Another Great Moment of Academic Clarity

Moral Inertia

In the Telegraph, Peter Whittle bemoans the failure to challenge anti-social behaviour:

Few people now dare to challenge just simple, inconsiderate behaviour in others - behaviour which flies well under the criminality radar but which manages to alienate and intimidate. It’s this which is the most worrying, though understandable, aspect to it all. There is a section of our society that remains awfully polite about such issues, and prefers to see such non-reaction as part of a British desire not to make a fuss or cause embarrassment. It’s a nice, quaint idea but it no longer plays: they simply don’t get the fact that now, it’s all about fear.

And alongside this fear is the sense that the order of things has become so inverted that one will be on shaky ground if one does indeed speak up. Most people now register some degree of outrage at being asked to desist, no matter how politely you do it. You are the rude troublemaker in their eyes. For some kind of order to be restored, back-up is crucial. And formal authority has more or less left the scene. You are on your own.

Indeed. The suspicion of not being able to count on backup from others no less inconvenienced will tend to inhibit efforts to assert basic civility. I recall one particularly miserable train journey during which a group of four teenagers amused themselves by throwing trainers to each other, narrowly missing the heads of other passengers. When, inevitably, one of the shoes hit a woman in the face, no-one intervened. One of the teenagers laughed and mumbled “sorry,” and the trainer-throwing continued for another minute or so, albeit half-heartedly.

Nearby passengers made sure to direct their attention either downwards to their own shoes or to the woman who’d been struck, with sounds of muted and impotent sympathy, thus excusing themselves from a more direct confrontation. The four teenagers got off the train a minute or two later, by which time an air of self-loathing had spread among the two dozen remaining passengers like an embarrassing smell. It occurred to me that the number of people who could have intervened but didn’t actually worked against any single urge to do so. If two dozen people do nothing, conspicuously, there’s an awareness of a collective decision not to intervene, and a kind of moral inertia.

A more recent experience involved a much smaller number of onlookers, a much larger number of aggressors, and had very different results. I was standing at a bus stop during a mass exodus of secondary school kids late one afternoon. Two elderly women were huddled anxiously at the front of the queue, with me behind - the three of us surrounded by a disordered mass of teenagers that had spread in all directions. As the bus approached, the mass of teenagers surged forward, indifferent to the three people supposedly at the front of the queue. The intimidation was utterly casual. This, presumably, was how they behaved every day of the week. In a rare moment of alpha male theatre, I blocked their path, faced down the nearest youth and bellowed a demand for order. A moment of total stillness followed. Caught unprepared, the mass of teenagers quickly backed off, silent and non-plussed. Evidently this was something for which no clever riposte had been rehearsed. The unexpected interlude allowed the elderly ladies to make appreciative noises and climb onboard without further harassment.

This is not the easiest thing to do successfully. The stare, body language and bellowing have to be calibrated just so. Too little force and mockery may ensue – from which there’s no recovery. This is, after all, a game of humiliation. You have to look as though you mean it absolutely. Those being bellowed at have to at least entertain the possibility that you may do them serious harm if they fail to comply. The risk of embarrassment has to be theirs and theirs alone. This requires a certain willingness to look like an escaped mental patient, at least temporarily. But looking utterly bonkers and socially incongruous is much easier to do if you’re not inhibited by a large group of other people conspicuously doing nothing.