The ABC news program 20/20 has an ongoing series called “What Would You Do?” which explores the following question – “When people see a situation that calls for action, do they step in or back away?” Using hidden cameras, the show orchestrates troubling moral dilemmas such as a couple physically fighting in a park or a clearly drunk mother loading her children into a car and then records what passersby do. The responses are fascinating to watch since we are able to see in real time people getting involved in the lives of those they don’t know and/or debating if and how to get involved. Depending on the situation, like the drunk mother, passersby immediately step in to protect the children. Other scenarios like a group of young girls bullying another little girl in a park aren’t as clear cut and many people walk on by though it is obvious that they are troubled by what they see. For anyone watching the program the topic raises many questions to ponder – When would I get involved? Under what circumstances? If I got involved, what would I do? If we invoke a care framework, a bigger question that emerges is how much should we care about people we don’t know?
I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately since in my own little world I occasionally, yet repeatedly, see a kind of moral dilemma that I’m not sure if or how to deal with. There is a woman I often see speed walking down a busy street near where I live who clearly has some kind of eating disorder and/or over exercising disorder. Over the last ten years or so, on and off, I’ve probably seen her several times a month, rain or shine, walking. In one glance, it is obvious that something is wrong with her. She looks emaciated and her legs are as thin as sticks. Also, she always wears a fleece jacket tucked into biking shorts even when it’s extremely hot out, like she’s trying to hide the rest of her body from view.
About a year after I began noticing this woman speed walking, she came into a yoga class I was taking one morning. She placed her mat down in front of me. It was difficult to look at her at such a close range since there was nothing to her. Her hair was very thin and looked as if a lot of it had fallen out. But I remember feeling relived that she was in the class since I thought for sure that the yoga teacher would talk with her after class and ask her if everything was okay. I’m not really sure why I made that assumption, but I think I just figured that as “the teacher” the yoga instructor had more authority or more of a social right to get involved than a stranger, like me, did. At the end of class, the yoga instructor didn’t take her aside as I had expected. Instead, she made small talk with the woman, welcoming her to the class and ending their banter with, “I hope you come back to the class.” I could not believe my ears. This woman clearly did not need any more exercise. As I rolled up my mat I thought about talking to the yoga teacher about this woman’s problem but I decided that it just wasn’t really any of my business. I continued taking the yoga class for another month but then school started and my schedule changed. I remember feeling relieved that I no longer had to be confronted with this moral dilemma on a weekly basis. Out of sight, out of mind. Furthermore, I figured this woman must have family that was dealing with her situation. I mean she clearly didn’t have a job because she was exercising all day so someone was supporting her. They were probably doing something about this…right? And what if I got involved? Could it end up being a messy situation that was bigger than I was prepared for or qualified to deal with? Did I really want to take this on?
Lately when I’ve seen the speed walker, she is looking a little better. Her legs seem slightly bigger and her hair is fuller which I think means she must be getting more nutrition. But she’s still walking fast, still wearing that fleece jacket tucked into her shorts, even when it’s 90 degrees out. I feel guilty about not doing anything and I remain concerned about her. I bet other people driving by her feel guilty and concerned as well. And then I think of all of us who have driven by her over the last decade, collectively feeling guilty, collectively worrying, and all of that care remaining invisible and going no where.
So how much should we care about people we don’t know? How much should we care about people we don’t know, but who we see need help? And if we knew a camera was watching, would we act differently?
(As an aside, this 20/20 program might be a useful tool to use in sociology courses since many moral dilemmas unearth assumptions about gender and race)