Perhaps Our Compassion Needs A Little Push

Some news stories entertain us. Some arouse our curiosity. Yet others raise concerns.

However, on occasion we encounter a story that makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up and leads us to wonder just what in the heck is happening to our world—and just such a one recently tumbled out of the great state of Florida.

For those of you who may not have heard of this particular—and disturbing—event, please allow me to summarize:

On July 9th a man named Jamel Dunn drowned in a pond, and his body was later found. Local police were alerted to a cell phone video that documented Mr. Dunn’s drowning—and the five teens present can be heard taunting and mocking him from the shore as he struggled. None offered assistance, and no one thought it was necessary to use that cell phone to call 911. Their apparent glee as Mr. Dunn finally slipped beneath the surface of the water is both chilling and appalling. As there is no law on the books that affirms a responsibility to offer assistance or summon it, it seems the charges that can be levied against these uncaring young people begin and end at the level of a misdemeanor, which is a shock in itself.

One can hardly summon the words to describe just how horrifying all of this is.

Of course, the next—and entirely natural response—is to complain about the desensitizing effects of violent media and video games, the decline in our personal morality, our loss of a sense of shared community and responsibility, or the effects of neglectful (or absent) parenting on the youth of our nation. Although all of these factors may have played some part in the response—or lack of one—to Mr. Dunn’s struggles and demise, I wonder whether we are seizing on facile excuses that avoid the core of the issue before us.

We are, sad to say, not a naturally compassionate or gentle species, and the history of humanity is knee deep in the blood of others. Although we like to believe that we have outgrown our ancestral aggressions and evolved into a higher form than our forebears, the worldwide conflicts of the 20th century and many regional slaughters that continue around the globe to this very day seem to contradict the notion that we have entered an enlightened era of reasoned debate and spiritual awakening. Brute force—or at least the threat of it—still typically wins over uplifting rhetoric. One need only to remember Joseph Stalin’s blunt dismissal of the power of the Pontiff—“The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”—to properly understand the harsh limitations of moral suasion.

However, with all this said and true, there seem to be problems more worrisome affecting many of our young people today—and it is difficult to discern what they might be. When one adds up the broken—and breaking—homes where so many young people are raised today, an ever more coarse society, rampant drug use and abuse, and the economic stresses affecting so many households, one might find some reasons for what ails today’s youth, but I find these explanations to be unpersuasive on the whole. There seems to be more to consider.

First off, we need to ask whether our youth are actually more violent and troubled, or we simply perceive this to be the case. Although it is fashionable—and sadly acceptable—to roundly criticize the behavior and demeanor of young people today, I wonder whether the mass media finds the misdeeds of the dysfunctional few generates more viewers and readers than the plain fact that most teenagers are trying to do the best that they can in a bewildering and difficult world. Some follow the unhappy path of these Florida teens toward nihilism and numbness—and the pity we feel for Mr. Dunn for having crossed their paths might extend to these young people as well. All are, in their own ways, victims.

Still, the cell phone video and the comments captured on it are disturbing, and they speak to another unique problem facing young people today, the ready opportunity to document their mistakes on their cell phones right along with all the adults in this world who wish they had never sent that sexy text message, posted a drunk selfie, or engaged in a video chat with someone intent on embarrassing them. What has marked our world since the start of the 20th century—and has accelerated with lightning speed in only the last decade or so—is our ability to document man’s inhumanity to man or our own foolishness. Are we more shocked by hatred, violence, and indifference to the suffering of others simply because we can now so easily and thoroughly document and share it?

So are young people today more cruel or uncaring than previous generations? Stories that defend this idea are great click bait and may touch upon some uncomfortable truths about the most troubled of today’s youth, but to make such an assertion demonstrates what an insular and comfortable bubble so many of today’s commentators inhabit.

Just as we in the developed West are insulated from the horrors of war by our reliance on smart weapons and drone warfare, so have incredible changes in neighborhood policing helped to buffer many of us from the end results of daily human conflict. As much as some might decry this reality, infinitely more aggressive and sophisticated police techniques have successfully turned the tide of crime and violence in many corners of our society thanks to vast technologically-driven improvements in surveillance and detection. Those who complain incessantly about our terrifying young fail to realize that we now live in the safest society in the history of the civilized world—although some urban neighborhoods still suffer from elevated crime rates due to gang activity or localized issues The brutal behavior of some young people against this relatively placid background seems to scream out by comparison.

And what does all this mean in regard to those idiotic Florida teenagers who filmed a man drowning—and were later pleased and proud to share the video record of their cruelty with others?

On the continuum of human behavior, both their actions and inaction brand them as bullies and braggarts with no regard for others. Their obliviousness to human suffering and lack of concern with personal consequences certainly flag them for mental health evaluation, and some court-ordered supervision and treatment could provide some benefit, but I am eternally dubious about the practicable outcomes possible through modern psychology. Whether any of these youngsters will have further dealings with the legal system—their utter heartlessness could mark them as either future attorneys or defendants—will be for another day to tell.

However, the inability of law enforcement to hold them responsible for their actions speaks to grievous flaws in our laws—and only further sharpens our revulsion regarding their behavior. Perhaps something good can come from this horrible, terrible circumstance—although I am certain this is cold comfort for Mr. Dunn’s family and friends.

Given that human behavior often changes for the better only when a penalty is involved, perhaps we need to change our local, state, and federal laws in order to enact felony penalties for failing to report harm or potential harm to others. If we can require that educators be “mandated reporters” in cases of suspected abuse or neglect, we can certainly ask everyone to affirmatively act as his brother’s—or sister’s—keeper in order to save and protect lives. It seems nonsensical that any of us should be legally allowed to turn away from another in distress, and this strikes me as a change in the law that is long overdue.

We, of course, expect that everyone will watch out for everyone else without prodding or threat, but the case of these Florida teens is unique only because of the careful self-recording of their unconscionable conduct—people often fail to do what is right without anyone ever noticing it. I realize that civil libertarians are going to complain about the potential for new and improved laws to turn us all into “spies and snitches”, but I suspect that the benefits far outweigh any potential drawbacks. I am certain that I am not the only one who would rather everyone in the vicinity be legally compelled to pull out their phones and call the police if an old lady is being bludgeoned by a group of thugs. They need not jump into the fray themselves, but bystanders should be held criminally accountable if they do not phone for assistance.

Perhaps this is just weary life experience talking, but I no longer presume others will inevitably do what is right when asked to speak up to protect a stranger—or even a close family member. Therefore, it could be to our benefit to recognize this human shortcoming and move to remedy it. We might hate the fact that pushing people to do what is right is necessary, but it seems by far the wisest course of action.

We can, of course, still do what we can to reduce the violence in movies, television, and video games so they do not harm our children. In addition, focusing on improving our morals, building our communities, enhancing our personal connections to one another, and increasing our quality time with our families would be all for the good. However, a recognition of our flaws and limitations as human beings is also necessary so that we make changes to our laws that will compel us to help one another—just in case such actions do not come naturally.

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