Why Help Doesn’t Flood In

14 Feb, 2013

Although no one was seriously injured during the flood on January 28th, and the girl in the YouTube video riding down McTavish picked herself up at the McGill Bookstore with, worst case scenario, soaked underwear and a defunct Macbook Pro, a surprising number of students echoed chagrin about not helping her or other students wade through the Reservoir rapids to safety.

These sentiments recall more extreme events, such as the photojournalist who snapped a photograph of a man who was pushed onto the tracks of an oncoming subway train in New York. The photojournalist defended himself by claiming that he was too far away to assist, shifting the blame onto the bystanders closer to the victim. Several weeks later, a man was beaten to death in an Edmonton train car carrying at least fifteen other passengers. Not one intervened.

Did the people on the subway platform or the passengers on the train refuse to act only because they felt their personal safety was jeopardized? Or, does the paralysis that comes with making a quick decision to help another stem from a deeper psychological cause? Even though I’ve never had to act fast to save anyone from an encounter with death, I like to think that I’m the type of person who wouldn’t freeze. My only evidence is that I rarely fear helping others in everyday situations, such as telling a student that her backpack is open, pointing a disoriented tourist in the right direction, or carrying a disgruntled stranger’s groceries.

I wasn’t always so friendly. My mother grew up in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War and taught me and my sisters to be cautious while walking home at night by telling us stories about los desaparecidos (the disappeared ones) and clipping newspaper articles to our fridge about children being assaulted in the park or the metro station near our house. The city fosters the outlook that nothing is at it seems and “street smarts” is the awareness that everyone has ulterior motives. Montreal, thankfully, is a much safer city than Buenos Aires, and although I’ve had my share of creepers accosting me on Ste. Catherine, I’ve never felt particularly ill-at-ease while walking in the street after dark.

In fact, the fear of behaving incorrectly in social situations outweighs any fear of a potential CSI-style attack. The cooperation of large groups of people calls for rules in the form of laws and social etiquette. Laws govern our over-arching moral choices, whereas etiquette is more for the day-to-day. Etiquette, however, provides only general guidelines that do not outline the appropriate conduct for every sticky situation. That being said, etiquette provides the script for a substantial amount of our interactions, which results in a paralysis when we find ourselves in a social gray zone.

What do you do when you see someone you met once across the street, notice that your professor’s fly is undone, or a stranger strikes up a conversation at a bus stop? From as early as age six we are taught, “Don’t talk to strangers,” and “mind your manners.” With that firmly in mind, most of us avoid making eye contact with our acquaintance, don’t advise our professor to “XYZ,” or quickly smile at the loquacious bus-stop-stranger and then feign fascination in a phantom text message.

Getting over these fears of not knowing what to say or how to act leads to having the courage to reach out in more serious situations, such as helping a fellow student wade through a raging flood, lifting a man onto a subway platform to escape an oncoming train, or stepping in the way of a deadly fistfight. A good actor whose counterpart forgets his lines will ad lib until the latter remembers his cue, just as a good Samaritan will ditch decorum and lend a hand when everybody else forgets their lines.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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