Would your kids mock a drowning man?


"Nothing compelled them to be Good Samaritans": A group of teenagers (ages 14 to 16) watched, mocked, and recorded as a man drowned in a Florida pond on July 9th. They might be free of legal culpability for choosing not to render aid, but they might face prosecution for failing to report a death.

This brings up an old problem and a new problem. The old one is called the Kitty Genovese problem. It's variously also known as the bystander effect or the diffusion of responsibility, but it basically goes like this: If you're the only one who sees something terrible happen, then in many cases you are more likely to act than if you're one of dozens of people who sees the same thing happen. The more people who end up as bystanders to a tragedy, the more the responsibility for doing something about it is "diffused" across all of those people. This is a hard psychological hurdle to overcome.

The new problem is that not everything needs to be on video. It is now almost impossible to avoid daily examples of people doing stupid things because they want to become YouTube celebrities. The notion that the first thing to do when something extraordinary happens is to raise your cellphone and start recording video -- instead of doing something to help -- is a thoroughly modern problem, and there's no sign it's going to fade.

How much of this is vanity, how much is self-absorption, and how much is a failure to understand basic free will? Sometimes in life we have to do the right thing -- not just call upon someone else to do it.

It starts with knowing what is the right thing to do (the kids should have, but apparently did not). It follows with knowing how to do the right thing (maybe they did, maybe they didn't). And then it all hinges upon taking up the agency to do it.

The less we compel ourselves to know what's right, to know how to do something about it, and to show the guts to take action, the harder it is to be a great country.

Laws can help or hurt (or even mainly stay out of the way), but the real answers don't come from legislation. They come from character. And character is taught, modeled, and emulated -- starting at home.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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