A young boy is trapped in a building that’s on fire; you are safely outside waiting for the firemen who don’t seem to be coming. Do you try to save the boy? Or, someone is being verbally abused on the bus; do you stand up and defend the person from the bullies?
Has a self-centered culture – the norm in many countries around the world – created a world where intervening when others need help is seen as foolish instead of courageous?
Social experiments concerning civil courage can be found on YouTube by the dozens. For example, a video posted last year of a young couple (who, as it turned out, were actors) in an elevator, where the boyfriend began to verbally and physically abuse the woman with him stirred up some serious debate. According to the experiment, only one person in fifty three would have stepped in to help the girl. Is this acceptable?
Even though these types of social experiments do show some sad flaws in our society, we have to remember that they often are problematic. 74% of Americans know someone that has been a victim of abuse. To many of the people who take part in these experiments, abusive situations are not new. Seeing someone go through abuse publically could conjure personal memories from similar situations, which can elicit a fear response. Fear, in turn, can be paralyzing, and a person can suffer tremendously from these situations. “Imagine being trapped in an elevator” – these words alone can create a feeling of anxiety due to a person’s similar experiences with abuse. Do we expect a person in this state to help the victim? An individual might say that her own life story of abuse would make her more prone to step in because she knows what it is like to be in an abusive situation and have no one lifting a finger to help them. For others, the opposite reaction might occur.
Civil courage looks different depending on where you are in the world. Some countries have laws making it a crime to refrain from helping a person in danger, while other countries – such as Sweden – do not. The way we see people risking their own lives to save someone else’s becomes a question of bravery versus foolishness, depending on where you are.
The issue about civil courage is a lot deeper than what one would initially expect. At first, you might think that there is only one possible answer; it´s always the right reaction to step in and help someone in danger, and always the wrong reaction to look the other way. Or you might think that we do not have responsibility for other people and should only mind our own business.
Perhaps the truth lies in between these two perspectives. There may be a balance in being brave and risking more than your own life when you enter a situation you do not have the capability of handling. When we have the capability we should always do our best to help our fellow human beings in this world full of hardships and abuse.
Perhaps, most importantly, before judging others for their action or inaction, we should remind ourselves that we just don’t know what other people have lived through.