“The Lottery” is a classic short story written by Shirley Jackson in 1948. It’s the tale of a rural, farming community in America of about three hundred residents. The town seems normal by all accounts as it prepares for a traditional, harvest-time event known as The Lottery.
Each year the name of every family is written on a piece of paper and securely stored in a locked box. On the morning of the annual gathering, the heads of each household draw from the box until a paper slip with a black spot is extracted. One of these clans is that of the “Hutchensons.”
Upon “winning” this first phase of the lottery, each member of the Hutchinson family joins the father to select another slip of paper out of another box until one member of that family — the mother, named Tessie — draws a piece of paper with the final black spot on it.
In spite of her cries, the townspeople, including her own husband and children, pick up rocks and stone her to death to ensure a more prosperous harvest.
For some 70 years, “The Lottery” has rightly been included in many literary anthologies for its shocking portrayal of the power of groupthink and the human inclination to accept evil.
For more than 30 years beginning in 1970, English professor Kay Haugaard used the story to spur corresponding discussions in her literature class at Pasadena City College. Ms. Haugaard says she could always count on some common reactions:
“Everyone thought it was scary because, as someone inevitably said, ‘The characters seem just like regular people — you know, like us!’”
“The story always impressed the class with the insight that I felt the author had intended: the danger of just ‘going along’ with something habitually, without examining its rationale and value. In spite of the changes that I had witnessed over the years in anthologies and in students’ writing, Jackson’s message about blind conformity always spoke to my students’ sense of right and wrong.”
Then in the 1990s, something started to change dramatically in how her students responded to the sobering tale. Rather than being horrified by it, some claimed they were bored by it, while others thought the ending was “neat.”
When Ms. Haugaard pressed them for more of their thoughts, she was appalled to discover that not one student in the class was willing to say the practice of human sacrifice was morally wrong! She describes one interaction with a student, whom she calls Beth:
“‘Are you asking me if I believe in human sacrifice?’ Beth responded thoughtfully, as though seriously considering all aspects of the question. ‘Well, yes,’ I managed to say. ‘Do you think that the author approved or disapproved of this ritual?’
“I was stunned: This was the [young] woman who wrote so passionately of saving the whales, of concern for the rain forests, of her rescue and tender care of a stray dog. ‘I really don’t know,’ said Beth; ‘If it was a religion of long standing, [who are we to judge]?’”
“For a moment, I couldn’t even respond,” reports Ms. Haugaard. “This woman actually couldn’t seem to bring herself to say plainly that she was against human sacrifice. My classes of a few years before would have burst into nervous giggles at the suggestion. This class was calmly considering it.”
At one point, a student explained she had been taught not to judge, and if this practice worked for them, who was she to argue differently.
Appalled by the student’s moral indifference, Ms. Haugaard concludes, “Today, for the first time in my thirty years of teaching, I looked my students in the eye and not one of them in my class could tell me that this society, this cultural behavior was a bad thing.”
Not one of these students would say human sacrifice is wrong? The whole point of “The Lottery” is to show the dangers of blindly following bad ideas. But Ms. Haugaard’s students had been taught that labels like good and evil, sacred and sinful, no longer applied as absolutes — and they responded accordingly. They had been taught that to assign moral values to actions was, in itself, wrong.
You may be tempted to conclude that this is an extreme anecdote and that this doesn’t happen anywhere else but in the politically correct meccas of Berkeley, Brown or Pasadena. Don’t be.
As a university president, I can assure you that if you were to conduct this same exercise today on campuses in heartland America, you would get the exact same blank stares of amorality that Professor Haugaard got on the crazy shores of the Left Coast some 30 years ago.
Remember this story the next time someone tells you it “doesn’t matter what you believe as long as it works for you.” Remember this when you hear, “that’s ‘just your opinion.” Remember this when the “tolerant” tell you they can’t tolerate your intolerance. Remember this the next time anyone says, “Who are you to judge?”
Remember this story and pray.
Pray: “God help us.”
• Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, is the author of “Not A Day Care: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning Truth” (Regnery 2017).
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