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.



"Those being bellowed at have to at least entertain the possibility that you may do them serious harm if they fail to comply."

You're just so badass, David. :)

Seriously, good for you. I'm impressed.

James S

"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."

It's funny how people behave in situations like that. They start reading the paper really, really hard. It's all a bit sickening.


What was interesting about the train incident was the general attempt to pretend that the teenagers were just being boisterous and throwing the trainers for “fun”. In other words, pretending that there was no actual aggressive intent. That way, the passengers could just about excuse their own passivity. There was a bizarre denial of the overt challenge to their authority as adults and civilised people. It was obvious that the teenagers found the throwing of trainers fun precisely *because* it was a game of dominance. They were testing how far they could go - how close to people’s heads they could get - and they won.

And a similar game was being played by the kids at the bus stop. They were accustomed to asserting their collective dominance. It just didn’t work out so well on that particular afternoon.

Peter Risdon

There's also a distinct "don't get involved" ethic.

A few years ago I intervened in a bus station where a drunk was harassing a woman who was sitting waiting with her shopping. She was trying to ignore him. I went and sat next to them and the drunk subsided for a moment, then started again and at one point touched the woman's leg. So I told him to go and when he didn't I removed him physically.

He then stood outside complaining about me to a bunch of teenagers. One girl from this group came and sat next to me and started chatting. Her advice was that I shouldn't have got involved. I pointed out it could have been her being hassled. Her reaction was conflicted - "Don't get involved" was a big force in her head.

This wasn't a feeling of ashamed impotence - it was a positive opinion that one should walk by on the other side of the street.

Mr Eugenides

A well-known example of this phenomenon, from Malcolm Gladwell (

Two New York City psychologists — Bibb Latane of Columbia University and John Darley of New York University — subsequently conducted a series of studies to try to understand what they dubbed the "bystander problem." They staged emergencies of one kind or another in different situations in order to see who would come and help. What they found, surprisingly, was that the one factor above all else that predicted helping behavior was how many witnesses there were to the event.

In one experiment, for example, Latane and Darley had a student alone in a room stage an epileptic fit. When there was just one person next door, listening, that person rushed to the student's aid 85 percent of the time. But when subjects thought that there were four others also overhearing the seizure, they came to the student's aid only 31 percent of the time. In another experiment, people who saw smoke seeping out from under a doorway would report it 75 percent of the time when they were on their own, but the incident would be reported only 38 percent of the time when they were in a group. When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem — the seizure-like sounds from the other room, the smoke from the door — isn't really a problem.



“There’s also a distinct ‘don't get involved’ ethic.”

I understand there may be practical disincentives – the risk of getting thumped, for instance – but what’s the “ethic” behind inactivity and denial? As you pointed out, the victim could be any of us.

Mr E,

Thanks for that. It does rather highlight the unrealism involved.


This guy seems to exemplify much of what you say:


I have seen another study that found that a group of quiescent onlookers is more likely than not to spring to action once one person in the group decides to take initiative. I wish I could find it.


Re Mr. Eugenides comment, I suspect there are two factors involved. First, people would rather not be bothered, and if others are around, the assumption is that one of the others will provide help. Second, one's uncertainty about the nature of the situation -- whether help is appropriate -- increases, making a decision to help more difficult. People with more character don't require the affirmation and act on their own initiative, whereas the majority of people are never quite sure what they are seeing until someone else confirms it for them.

Simen Thoresen

Kudos, David. Frightening children is not actually as easy as it sounds, nor is it as easy to do for a civilized man.

I see socialization to be the issue here. We're too socialized to protect each other, as we see that this is the role of 'the society' - without realizing that in a crowded train, 'society' is only those of us who are present. Thus we have 'gangs' that can exploit this - be it something as benevolent as young spawn who want to test the limits of their dominance, or as malevolent as the gangs of 'youth' who roam the streets and subways at night robbing people of their sneakers and cell-phones, and then knife them for fun.

'The society' as the protector of the private individual, is what the legitimacy of the state rests on - we've given it a monopoly on violence, so that it can protect us. When it fails to do so - when we must act on our own, we demonstrate the failure of the state. When I'm really doom-and-gloom I see this as a good thing.

