2011-10-18

Moral Decay

The Toddler
The internet is ablaze with news of a Chinese toddler first being run over by a van, then being passed over by a dozen passers-by before someone finally stopped to help.

The Christian Science Monitor notes that one possible explanation is fear of government prosecution:

[S]ome speculate that fear of being blamed or prosecuted for the girl's injury made so many pass without stopping.
Indeed, the Monitor's own Peter Ford wrote this dispatch from Beijing about a man who gave a sick man a free ride home and got arrested for running an unlicensed taxi.
Fear of government reprisal is certainly one possible explanation for this. Anyone who has read books such as Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng knows that the Chinese has a deep and very recent history of punishing the messengers. As Liang Heng describes at length in his book, this took a variety of different shapes, but the many decades of communism had a sour impact on the morality of the nation.

Of course, one has to realistic when discussing such things. It would be patently absurd to suggest that the entire nation of China lacks good moral character. If, therefore, the Christian Science Monitor has it right, and people passed by the injured toddler out of fear of the state, we can hardly question their morals; these folks may very well have been acting to protect their own families. That would be moral, not immoral or amoral, behavior.

Myself
Reading this story, though, I cannot help but remember my own personal experience right here in Ottawa, Canada...

One Winter day I got dressed and set out to walk to work. I was wearing dress slacks, patent leather shoes, a shirt and tie, and a long wool coat: very much the picture of a respectable individual. Outside, on the sidewalk, I slipped on a patch of ice and fell on my back, temporarily knocking the wind out of me and hammering my knee pretty hard against the pavement. I couldn't get up for a few minutes, and couldn't breathe. It was nothing serious, but I nonetheless found myself writhing in pain on a crowded city sidewalk in downtown Ottawa.

The crowd of people around me steered clear, or simply stepped over my body. Not a single human being on that crowded sidewalk of "ordinary" people walking to work stopped to so much as look at me, much less ask if I was okay.

My Friend
An old friend of mine once told me that she had an abusive boyfriend who severely beat her one day. This event took place on a crowded public beach. When she told me this story, I said, "I can't believe no one helped you."

She said to me, "Nobody does anything to help in those situations." I told her that I certainly would have, to which she replied, "You can say what you want, but you wouldn't help, either. No one would. Everyone says they would, but when they actually see it happening, no one does anything to stop it."

Morality is Personal
Society is obviously in a very bad state when people fall down on the sidewalk and no one pauses to even look; when young women can be assaulted and battered in the middle of a crowd, in broad daylight; when toddlers can get run over by vans and no one stops to help.

And yet, what do people get upset about? What cuts? What has an impact? Nebulous umbrella topics like "corporate greed" and "the national debt" and "the economy" and "Hurricane Whoever," and so forth.

Take a solid look and think about it. Why is it that people at large tie themselves in knots over issues over which they have virtually no control, from which they feel only minimal impact, and yet we cannot even look each other in the eye as we walk down the street?

What on Earth is going on?

I would suggest that what is going on is nothing more complicated than laziness. It is far more difficult to help a real person in clear and present danger than it is to yell at the TV for five minutes and then pat yourself on the back for being someone who "cares."

We have completely depersonalized our existence. We text friends instead of talking to them in person. We seek the escapism of movies and television rather than social interaction. We prefer robot music to real human beings playing real musical instruments. We telecommute. We have stripped our lives of as much human contact as possible.

Now we see the result. Nothing is real to us except the surreal, the electronic, the screen, the umbrella issue, the distant, fat cat politicians. Everywhere around us we have every opportunity to stand up and exercise our moral character.

Perhaps we simply don't realize that by doing nothing, we are nonetheless exercising our moral character, but it is not what we believe it to be.