Today with my classes I'm reading a 2003-ish article about public policy and ethical responses to pregnant women who use illegal drugs and alcohol. The main line of argument is what the author deems a feminist approach, focusing on the experience of the women instead of applying abstract rationalistic ethical principles on their cases. What this reveals, she argues, is the states of oppression the women undergo.
This morning, what struck me particularly was an example of a prosecution of a woman for failing to get adequate bed rest and to refrain from intercourse during her pregnancy. The author makes the point very succinctly: these are not actions totally under the control of women. Moreover, these kinds of prosecutions are directed more toward minority and poor women, who often lack social support networks, or are undergoing various conditions of instability and deprivation, and, oh yes, are also being discriminated against in the law.
Then she says something splendid: blaming the drugs, or worse, blaming the women who use the drugs, is a convenient way to hide the conditions of oppression under which these women turn to drugs. I sometimes ask my classes, "what kind of pregnant woman suddenly decides to use drugs?" to point out how bizarre it is to consider the drug use a simple, straightforward, totally rational, perfectly free "choice."
This morning, I'm remembering one of the experiences I've had that has made me more sympathetic to this than a lot of my students say that they are. In my senior year of high school, I quit my Spanish class (for reasons I won't pursue here), and started to have a Study Hall during that period instead. I spent the hour in the library reading absolutely anything - though mostly religious texts, Freud, Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard. One day - for some reason I remember I was reading the Koran - another student approached me and asked if I knew where he could get some drugs. He was a skinny, twerpy black kid, I was a skinny, long-haired white kid, so I guess he figured, the dude in the ripped jeans and the flannel shirt will know. I didn't, because I wasn't interested in drugs, and I told him so.
We got into a long conversation about drugs, poverty, hopelessness, and the future. We were on more or less opposite sides of the educational spectrum of that school. He was one of the ghettoized black students in my nominally desegregated Southeastern high school, and I was one of the ghettoized white honors students (roughly 95% of all the black students took all their academic classes in one wing of the school, and roughly 90% of all the white students took all their academic classes in another wing; the school also basically policed the honors program such that only a handful of token non-white students were part of it). We had both learned some terrible lessons in social justice by then. But we shared two attributes: we were both hopeless about the future, and we were both very bright.
I tried to argue with him that it would be stupid for him to escape into drugs, as he wanted to do, because he was smart and could do something better with his life. I think that's valid, to this day. He argued back by referring to our social situation, the inherent injustice and oppression he was experiencing, and made the case that, objectively, there wasn't a lot for him to hope for. Damn if I don't think that's valid, too.
We didn't reach any consensus. Eventually he gave up on the argument, because it wasn't getting him any closer to his goal, and asked what I was reading. I showed him the book's spine, and he said he read it, or large parts of it, and he liked it better than the Bible. Then he turned and walked back over to the table occupied by his friends, and I noticed they'd been snickering at us, and they laughed and jostled him when he reached them.