For 24 hours, my students “offended themselves” by generously imagining themselves on the opposite side of an issue about which they’re passionate. Inspired by Roi Ben-Yehuda, they sought out and read sources with which they vigorously disagreed; they left their comfortable corners of the Internet and explored perspectives that unsettled them.
The goal of the challenge was not to change their minds or values. Instead, I wanted them to deepen their understanding by engaging the ideas and experiences they might otherwise avoid acknowledging.
This was, without a doubt, the most engagement I’ve seen from my students for a required writing assignment. Students were also intrinsically motivated to improve their Internet-based research skills — a lot of them didn’t know where to start in seeking out oppositional sources, and weren’t shy about asking for help. In the finished products, I was impressed by the level of nuance, sophistication, and detail. Students who’ve been quiet all semester wrote hundreds of passionate words in response to this challenge.
In short, I heartily recommend this assignment to all secondary-level teachers, and I plan to do it again next year. Here is the assignment sheet I prepared (feel free to use): Offend Yourself Guidelines
I found that the more seriously and sincerely students approached it, the harder this task was. Joel, a high school junior, challenged his faith in big government and noted:
As simple as this may sound, I was immediately struck with how difficult a task this would be for me. Even thinking about empathizing with the opposing view made me not only intellectually uncomfortable, but Physically uncomfortable! I have held the idea that big government is the only path to national security and personal safety for as long as I can remember. Even with the knowledge that the assignment wasn’t to agree with the other side, I still felt morally opposed to trying to empathize.
I was stuck in this rut for a few days, trapped inside my own dogma. To be honest, I don’t think I ever really left that phase.. but I eventually got around to looking for sources. It was at this point that I realized how I could get out of my dogma, albeit temporarily… –Joel, 11th grade
The students who went through with the challenge noticed that reading disagreeable sources helped to humanize those they disagreed with. Two students engaged a variety of anti-gay perspectives and came to a similar conclusion:
There’s a definite trend of fear in the opposing ideas. Fear that LGBT+ people will attack morals, spread disease, harm others, etc…. I think it is good that this mini-project was assigned because of my tendency to believe that opposers of LGBT+ are only driven by a need to hurt others, but it is actually mostly the human instinct of protecting oneself. –Ilsa, 10th grade
I found that it was difficult to empathize with these people, as I am very firmly against their perspective, but this challenge gave me insight into what values and traditions influenced their beliefs. For example, I visited a few Christian-affiliated websites that promoted anti-gay ideas, and I could see what Bible passages or core ideas led them to their conclusion. I also came to the realization that the story is not quite as black-and-white as I had imagined, as I noticed people who were “between sides” (for lack of a better term), struggling with opposing information and ideas. This challenge definitely helped me to view all angles of a story, which will definitely help me going forward in my pursuit of journalistic truth. –Sofi, 8th grade
Some students found their perspectives altered by the end of the exercise. One sophomore came to understand the broader historical context of #blacklivesmatter by reviewing statistics and anecdotes in Bernie Sanders’ campaign materials:
On his website, Bernie says that African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police. He points out many cases where extreme abuse has taken place, like the killings at a church in June. Many other statistics support his claims that racism is still a big problem and needs to be stopped. I can definitely see from these why a Black Lives Matter movement is needed.
Conclusion: Racism is still a prominent problem in parts of America. I completely agree with the idea of Black Lives Matter, I just think some of the movement’s actions are too radical and don’t have enough evidence to take their more radical ideas seriously. Remember, racism isn’t cool kids. 🙂 –Tanner, 10th grade
Most, however, remained resolute, though still recognizing the exercise’s value:
Now that I’m finished writing from the perspective of a radical Islamist Islamic State supporter, you might be wondering how this could have been intellectually worthwhile. It’s important to look at why people espouse views that you object to, so that you’ll be even better at countering their arguments. Specific to this topic, it’s especially important to understand why people support the Islamic State. Understanding this can strengthen counter-terrorism and foreign policy. It can help combat propaganda. We can analyze how we make decisions regarding the region, since these decisions may be used against us to bolster their propaganda. –Kamran, 10th grade
According to Couch’s attorneys and many other people, “affluenza” is a real condition. I do not agree with this opinion. However, I do believe that understanding and analyzing their thought process as I have above is important, especially since we live in one of the richest counties in the country. There are probably many teenagers who were raised just like Ethan Couch in Loudoun County… –Chasya, 9th grade
One eighth-grade student, who challenged her faith in the efficacy of higher education, insightfully articulated the implications of the exercise on our understanding of how ideas form and spread:
This exercise was valuable to me for many reasons. Firstly, I think that it forced me to disrupt some of the firm viewpoints that I have settled into as I wind my way through my education. This challenge caused me to think about the way that assumptions get blown out of proportion so that advocates of each side refuse to ‘offend themselves’. Secondly, I spent some time wondering to what extent our beliefs are based on the way we’ve been raised/the community with which we interact. The ‘tribes’ that Ben-Yehuda mentioned in his video could be based not only on the beliefs we have chosen to uphold but on the amount of interactions that we have with those who do not share those beliefs. One trend that I noticed when sifting through the vast amount of information available to me was that most of those who disagree were older people who had written about their own disappointing experience in higher education. Perhaps those who have yet to experience college for themselves are taught to think that college is a worthwhile goal because, in a school setting, the authority figures are more than likely to share that belief. Lastly, this challenge has made me think about the ordinary citizen’s role as a collector and interpreter of information. Seeking out information/articles/posts with which I disagree was valuable to my state of being ‘free and self-governing’, but based on my experience so far, it is very easy to become set in your ways and to stop seeking experiences like this one. – Katie, 8th grade