Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sometimes There's No Excuse for Inaction

One of the interesting things about human nature is how we recycle ideas and, each time, seem to regard them as brilliant new insights. For example, every few years you will read an essay deploring "kids these days" and wondering how the world will survive being led by such debauched slackers. And you can keep going back, a few years a time, and find what amounts to the same essay, over and over again, back to antiquity. There seems to be a temptation to view human nature as malleable and subject to dramatic change within a generation, even though we have millennia of human history that hold to the contrary.

A couple of things you may note if you review human history: many instances of false bravado, and many instances of the judging of behavior and conduct of others with little regard to what the speaker might actually have done under similar circumstances. Within the latter context, sayings like "Judge not lest ye be judged," "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," and "Don't judge by appearance". Which is not to say that people should not be judged appropriately, just that you should not condemn others for sins equivalent to your own or without first having a sufficient appreciation of the facts, or judge others by the same standard you would have applied to yourself.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
To a degree, when David Brooks argues against feeling superior to others, his comment is fair. It's easy to feel smug and superior when you have no connection to the time and face no personal risk. But beyond that his thinking is exceptionally sloppy.
Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.
Brooks spends some time discussing "motivated blindness", when people literally avoid seeing or processing information that makes them uncomfortable. There is a significant distinction between not fully understanding or appreciating a situation due to the foibles of the human mind, and fully appreciating the situation but choosing to do nothing, yet Brooks conflates the two.

One example of motivated blindness would be the victims of Bernie Madoff. If you read their statements, many of them explicitly state, "How could I not have seen what was happening? How could I have been so stupid?" Or even, "I knew it was too good to be true, but I still thought this was the real thing." We humans do have a remarkable ability to fool ourselves and there are few people who get through a lifetime without being scammed in a manner similar to Madoff's victims, albeit almost always with lesser stakes. It is fair to remind people who judge those victims of that reality.

But there are other atrocities, including the three described by Brooks, that don't fit well into the "people see but don't see" narrative. It's not that there aren't people who didn't see at all due to a lack of exposure, saw or perceived signs of trouble but for one reason or another dismissed them, or were willfully blind to the reality that should have been patent. But in all three examples there were people who saw horrors that they could not rationalize away and did nothing.

Even in that context, doing nothing may not be morally reprehensible. It is easy to point to a massacre and claim, "If I were there I would have done something," or "Shame on those people who stood by and did nothing." It's quite another when there are people with guns committing a massacre, your life is on the line and, objectively speaking, all your words or action will achieve is the addition of your body to the pile of corpses. Not every choice is that extreme but there are any number of situations in which the failure to speak or act is understandable, even if it would have been more honorable to do more.

Brooks wants to roll all of this into the bystander effect: "The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene." He complains that on YouTube there are videos of beatings, "with dozens of people watching blandly". Honestly I have not seen any of those videos and don't much care to go searching, but even accepting that dozens of such videos exist I think it's a bit presumptuous to assume that nothing was happening off-camera, or that you're getting the full picture from your impression of the "people watching blandly". It is fair to say that the bystander effect may be at play in some or all of the videos, with people assuming that somebody else will intervene, call the police or take other action. On one hand I wish Brooks had given an actual example, but on the other I appreciate that if he is able to link to a paradigmatic example I don't have to watch it.

Brooks attempts to provide splashy, non-YouTube examples, starting with the Kitty Genovese case that he tells us "is mostly apocryphal". It's unfortunate that the best examples of a phenomenon often turn out to be a bit "factually challenged". His next example is,
A woman was recently murdered at a yoga clothing store in Maryland while employees at the Apple Store next door heard the disturbing noises but did not investigate.
Brooks didn't provide a link, but it was not hard to find the story.
At one point on that night, he said, an employee at the Apple Store next-door to Lululemon Athletica heard a woman’s voice cry out: “Oh God, please help me.” A worker pounded on the wall but did not take further action, he said.
The fact that one person, applying 20/20 hindsight and no doubt to his regret, learned that pounding on the wall was not an adequate response to the cry from next door is duly noted, but does not suggest "motivated blindness" or make it a compelling illustration of the bystander effect.

Brooks' last example involves a disturbing case, that occurred five years ago in France.
Ilan Halimi, a French Jew, was tortured for 24 days by 20 anti-Semitic kidnappers, with the full knowledge of neighbors.
An account in the New York Sun describes how Halimi was kidnapped by a gang known as "The Barbarians" and that "Halimi had been held in several different places in and around Bagneux, whose residents, most of them immigrants, did not appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary." It's not clear how Brooks jumps from that to the idea that people outside of the gang were willfully blind to their actions, or knew and did nothing, and once again he doesn't offer the courtesy of a link to his source. It's possible that he was using this site, which claims without citation that "neighbors in the apartment block where his kidnappers had taken him (and where they lived) heard the commotion and came to watch", but we can only guess.

If we assume that occurred, the neighbors who came to watch weren't demonstrating the bystander effect - they were complicit. There is a huge difference between passively encountering a crime and intentionally going to watch the crime occur. Further, it seems self-evident that a violent gang of kidnappers would not let anybody watch their actions unless they were confident that the person would keep silent, and that those attending would understand as much. In terms of the possibility that some people in the gang's vicinity suspected that something was happening or chose to turn a blind eye, that seems more analogous to why people don't call police on gangs and drug dealers in dangerous neighborhoods around the world - it's typically not that they don't want the thugs prosecuted and jailed, but that they fear reprisal.

