laws. A majority vote doesn’t mean all citizens are treated equally. Laws can be used to discriminate against vulnerable populations. I also learned that you can’t always count on adults to do the right thing. Sometimes you have to advocate for yourself. Sometimes you have to gain allies to support your cause and then fight to make better laws.

 

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016

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