British newspapers today related the tragic story of a wheelchair-bound man who choked to death on the floor of a McDonald's restaurant. He did so while, as shown on CCTV footage, other people simply watched or stepped over him to order their food.
This story, from the large spa town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, raises important questions about our society. Why don't people get involved in helping the injured or stricken? Was this always the case in our society? If not, when did it begin to change – and why?
Of course, we should be wary of taking singular or isolated events and reading into them a trend, but cases like this one warrant a deeper look if only to support our claim that we live in a civilised society.
Though the two stories are different in many respects, this incident casts our minds back to the events in a London Tube station a couple of weeks ago. An allegedly mentally troubled young man attacked three people with a knife.
Local reports suggested that two men stepped in to try to restrain the attacker while others either fled or stood by watching. Eventually, the man was brought down by police using Tasers.
In a panic situation, it isn't unusual for a fight-or flight-response to take over, so reports about people fleeing a scene like this are not unusual. Indeed they are understandable when, as was apparently the case here, some of them have children in tow.
However, some onlookers had the presence of mind to take photos or shoot video footage, without in any way getting involved in real events that were unfolding just a short distance away.
To offer up as a pretext the trend toward citizen journalism is objectionable. We are not all journalists and we do not need to weigh up our professional ethics before becoming involved.
I think there are at least two factors in play with incidents like these.
I offer these not as excuses for walking by in the face of human need, but in the hope that they may cause us to reflect on appropriate responses. (And why we may sometimes be predisposed toward avoiding those responses.)
Firstly, in an age of social mobility and social alienation, the sheer size of the population and the fact that families and friendship networks are so spread out arguably combine to leave us feeling less engaged with people in our immediate vicinity.
This is perhaps exacerbated in the wake of the digital revolution and, in particular, our growing reliance on social media. We are relegating a great deal of our human interaction to handheld devices.
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