Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ethical experiments

A few months ago, my husband and I were waiting for a table at a Mexican restaurant in Shakopee, when we overheard a father berating his young son. I think the boy was about 4 or 5 years old, and the man was really unleashing a vicious diatribe against the boy. My husband and I were appalled. Those man's words were of a kind that really scars a person. We had no evidence of physical abuse, but this definitely crossed the line into emotional abuse.

We did nothing.

Should we have intervened? I don't know.

I've heard that abusers will often escalate their abuse when strangers step in. I also don't have a problem with some nasty words being traded - I can take some name calling, if it will distract the parent out of the nasty mood. But I would have some concern that the intervention will cause an escalation against the child, or that the presence of my husband might actually cause an altercation. Alone, I doubt the man would have done anything more than tell me to butt out. But with my husband present, I think it might have escalated to something more serious. Both of us have wondered about that kid many times. I hope he is OK, and that the dad was just having a bad day, and that his behavior was the exception and not the rule.

Would intervening have done any good? I don't know. If anyone can offer any advice in intervening in an abusive situation, I'd welcome it here.

Anyway, there is a story in Oprah about a show called What would you do? that runs ethical experiment, using actors enacting scenarios, and seeing if strangers will intervene. Scenarios such as a racist clerk berating a Muslim woman (both are actors) and seeing if other customers will intervene (six side with the clerk, 13 stand up for the woman, and 22 nothing). Another includes having 3 junior high girls berating a 4th girl, calling her a loser, and seeing if anyone stopped (some did, some didn't). Another scenario involved a man and a woman fighting in public, with the man becoming increasingly aggressive with the woman - an obvious case of spousal abuse. Most people did nothing, or advised them to take it elsewhere (it's OK to beat your wife, as long as it's not in public?) Only a few stopped, and only one woman helped her to safety.

There are lots more scenarios. You can read about them here:
and here:

You can see video clips at the latter link - be sure and scroll down and see the many different dilemmas that they've looked at. It's my hope that we will be inspired to step in when necessary, do nothing when not necessary, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

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