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The Complexities of ‘Doing’ Good: When Should One Intervene in Daily Injustices?

May 3, 2013

This is the second post in a series about the intimate, daily moral dilemmas people face living life in an increasingly globalized world. The first post in this series was about a personal, failed attempt at Western humanitarianism in the West Bank.

The cavernous belly of mass transit.

Taken in the metro system of Washington DC. Maybe the Gallery Place stop?

We were waiting for our train platform number to be published when it happened.  Three security guards in front of us pinned a man down to the concrete of the train terminal.  The security men were casual about it, twisting his arm against his back at an unnatural angle.  One of them placed his knee on the center of the prostrate man’s back, keeping him flat against the floor with minimal effort.  The man on the ground was middle aged, ill shaven and had white sallow skin.  He was dressed in a jacket and knit cap.  Nothing about him seemed out of the ordinary- except that he was on the floor, screaming about his rights being violated, kicking his feet in the air aimlessly like a toddler having a tantrum.

He said something about how they were holding him down simply because he took a photograph.  He said he took a photograph of the security guards, and for that he was being arrested.  He said that this is what the country had come to, that this violated everything Britain stood for.   He peppered his declaration with so many profanities, it was sometimes hard to understand him.  Still, he seemed completely rational, just (understandably) pissed off at being held down.  His eyes bugged out slightly as he pleaded for crowd intervention.  People shifted uneasily in a wide circle around him.  Some people took videos.  The security guards had called in the police, and now there were six people surrounding this man.  Handcuffs flashed under the fluorescent lighting.  The man kept screaming.

My friend and I hadn’t seen him do anything wrong at all, but then again, we weren’t looking for illicit activity.  My whole body was tense- what would a moral person do when confronted with this situation?  Was I perpetuating the bystander effect by watching without acting?  Was I witnessing police brutality and arbitrariness, or was this a legitimate use of force?  It certainly was violence, but violence is acceptable if it is applied justly by a legitimate state apparatus….  I wanted, desperately, to do the right thing.  But the right thing isn’t always easy to identify.

London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Budapest and bit of Barcelona 978

I betray the best in me with the small sins of the everyday.  Perhaps I could try not to.

In primary school, the situations given were always simple and put into terms of ‘moral courage’.  Did I, aged five, have the moral courage to stand up for someone being bullied, or tell the truth if I was given too much change at the register?  The issue at hand was the desire to act rightly, despite the consequences.  When to act rightly was obvious.  We weren’t told that life is never that simple.  Life doesn’t prepackage tidy little moral tests.  Real life is messy.

Everyone fears that secretly they are like the good citizens of New York witnessing the murder of Kitty Genovese; that when confronted with a life of death scenario, we will leave someone else handle it (or not, as the case may be.)  We will be content with inaction.  We will allow injustice to occur without complaint.  We could be those who history vilifies as sheep.  But acting when it is unnecessary is just as bad- the busybody, the snoop, someone who escalates a situation, embarrasses others, and is always malcontent.  How to determine which moment needs engagement and which needs détente is tricky.

Even when we know that we should do something, deciding what that something should be can be difficult.  Take the problem of homelessness.  Every city has its homeless.  ‘First world’ cities like London, Washington DC and Chicago have their homeless.  ‘Developing world’ cities like Cape Town and Amman have their homeless populations.  Even in countries without massive wealth disparities, countries like the Netherlands (my personal epitome of an awesome nation) have their homeless.  This problem is immediate, universal and has been apparently impossible to solve either through infrastructure and institutions, through the actions of individuals or organizations.


A picture I took near London Bridge. 11pm at night.

It is interesting that people attempt to ‘solve’ Arab-Israeli conflict, ratify accords to slow climate change and condemn genocide when we don’t even know how to clean up our own backyard.   So what’s a girl to do who is trying, in her grade school way, to be the best of herself on an intimate personal level?


1.      Training and knowledge.  I admire those who have taken CPR courses, know their medical first aid cold.   I think it is equally important to know how to lead or negotiate to diffuse an emotionally tense situation.  Or how to throw down bit of basic self-defense.  Or possess certain knowledge of what a citizen’s personal rights are in the state in which they live.  Being equipped with this sort of training and knowledge means that an average person could have more tools with which to approach an unexpected situation, as well as a basic template of what a beneficial action could be.

2.       Connection and humanization.  It is hard, sometimes, to treat everyone with respect and courtesy, especially if there is fear of the unknown or discomfort involved.  One reason I feel uncomfortable every time I interact with homeless people is due to my own prejudice and then chilling self-knowledge thereof.  Would I have a more natural and hopefully respectful response to begging if I read more excellent blogs written by people who happen to be homeless, or talked to the local homeless about boring, average things like the weather more often?  Probably.  It is important to humanize whatever you consider ‘the other.’

3.       Understanding the psychology behind the desire not to intervene.  People don’t like to intervene in tense situations when there is ‘high ambiguity’- where the bystander isn’t exactly sure what is going on, or if it is serious.  Bystanders are less likely to intervene if they feel that they are not capable of helping, or are endangered by helping, or if the responsibility to intervene is diffused over a large group of people.  If a bystander’s ‘neighbor’ doesn’t intervene, a bystander is more likely to interpret the situation similarly.  Being aware of these factors that might influence your decision on whether to intervene may enable you to make a more rational decision on whether the situation unfolding needs your involvement.

Boston, Reykjavik, Paris, Florence, Rome 155

Religion has nothing to do with this sort of morality play.

As for the man on that train station linoleum… our train came.  My friend and I boarded, and we left.  Others were there to watch the security guards.  Others were taking pictures, taking videos.  One man started to argue with a police officer as we left.  Others were intervening in this situation when I did not.  My friend and I were silent on the train, listening to his screams die away as the train doors closed and we left London Bridge.

It bothered me all night, despite, upon further reflection, deciding that I had made the right decision.  The lack of passion or anger on the part of the security personal meant the arrest was routine, controlled.  There was no excess brutality.  The man on the floor was contained, but not harmed.  Justification upon justification.  But the reasoning felt sound.

Moral courage isn’t easy; crisis situations are all unique, and interpreting them is difficult.  There is no gold star sticker as a reward for a just action, or an equally just inaction.  Just a stain of guilt or feeling of acceptance when remembering a man’s face pressed to pavement, and the whistle of an approaching train.

– – –

Do you think my friend and I did the right thing in not intervening?  What methods do you use to interpret a tense situation in daily life?  Any advice on how to resist the bystander effect?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    May 5, 2013 6:11 PM

    I read your latest, and enjoyed it very much. Did my piece on the Supreme Court reach you?

    Papa Bert.


    • May 6, 2013 1:41 AM

      It did. Thank you! I love that you keep on writing and presenting. I miss you and Mima both. Love.

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