Social Justice and the Matrix: Red Pill or Blue Pill?

Each fall I teach a course on diversity and social justice in the leadership in student affairs graduate program at the University of St Thomas. The class explores concepts of systemic oppression generally and then applies them to different forms of oppression specifically. The aims of the course are critical consciousness, cultural competence, understanding of privilege and oppression, and skills for social change. One of the running jokes among the students in the class each year is that the experience ruins TV shows, musicals, Disney movies, songs, childhood books, and more because once you see oppression you cannot not see it.

I’ve talked with several colleagues about the applicability of the movie The Matrix to understanding the systemic nature of oppression and complex notions of liberation. At one point, Morpheus offers Neo the option to see the world for what it really is or go back to sleep by choosing either the red pill or the blue pill.

This clip illustrates just how overwhelming the desire to view the world as a fair and just place can be, even if we know better. We are all psychologically wired to believe in what psychologists call the “just world hypothesis.” This is why we will believe things that we intellectually know not to be true. For example, we will believe that rape is rare, when we know that 1 in 4 college women have experienced attempted sexual assault.

Students in my course will bravely share how they have resisted learning the material and sometimes wish they hadn’t because it ruins so many things they previously enjoyed or found innocuous. It can be tempting to stay in the dream world. Reality can be so…real.

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