It is that last example that best illustrates the weakness of Brooks' thesis. Brooks argues that we should not judge bystanders. If that argument means, we should not judge the neighbors of a violent gang for not calling the police over noises they hear through the wall, it's fair. Neighbors of gang members often live in fear of the gang, or of the violence that can erupt around gang members and their households. If you don't have to worry that gang members will take revenge against you or your kids, or that you might catch a stray bullet from a rival gang by virtue of being too close to their intended target, you need to give the context more thought before you sound off about what you would do in that situation.

It is difficult to believe that this is lost on Brooks, but both the severity of an offense and the role of the "bystander" play a role in accountability. We're not talking about a dichotomy of offenders and bystanders. When you are talking about the collective action of a gang of self-described "Barbarians", even if some of the gang's members were away during this particular crime, it is fair and reasonable to judge them for their association with the gang. Even if some of the gang members did not directly participate in the crime, it is fair and reasonable to judge them. And there has never been a time in history when society at large would have adopted Brooks' supposedly superior approach, with the people quietly contemplating, "How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive", instead of judging.

People see other people litter, speed, and commit other trivial offenses all the time, and almost nobody calls the police. On the other hand, apocryphal accounts aside, when people see somebody being beaten or stabbed in a public street they typically do call the police.

Brooks tells us, of all things, that "we’re not Puritans anymore",
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.
Funny, I don't recall that the Puritans much hesitated to judge and condemn those who succumbed to "the evil within themselves". As ahistorical as Brooks' claim may be, I might have been more sympathetic to it had I not heard his prior version:
I don't think it was just a Penn State problem. You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here. We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is; and so, when people see things like that, they don't have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it's wrong, but they've been raised in a morality that says, "If it feels all right for you, it's probably OK." And so that waters everything down. The second thing is a lot of the judgment is based on the supposition that if we were there, we would have intervened.
You know, "Kids these days". (Doesn't it seem like Brooks is, oh, what's the word for it, judging people here?)

Brooks is back to confusing bystanders with insiders and participants. People are not angry at peripheral players who either had no direct involvement or could suffer serious consequence through their action. Brooks, sneering at those who would judge, states,
The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
First, there's a good chance that a lot of the people speaking would have taken action over what Brooks, himself, describes as an "atrocity". And it is fair for them to note that, however much sympathy you may have for Mike McQuery the graduate student, it's more difficult to turn a blind eye to his knowledge that nothing was done over the course of the next decade, during which he built a career at Penn State and had additional encounters with Jerry Sandusky, including times when Sandusky was in the company of children. Similarly, other than the potential for a comparatively modest furor over how it happened, there would have been little consequence to Joe Paterno had he followed up and insisted upon an adequate police investigation of McQuery's report, and he was in a better position than McQuery over subsequent years to see continuing disturbing behaviors that he, also, failed to stop. As Scott Lemieux puts it,
When it comes to people who are sure that they would have stood up to the Nazis or thugs with machetes or school shooters or whatever then I agree that they’re just blowhards. But Penn State was nothing like those cases. It wasn’t a question of standing up to power; Paterno, Spanier, and Curley were the power. They didn’t face physical retribution or even (if they had acted in a timely manner) substantial career retribution for doing the right thing. To compare this to people who didn’t join the French Resistance is absurd.
Contrary to Brooks' claim, the problem is not that we have muddier moral waters or have lost our sense of evil, unless perhaps he's using the "royal we". Forty or more years ago, crimes like those attributed to Sandusky were far less likely to be reported, and it would have been much easier for somebody in his position to prey on vulnerable children without fear of retribution. Over the past forty years, ages of consent have risen in most states. Penalties for all forms of child abuse have been increased. And to the extent that 67-year-old Sandusky or 84-year-old Paterno have a muddied sense of right and wrong it is fair to note that they came of age during Brooks' golden years of moral virtue, not the sixties and seventies.

Worse, if we do things Brooks' way, nothing changes. If you don't press those who are in a position to right a wrong, to stop an "atrocity", or take Brooks' position that anybody who attempts to hold them to account is deserving of scorn, you all but guarantee that history will repeat itself. Contrary to Brooks' position, this counter to his position is anything but new. To quote John Stuart Mill, from his 1867 work "On Education", "Bad men need nothing more to compress their ends than that the good men should look on and do nothing." (A variant, "All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing" has been in popular use, in various forms, for many decades.) It is better that humans follow their nature and judge, sometimes inappropriately, than that we instead take the milquetoast, amoral approach endorsed by David Brooks and engage in navel-gazing rather than holding to account those who could stop evil.

1 comment:

  1. If I understand, according to Brooks we live in an era in which people don't have a clear sense of right and wrong.

    As a result, grown men no longer understand that it's wrong to rape children.

    When the public learns that somebody has molested children while others knew and did nothing, and reacts by declaring that the child rape was evil and that those who did nothing share moral culpability, the reaction proves that the population at large has lost any traditional sense of morality.

    Moral virtue can only be restored if we let the "bystanders" off the hook and contemplate our own moral failings.



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