I first read The Bacchae, by Euripides, when I was studying abroad at Oxford University. It was a well-loved classic of C.S. Lewis, and I read the short play with enthusiasm. As I met with my professor, Dr. Kirkpatrick, to discuss the paper I had written on the topic of Dionysus, the god of the story, I mentioned that I did not sympathize with Dionysus in The Bacchae, and actually thought that Pentheus, king of Thebes, was wrongfully killed by the Dionysus’ supplicants, the maenads. My professor, a classicist, pushed me on this point, and I explained that I saw several problems with Dionysus’ conduct and thought the king right in wanting to know what was going on with his people.
I had written, “After giving Pentheus the opportunity to accept his divinity and is refused, Dionysus puts his own thoughts into the king’s head…” which led to the king getting torn limb from limb by his own mother.
I can see Dr. Kirkpatrick still, leaning back in his chair in the café under the Ashmolean Museum. His green scarf thrown over the back of his chair, wool coat tossed aside. Our small table was between two white columns of the café, cutting off my peripheral vision and making my world small. His eyebrows flicked up briefly, and I knew the expression well enough by then to know that I had missed something important.
“Were the thoughts in King Pentheus’ mind really just the ones Dionysus put in his head? Where does it say that?” he prodded.
“Oh, here, I think,” I mumbled, pulling out my notes and reading, “PENTHEUS (who during the rest of this scene, with a few exceptions, simply speaks the thoughts the DIONYSUS puts into him, losing the power of his own mind) …” I trailed off, looking back up at my professor. Why would he suggest there was something else going on? I racked my mind for some other line of the text I had forgotten.
“Were the bacchants actually doing what Pentheus thought they were doing?” Dr. Kirkpatrick asked.
The king of Thebes had thought the maenads were having drunken orgies. The bacchants had pulled a steer apart, but were not, in reality, doing what the king feared.
“Do you think that Pentheus was projecting his own fears onto the maenads, even when there was no reason to think that?” He pressed, leaning in, his hands clasped on top of the table, our coffees forgotten.
This new possibility was opening up meaning to the text I had missed. If this were the case, then King Pentheus’ descent into madness was not only his own fault, but his death seemed justly deserved. It would mean that he had had full possession of his senses when he decided to look upon the maenads—which was forbidden for men to do on penalty of death—and see if they were truly mad. I sat for a few moments in stunned silence, realization settling in with understanding.
I had projected my own biases onto Dionysus. I was ready to believe with the king of Thebes the worst of the god. I had read much about Dionysus—from Homer to Hesiod, to Euripides, to commentaries on these texts, to books of Greek mythology. Yet, when presented with the text before me, telling me a new narrative, I brought in all I knew of the Dionysus and made my own assumptions, drawing a similar conclusion as Pentheus.
As I was discussing the idea of biases and preconceived ideas with my Teach for America mentor, Josie Green, she mentioned Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference, which is a way of synthesizing the cycle of interpreting and processing experiences that form the beliefs that we hold and actions that we take. It goes like this: I make an observation. I process what I see by selecting specific information I’ve deemed as important, and then add my own meaning to the information based on cultural and personal experiences. Assumptions are made, conclusions are drawn, and I am left with a belief that is now part of how I interpret what I experienced. The final step of the ladder is that I now act on what I believe. This interpretation of reality and the assumptions that are made in the process can lead to stereotyping and reinforcing what I already think is true.
I saw what I wanted to see in Dionysus.
The Bacchae might be a fictional story written thousands of years ago, but I just have to look at my own life to know that the nature of people and their biases haven’t changed much since Pentheus. How often do I stereotype people in the course of my daily routines? Even when presented with evidence that my impression is not true, how many times have I continued to believe what I want to believe?
In her book, “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter,” Celeste Heedlee notes:
“It might be tempting to believe that all stereotypes are rooted in history and ignorance, but some are actually quite modern and new ones arise regularly. In fact, scientists have been able to reproduce the creation of stereotypes in their labs, which means we are capable of creating new stereotypes at any time, and the passage of time will not serve to destroy them. Stereotypes change and evolve over the years, which underscores an important fact about them: they are not based on fact or truth, but presumption. For example, it wasn’t all that long ago that pink was considered a masculine color. A June 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal advised parents that “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is pretty for the girl.
Obviously, the opposite gender stereotypes prevail today. While the color of a baby blanket may seem like a frivolous example of stereotyping, its very silliness shows us how flimsy stereotypes are. When we enter a conversation, all of our preconceived notions—most of which have no basis in reality—will affect its outcome. No matter how right and true your opinion feels, consider that it may be a stereotype and not fact.”
