Saturday, April 23, 2011

Exposing society's underbelly: Are 'stealth' social experiments responsible?

Having watched this video posted on the ABC News page, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think it was brave of Gaby Rodriguez to conceive of this project and to go through with it. It’s undeniable that the publicity that her performance drew to the issue might just force the powers that be to take action to address the stigma and challenges endured by pregnant teens.

On the other hand, I can’t help feeling it is cruel to deceive so many people, especially family and close friends, all for the sake of proving a point about the social stigma that pregnant girls face. Aren’t there other ways of accessing this kind of information that don’t involve deception? Specifically, why couldn’t Gaby Rodriquez get the written or videotaped testimonies of teenage girls who were actually pregnant?

A teenage girl who was actually pregnant would have to deal with so much more than Gaby Rodriguez dealt with, including the bodily changes that come with pregnancy (which do include hormonal changes and the accompanying mood swings, discomfort and morning sickness for many women). A girl who was actually pregnant wouldn’t be able to end her performance with a theatrical moment in which she removed the padding from around her abdomen. Instead, she would likely go on to give birth to a little baby and then have to spend the next 18 years of her life being responsible for raising that little one or she would have to deal with the psychological agony of giving her child up for adoption. I hope that all the publicity that Ms. Rodriguez’s social experiment garners manages to focus attention on this fact and to redirect the public’s interest to teen pregnancy and motherhood as they are actually experienced by teens who aren’t conducting an elaborate social experiment.

I have heard of social experiments of this nature before, including one in which a white man disguised himself as a black man and got a painful taste of what it might feel like to be a black law-abiding citizen, trying to live a normal life in a predominantly white society. I am referring to the journalist, John Howard Griffin, who published his experience in a book, Black Like Me.That was a valuable experiment, because it revealed in a dramatic fashion just how virulent and apparent racism was in the lives of those who were subjected to it and how invisible it was to those who had the privilege of never having to experience it. The experiment probably didn’t reveal anything new to black men and women who underwent the same and worse every single day. It most likely opened the eyes of white men and women who might previously have paid little attention to what the victims of racism said about their own experiences.

Perhaps, in a similar way, Ms. Rodriguez’s experiment has forced people who would otherwise be dismissive of what pregnant teens experienced to reexamine their assumptions. In other words, these social experiments suggest that people are more likely to believe the testimony of a so-called objective party (such as the undercover pregnant girl or black man) than they are to believe the actual victim of the social stigma (the teen who really is pregnant, or the man who really is black). This is sad, because it reveals that many of us are apathetic about social issues until somebody ‘objective’ (better known as somebody in a position of relative privilege) comes along and tells us how we are supposed to react in a particular situation.

At the same time- and I would be remiss to ignore this- the social experiments reveal just how powerful an influence stigma has over our emotional health and, consequently, just how much it shapes our lives. Gaby Rodriguez and John Howard Griffin, while aware that they were not the people they were portraying to the outside world, still endured abuse and shunning from people that would otherwise have embraced them or, at the very least, been neutral towards them. The stigma had deep psychological consequences for Griffin who, in addition, had to endure threats to his and his family's well-being after the news of his social experiment broke. In her video interview, Gaby Rodriguez reveals the hurt she felt at the reactions that her apparent pregnancy drew from people around her. Both Mr. Griffin and Ms. Rodriguez went into their social experiments expecting to have to deal with the darker aspects of human nature, but they still paid an emotional toll that has had/ will have an impact on their relationships with others. Stigma truly is powerful.

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This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

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