David obviously did the right thing. We should all act as Batman once in a while and swoop down to show those who breach the conventions of society that they themselves are not safe. Of course, the down-side of this is that in any sane society, Batman would obviously be a villain.

As was David, when he frightened those poor, young children. And limited their room for self-expression.



And then there’s the palaver with the tights and utility belt.

Simen Thoresen

Don't forget the suit with the rubber nipples. Bat-nipples.

The car might be cool, though.



“Frightening children is not actually as easy as it sounds.”

And the thing is it has to be frightening (or startling) in order to work. In that situation – with a crowd of maybe 20 stroppy teenagers – there’s little point being polite and trying to negotiate some order. The risk of sneering is too great. The reaction has to be something unexpected, and quite loud...


I was on a long bus ride on a ski trip in Wyoming years ago and the bus driver (an older man) liked to recite old cowboy poetry and tell stories and such. It was a bit corny, but it was also something different and by my observation most of the people on the bus were enjoying it. But a group of about 6 people would not shut up, increasing the volume of their conversation over the voice of the driver. After noticing the driver and most everyone getting uncomfortable, I turned around, stared them in the face and said "DO YOU MIND!!! SOME OF US WOULD LIKE TO HEAR THIS!". They then shut up. Nobody else said a word except the driver the rest of the trip. The rude people's (cheap) hotel was the first stop and after they got off, everyone commented on how rude they were. No one ever thanked me for telling them to STFU, and I sensed that some of my "friends" were a little wary of me the rest of the trip, but I'm glad I did so.


It's not all a matter of being scary, especially with kids. It's just as or more important that you project moral certainty, complete confidence in the correctness of your position. Kids are still figuring out who they are and what's what -- basically, they are insecure. You'll probably be reasserting something they've already been taught, and which they are only testing for reliability. Your confidence will embarrass them. Most people do care to receive respect, particularly from people who respect themselves.


"..but what’s the “ethic” behind inactivity and denial? As you pointed out, the victim could be any of us."

And right on cue:"A dying man who screamed for help after becoming stuck down a drain was ignored by residents because they thought he was drunk, an inquest heard yesterday."


It is what is known as a Command Voice and is used throughout the armed forces, police and firefighters around the world. It is not simply being loud, but carrying a tone of command and authority that tends to be immediately obeyed. This can be crucial in certain circumstances, for example when a civilian wants to assist a firefighter/policeman but is actually going to do something that they know will quickly make the situation worse, not better. One example was of a civilian wanting to help a police officer at an accident scene at night who was going to light a roadside flare, but did not know he was standing close to a gasoline leak. The officer on the scene immediately used command voice to make certain the flare did not get lit... it was not a time for reasoned discussion or asking politely.

For more information,

"A correctly delivered command will be understood by everyone in the unit. Correct commands have a tone, cadence, and snap that demand willing, correct, and immediate response."


This could get confusing...


Where's the Bene Gesserit when you actually need them...


And queing is a serious business for you Brits. :)



You've been linked to on this by Ann Althouse. Your famous! Drinks for everybody.


I feel I should sacrifice an ox or something.


Any liberals in the crowd would be offended at your courage, call you a cowboy, tell you that you have no right to tell others how to behave.

All to defend their pathetic, cowardly egos.


If Charles Bronson were gay, articulate, a fan of comics and English -- oh, and alive -- he would be David Thompson.


Read up on the work of Solomon Asch.Interesting if not informative.


Consider also that we're actively teaching our children in school not to enter into confrontations by punishing both parties in any confrontation, the defender and agressor.

We also compulsively teach them to "use their words" and that no words justify a fist in the face.

The result, of course, is that there is no defined role for confrontation or even violence in the defense of others. Some of us, or our parent's generation may have been looking the other way out of some notion of not intruding in other people's business, but children and adults now have gone beyond that to vilify all confrontation and violence including what is necessary to defend others.


The problem is that far too many "good samaritans" like yourself are getting knifed or beaten to a pulp for their efforts. The feral yobs will pounce on you for the slightest admonishment, such as asking them to keep the noise down. The most extreme cases end up in The Sun or Daily Mail--often accompanied by gruesome photographs of people battered beyond recognition. As such, citizens will naturally think twice before going the "hero" route. Can you blame them?