My opinion of Dionysus, for example, felt right and true, but it was based on a stereotype, one that I had formed through reading and research, yes, but also from ideas that I don’t even know where they came from. Dionysus as the god of “wine and intoxication, of ritual madness and ecstatic liberation from everyday identity” as Jenny March says in Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology, had become in my mind, as in King Pentheus’ mind, the god of drunken orgies and excess. These were my ideas, my preconceived notions coming into The Bacchae. I found out that these stereotypes and notions were actually only a pale representation of Dionysus, who also represents new life and rebirth, a note on why he makes a cameo in C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. I went from describing the Dionysus of The Bacchae as a “horror,” to seeing the whole story differently.
When I decided to join Teach for America and first started telling people I would be teaching in the Pine Ridge Reservation, people would ask, “Isn’t that the really bad reservation?” I didn’t know how else to respond so I would say, “That is what I have heard.”
I tried to research with the tool available while living in Guatemala: the internet. The people that lived in Pine Ridge were reduced to statistics. I read things like the unemployment rate is 80-90%; yearly income: $4,000; alcoholism rate estimated to be 80%; twice the national average suicide rate; three times the national average for infant mortality; life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the entire United States and second in the Western Hemisphere only to Haiti. In 2015, there was a suicide epidemic and 103 people between the ages of 12-24 attempted suicide between December and March alone. I heard of bootlegging rings (Pine Ridge is dry), the controversy over the shutting down of the town of White Clay, which sold liquor to many folks in Pine Ridge, Mexican gang violence, methamphetamine addicts, fetal alcohol syndrome, domestic violence, and the list went on. I suppose based on this, people wondered, “Isn’t it really rough out there?”
And this is our bias. My stereotype. It robs an entire people of their humanity. And often it takes being there—here—to see the new narrative presented. Like the king of Thebes, I often let my own stereotypes get in the way of reality. The reality is, no human is reduced to a statistic. The complexity of the human narrative shows that no person is merely “unemployed,” “an alcoholic,” “an addict,” or “insert adjective here”. That sanitizes their story to a white-washed, one-dimensional reality. Every person who wears those labels is something more than those labels.
Take the students I have met as examples. It’s easy to tell you the “what’s” about them. But that is not who they are. If one of the student’s in my class were to tell you about herself, she would not even mention statistical details. She doesn’t know she is an “at risk” youth. We have conversations about wearing dresses and becoming scientists and how to do our hair. We laugh until our sides hurt about how her silly teacher (me) ran into a table in the hallway last week. She is eager to run errands and help in the classroom. She is aware of power dynamics and the pull of her influence. She is clever. She reads people’s faces and the stress in their shoulders. She loves dogs and her brother. She is protective and fierce. And she is more than a statistic.
Statistics miss the generational trauma of the students in “the system”, that unjust thing that has institutionalized oppression so deeply that the cutting it out may be fatal. They skip over history sanitized to be palatable. And they certainly don’t tell about the biases and stereotypes still in existence to this day, a small sampling of which is heard in a New York Times article about suicide on the reservations from 2015:
“When Mr. Janis, a longtime activist, talks about Santana’s death, he points to the “multigenerational trauma” inflicted on Native Americans by whites and the tensions that still exist between the groups. On an overnight trip to Rapid City over the New Year, a group of girls including Santana overheard a white woman call them “filthy Indians” as they passed through a hotel lobby, he said. “My beautiful Lakota granddaughter,” he said. “She had to hear that. Our kids today just want to die because they’re sick of all this oppression.”
The reality of stereotypes is this: they aren’t based on reality. And to say what the statistics miss, that is at the heart of recognizing and mending those biases of thought. There are plenty of stereotypes out there, and we all hold stereotypes we don’t even know we have. These affect our feelings and our knee-jerk reactions to situations, and in turn affect ideas that we hold to be true.
And the truth is, some days it is easier to accept these biases than it is to disrupt the Ladder of Inference—some days I don’t even know I am making assumptions and it takes someone else, someone who has stood where I stood before, and say, “Why do you think that?”
Reordering reality is disorienting, much like that shocking moment when I realized Dionysus was not the horror I imagined and it was the king whose fatal preconceived notions were in the wrong. It is not easy work, this laying bare. But it is worth it. The richness that arose from the text made Euripides a genius of nuance, something that would have been completely missed if an Oxford professor didn’t say, “Really? Where do you see that?” And it would have been completely missed again without my Teach for America mentor saying, “How does that affect how you think now?” But this time, the richness and nuance that were slowly being revealed were not in a text, but in my life. As Dr. Suess said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” It’s another way of saying one moves from knowledge to action. And that is what I am left with: now that I know, what will I do?
 Euripides, trans. Gilbert Murray, The Bacchae (Digireads.com Publishing, 2009), 50