Ta-Nehisi blogs about one of my all-time top pet peeves: people who swear they would have been the brave ones joining up the resistance to some horrible historical injustice. As Ta-Nehisi points out, most of us are really, truly cowards. Not to go evo psych on anyone, but if we didn’t have a strong survival instinct, human beings wouldn’t have gotten this far, after all. In the wake of Rand Paul’s ludicrous claim he would have marched with Dr. King in favor of laws that he would have then voted down, you saw the even more egregious version of this—people claiming they would have been brave warriors for civil rights, when you know damn well they would have been avid supporters of segregation back in the day. (To hear people talk about it, you’d think no one was a supporter of segregation, that it just happened without anyone really pushing for it.) If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all seen something unfair go down right in front of us and we did nothing—it’s not like acts of public bullying are that uncommon. And when it’s institutionalized bullying? Good luck. Most of us can immediately think of all those who are dependent on us, and we really can’t just threaten our stable lives just like that.
Similar thoughts were banging around my head recently when I saw some of the reactions online to these videos from the TV show “What Would You Do?”—a show that’s basically based on these kinds of questions. For those who don’t know, the show basically is about having actors act out certain scenarios in public, and they secretly record people’s reactions. In this episode, they acted out a scenario in a restaurant where a woman comes in looking battered, and then they have her fake boyfriend verbally abuse her and grab her. The question: Would you intervene on the woman’s behalf? In the first scenarios, while most people didn’t intervene, some did.
So they introduced a “reason” for the man to batter his girlfriend, one that reflects public sensibilities about what kind of rights a man has over his partner’s body.
What I found interesting was how many people on the internet were 100% certain they would step in if they saw a man abusing his girlfriend in public, whether she was dressed demurely or they realized he was attacking her for a perceived slight to his honor with her sexy clothes. I’m personally not so sure. In the scenarios where people did intervene, it was under very specific circumstances—they were with another person and they were able to work on each other to get their courage up. Most people rationalized their non-involvement by suggesting that it wasn’t their business. And let’s face it; it’s not unreasonable to avoid getting involved because you suspect the abuse victim will turn on you, or even scarier, that the batterer will. Or both. As much as people play dumb, we all know domestic violence is common enough that we understand its contours immediately, and know that victims aren’t going to leave until they’ve decided to quit living in denial that the man they love isn’t interested in loving but in controlling. (This is hard enough to accept if you’re not attached to someone who swears he loves you and has carefully depleted your stores of self-esteem.) That said, it’s still a rationalization for non-involvement. We all know that an intervention from a stranger might be the catalyst a woman who is thinking of leaving needs. You never know what a catalyst will be.
I feel bad picking on people for imagined bravery, because in a way I think imagined bravery can lead to real bravery. It’s a well-known psychological trick that picturing an event before it happens can make your reactions better. For instance, if you actually imagine a blow out on your car before it happens, when it does, it’s a lot easier to calmly slow down and pull to the shoulder, instead of freak out and jerk the wheel. So, imagining yourself intervening probably can make it likelier to happen. But I think the whole process would work better if you don’t blithely assume you will, but instead assume your inclinations are all wrong, and you have to mentally practice beforehand so that you create the courage to tap into.