Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed
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Naked Mole Rat explores the taboo against nakedness through the story of a naked mole rat who wears clothes.
Wilbur the Naked Mole Rat is not like the other naked mole rats. He likes to get dressed in clothes! Will he get in trouble for wearing clothing when the oldest naked mole rat Grand-pah finds out?
Read aloud video by Buttons Tales
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
The strength of this story as a prompt for philosophical discussion is the fun way that it takes something that we take for granted (wearing clothes) and turns it into a social taboo. This nicely sets anyone who hears it up for a discussion around social norms, rules, and laws. Hidden gently in the background are opportunities to discuss friendship and hypocrisy.
Before saying any more about these themes, I will offer one cautionary note: don’t bring up Wilbur’s powerful little question, “Why not?”. Why? It has been my experience in using this story with elementary students, university students, and public school teachers that drawing attention to the question does two things that contribute negatively to the experience of exploring the themes in the book through discussion. First, drawing attention to the question immediately turns the focus of the discussion towards a kind of deep skepticism. Students have been quick to move towards claims like “We should question everything!” It is not that they are impossible to move from this position, but it is easier to have students recognize the other themes if this one is set aside from the outset. By avoiding calling out the question specifically, you leave it open for the participants to discover the question. Since it is an obvious turning point and the story is short, the discovery of the question by the students is almost inevitable. Having the participants discover the question themselves ensures that they do so in a context that they are ready to understand and work within.
Nakedness is a topic that is rarely discussed beyond a certain point in childhood. Nevertheless, we somehow all seem to know more about nakedness than we were ever told. There seems to be a set of rules around nakedness that we all agree on silently. Further, it seems to be the case that there is a strong agreement that we should remain silent about it. This makes nakedness an excellent starting place for philosophical discussion around social norms. With the exception of children who have suffered or are suffering abuse and who may find any discussion about being naked deeply troubling and painful, you will likely find that most students are quite willing to talk about being naked when it is presented in an indirect way such as, “What are all the reasons you can think of for why we wear clothes?” and “When is it okay not to wear clothes?”. Starting the conversation around wearing/not wearing clothes and then helping students redirect the conversation to other examples of deep social norms/taboos is a way out of a potentially awkward situation.
The status of the relationship between Wilbur and the other naked mole rats in the story is unclear. It seems that they are his peers in some sense, but whether or not they are actually friends is an open question. Friendship is a topic that is accessible to people throughout our lives, and exactly what it means to be a friend will change as we change and grow. Even within an apparently homogeneous group of discussion participants, the ideas of what counts as a friend will typically vary a great deal. However, friendship is also not discussed regularly, and when it is discussed there seems to be a strong predisposition to reach an agreement around trivial generalizations. This is particularly the case with young children for whom an agreement or following a leader is a hallmark of what it means to be “friends.” For example, in discussions that I have had with children on this topic, the other naked mole rats are not seen as Wilbur’s friends because “They do not accept Wilbur for who he is.” While acceptance is an important part of friendship, it is only one facet of one of the most complex relationship categories in our lives. Your challenge as a discussion facilitator is to find a way for participants to think and talk about friendship in such a way that it allows for a recognition of these other facets. Questions like, “Is it ever okay to disagree with a friend? When? Why?” and “Do you have different kinds of friends? What makes them different?” can help prompt this discussion.
An opportunity for discussion participants to experience the story a second time or to hold the book and closely look at the story themselves may raise the questions about what counts as clothing since many of the pictures feature naked mole rats, other than Wilbur, with accessories (e.g. a purse, a cane, hats, truncheons, and glasses). Once this has been noticed, the discussion may turn to the topic of hypocrisy. Explain to students that hypocrisy is when someone tells others to behave one way while they themselves are doing something else entirely (usually the opposite of what they said to do). It is an important topic throughout our lives because it ties directly into our notions of fairness. Deciding whether or not things like glasses count as clothes is the first stage to exploring this issue through the story. (If glasses are clothing, then the other naked mole rats are in a position to be accused of being hypocritical.) While a discussion around what counts as clothing can become quite philosophically interesting in its own right (“How do words get their meaning?” is an important question in the philosophy of language), it will not be satisfying if what the participants really want to discuss is the possibility that Wilbur was treated unfairly.
Simply having an open discussion about hypocrisy may result in the participants rallying around instances where they are the ones being treated differently from others. For them to begin to navigate hypocrisy rather than simply sharing feelings around being treated unfairly, you may need to challenge them to think about separating cases where there is simply a lack of equality/sameness from those where hypocrisy has actually taken place. Asking participants to make lists consisting of occasions where it is okay for them to do something different than they tell other people to do and occasions where it is not okay and then to articulate what their criteria were for deciding which example went on which list is a great way to focus specifically on hypocrisy.
Consider reviewing the following terms before the story is read or during the reading of the story: sarcastic, regal bearing, slacks, proclamation. If you want to prompt a discussion about hypocrisy in an indirect way, then you could introduce the word before reading the story and then simply leave it to your students to see or not see.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
- Find out what the participants know about naked mole rats. (Note that they may not know anything at all. This is a great opportunity to make use of inquiry-based learning techniques. If they do know something, then challenge them later to show that what they know is true.)
- Ask what the picture on the cover, and the title suggests that the story is about.
- Remind them what sarcastic means and ask if this is a nice way to be.
- When the naked mole rats yell at Wilbur ask what it would be like to be Wilbur and have everyone think you are doing something awful.
- When Wilbur asks, “Why not?” shift the focus to the other mole rats by asking your listeners to imagine what it would be like to have someone you know and care about do something that you thought was awful.
- Do the glasses on one of Wilbur’s friends or Grand-pah’s cane count as clothing? Do the security uniforms, the purse, or the lunch box count as clothing?
- When Grand-pah is thinking, ask them what they think he is thinking about. You can push this further by asking them to consider all the factors that he has to consider in making his decision, how he will/should weigh those factors, and what they think his final decision will be.
- Have you ever done anything that everyone else thought was crazy? In just two or three sentences, give us an example of just such a time.
- For us, wearing clothes is the norm rather than the exception. Why do we wear clothes? When is it okay not to wear clothes and why? Give your answer in a sentence or two.
- Why is what Grand-pah thinks so important?
- Do you think that the mole rats who carried Wilbur to Grand-pah are Wilbur’s friends? Why do you think that?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by John Simpson. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
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