Where Were The Heroes On That New York Subway Platform?

Where Were The Heroes On That New York Subway Platform?

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.

About Matt Langdon

I'm writing the Hero Handbook. This site is my notepad.

9 Responses to Where Were The Heroes On That New York Subway Platform?

  1. Drew Jacob December 5, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    Matt, excellent insights and I agree with your point. Definitely glad you do what you do! I do find the quote from Johnson Tao hard to follow however. In particular, an identity as an ethnic minority helped discourage action here? I’m missing the details behind this – was racial tension part of the scene at this platform? Was Han the only Asian on the platform? What race(s) were the bystanders?

    Your point is that we need to focus on lowering the psychological barriers to heroism, which is to say, the barriers to attempting to take action in an emergency. But it’s hard to know how to start if the barriers in question are unclear. Would love to hear a better breakdown of what you feel was at play here psychologically.

  2. Matt Langdon December 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Drew, he’s talking about a group of reasons for people standing back, not that all of them apply to each person. One of those would be the psychological compulsion to reduce the worth of the “other” when making reactive decisions. This is an area I’ve been thinking about a lot lately after reading “Out of Character”. There’s a lot in that about this sort of biological/evolutionary behaviour.

    One way to combat it is to open yourself up to thinking about how people around you are similar – as well as simply opening yourself up to talking to different sorts of people. You’re obviously doing a lot of that yourself.

    • Drew Jacob December 6, 2012 at 3:20 am #

      as well as simply opening yourself up to talking to different sorts of people. You’re obviously doing a lot of that yourself.

      That’s true.

      I will admit I don’t know much about the psychology behind taking action or not. That’s something I should probably fix.

      But I will say that I think the surest method to be ready to take action is to practice taking action.

      That choice — to run toward something that’s unfolding quickly, instead of freezing up — is very much an inner confrontation. I can imagine that the person being similar to you (or not) could affect it, but when I’ve had to make choices like that there is an incredible terror I have to overcome. It has never gone away but with each time I force myself to act, it gets easier to do it next time.

      In other words, I think it takes practice to set your default to “intervene,” at least when something physically risky is unfolding rapidly. Maybe it’s different for cases of bullying, whistleblowing, etc. In those cases you have time to do risk calculus or consult your conscience; on the subway platform you don’t.

      You’re left with whatever your instinctive reaction is in a few short seconds.

      • Matt Langdon December 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

        Practice is certainly one of the pillars I put forward in my training. It’s the easiest tool and it might be the most effective, as you’ve suggested.

        One of the things I tried to get across in a recent presentation to educators is that I’m not trying to teach kids to make good decisions, I’m trying to put into place the conditions to create the right reactions.

        • Drew Jacob December 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

          I like that a lot. What was their reaction?

          • Matt Langdon December 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

            They said I was very smart. And I nodded.

            One teacher has gone back and implemented changes at her school. Not sure what the others did, but there was a lot of agreement in the room. Just have to get in front of more people to hopefully get more people in agreement and more people taking action.

  3. hayley December 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    By gosh I wish I could have helped that poor man. What’s wrong with humanity.I really wish the world would shape up. Wolves would have helped one another if they knew the gravity of the situation.date:December 30th, 2012 writen by: Hayley whoms age is 11.

  4. Helden Kline October 21, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    I’m in my 60s and female but, by God, I would have hauled that man up myself, no hesitation.

  5. alidd20 October 22, 2013 at 1:11 am #

    hi im new to this sight, and new to a lot of the concepts and terminology, but i found very interesting and i will be a regular reader now! thanks

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