Dutch Canuck

Franklin, I have seen the behaviour you describe many times myself. People are frozen into timidity or paralysis, but it only takes one person acting forthrightly to break the spell. People like my wife, my aunt and my late mother, "spell-breakers" all, who on numerous occasions (strangers' medical emergencies, house fires, an attempted mugging) have charged in and said "what's going on here?" when others are standing around useless. Suddenly, they recover their wits and the whole thing turns around in seconds -- people are dialing the ambulance on their mobile phones and giving bottled water to the ailing, or banging on the doors of a house with a burning front porch to alert the inhabitants; men grow tall and give chase to miscreants; howling riff-raff fall silent. A wonder to behold.

There seems to be a shortage of such spell-breakers. Perhaps Thoreson is onto something - as "society" in the form of the Mother State intrudes more and more into the low-level social interactions of individuals in places like school, work and business, people are bereft of direction in those situations where Mummy State is absent; the demos no longer know how to work things out on their own, and the most savage wins the day. (Sounds a bit Freudian, but it's late...)

To reverse this shortage I propose we all submit to a bite by a radioactive spider.


Mr E. I have been an onlooker in both these situations and I was surprised by how different my reactions were in each case. In one case I was waiting at a crowded city tram stop and a man in wheelchair began to wheel himself out in front of an oncoming tram. I found myself rooted to the spot thinking "why doesn't someone stop him", and it was clear that other people had exactly the same reaction. As it was no-one helped him and fortunately he managed to wheel himself back in time. (In my defence there were lots of people closer than I was). In the contrasting case a man in a wheelchair (I'm not sure if it was the same one - maybe he had a habit of playing chicken with trams) began to wheel himself across the track in a similar situation. In this case I was the only other person there; I didn't even stop to think and sprang to pull him back. It seems that when there are lots of other people around the responsibility for action gets diffused among them in our minds and we think that it is someone else's responsibility to do something. Robert Cialdini wrote something about this in his book on influence and commented that if you were a victim (and were able to) that you should nominate one person in the crowd ("Hey, you in the green top - call an ambulance") and crystallise the situation by making it their responsibility.



“…we’re actively teaching our children in school not to enter into confrontations by punishing both parties in any confrontation, the defender and aggressor… to vilify all confrontation and violence including what is necessary to defend others.”

Well, I don’t know what children are being taught, but I have encountered people who denounce a forceful defence or intervention as somehow equivalent to the violence of an aggressor. See, for instance, the incident linked below (last three paragraphs), in which an aggressive youth was manhandled out of a shop he was robbing with impunity. I’m not sure what alternative course of action such people would suggest:


“The problem is that far too many ‘good Samaritans’… are getting knifed or beaten to a pulp for their efforts.”

It’s not something I’m in the habit of doing, and I should point out I never felt in any significant physical danger. It was more about being willing to defy social expectation. As Dutch said, it’s about doing the unexpected and “breaking the spell.”


Check out this little gem to make your blood boil.
Parisian "racailles" in need of some serious corrective violence.


1. Kitty Genovese

2. Second Amendment and Concealed Carry. If there was any mental doubt that granny might be packing, chaos would not have happened in the first place. CCWP inspires order.


''it’s about doing the unexpected and “breaking the spell.”''

that sounds familiar: does anyone watch Cesar Millan in The Dog Whisperer?
Especially the bit where he snaps the aggressive dog out of its confrontational attitude, with a sharp touch & sound.

SouthPark's homage is most excellent...


Thanks, mcmlxiii, that wrecked my morning!


sorry clazy..
which one wrecked you: Cartman or parisian shitbags?


Just for you David I backed up an older woman complaining to some kids about the noise they were creating in the Quiet Carriage of a train.


We should team up and form some kind of secret crime-fighting society. We’ll need code names.


And a complicated web of inter-relation and acquaintances, plus numerous offspring that you've conveniently forgotten about....


And I shall use my power to summon lions down from the sky.

Spiny Norman

"See, for instance, the incident linked below (last three paragraphs), in which an aggressive youth was manhandled out of a shop he was robbing with impunity. I’m not sure what alternative course of action such people would suggest..."

A certain Mr Goldfinger* knows:

*not George Soros, but the movie version.

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