There are lots of people talking today about a lack of heroism on a New York City subway platform. Yesterday’s “New York Post” had a photo splashed across the front page of a man about to be killed by an oncoming train. Ki Suk Han had been pushed onto the tracks and failed to climb back onto the platform before being hit by the train.
There seem to be two major talking points: should the freelance photographer have been helping instead of taking the photo and should the newspaper have published the photo? There seems to be very little support for the “Post” and rightly so. The photographer, R. Umar Abassi, seems to be getting some support for his actions, primarily because he claims to have been trying to warn the train driver by using his camera’s flash. I found that story ridiculous when I first heard it and it doesn’t seem any more plausible now.
The “Post” and Abassi are the villains of the story that’s unfolding online. More so, even, than the man who pushed Han to his death (which tells you something about online discussion). This is The Hero Handbook, though. The opposite of a hero is not a villain, it’s a bystander. To explore heroism, it’s more instructive to look at its opposite than at something unrelated.
Where was everyone else?
Ki Suk Han was not unconscious, lying on the tracks. He was standing with his hands on the platform, trying to get up. Two people, grabbing an arm each, bending at the knees, could have easily lifted him to safety. There was no need for Wesley Autrey style death-defying heroism heroism here. So, where were the other people?
Johnson Tao said it best on the Hero Construction Company Facebook page this morning:
My guess is an empathy erosion due to the combination of “Bystander Effect”, diffusion of responsibility through “learned helplessness”, and the grasshopper evolutionary psychology of “us vs them” mentality through the bystanders’ socially constructed collective identity of being an ethnic minority. It could also be the individuals’ lack of emotional attunement since early childhood development, due to how their own parents were stressed out from the unrealistic demands of modern NYC culture.
None of this is a secret to us. As a people, we know why inaction rules. We know why bystanders are more common than heroes. And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find any wide-spread effort to reduce the psychological barriers to action. You’d struggle to find programs that actively aim to prepare people to act in situations that require heroes.
And that’s why I do what I do.