Failing to do the right thing
Posted on September 18, 2011
Have you ever had one of those moments when you saw or heard something and could have intervened or spoken up, but you missed the chance either through hesitation, fear, or confusion?
Earlier this week I brought my car to a service station for an inspection sticker and while waiting I heard yelling and carrying on from the adjacent rundown apartment house. I peered through the window and witnessed what I think was an eviction. Two men were carting things out of a first floor apartment and dumping them on the front walkway while a distraught woman was crying and screaming and asking them to stop. It was hard to guess her age — she looked like someone who had a hard life, disheveled and poorly dressed – and she was scrambling to gather her clothes and other items.
The men stoically stood, cross-armed, and barred her from re-entering the apartment. She glanced my way and I looked away, not wanting to cause her embarrassment and also because I was embarrassed for her. Tears streaming down her face, she pushed her strewn clothes into shopping bags and a backpack. While her volume was lowered, I could hear her talking to herself and to the two men, telling them how she hated them, swearing, and saying she wished she could kill them.
As the mechanic called to me to say my car was ready, I saw her heading down the sidewalk, backpack on and carrying her shopping bags, still crying and muttering. I thought I should call out to her, offer her a ride, see how I might help. Yet a good part of me wanted nothing to do with the situation. Part of it was that she seemed a little crazy, too much of a mess. Part of it was my wishing I had not witnessed the whole episode and a desire to forget about it as soon as possible.
In the minutes it took to pay my bill, back my car out, and resolve to offer my help she was gone. I’ve been haunted by it all week. Partly because I, lucky enough to have well paying work and a prosperous life, could not get it together to reach out to someone who was as low as one can get. Partly because her story is not unique. There is enormous suffering in America right now and a kind of mean spiritedness afoot. Consider the yells of “Let him die,” when Ron Paul was asked what he would do about a terminally ill person without insurance. Consider the willingness to cut off benefits to the unemployed not matter how hard they look for work. Yet I do not know if the passive inaction of a well meaning liberal is any better than the active malevolence of the Ayn Rand crowd.
I had a similar episode on campus last spring. I was walking from the Dining Hall and about to enter the side door of Frost Hall when a car pulled up to the curb and the driver yelled out to a student walking by, “Hey Joe, you fag, you want a ride to the apartment?” I was stunned for a moment — I hadn’t heard someone use that word in ages. I had entered into the vestibule and thought to myself, “I need to say something to those two guys.” I stopped for a moment wondering if I really had time or desire to have the conversation. It was a nice day. I was in a good mood. I had things to do. But…..
By the time I turned and walked back outside, reminding myself that it was my duty in many ways to speak up (as president, as an educator, as member of a community), they were pulling away. I was too late.
We have this year a more active student group working on advocacy and support for our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered population. It is called Generation Equality. I worry that we are as a campus community not nearly as far along as I’d like to believe and this group has work cut out for it. Our students are of a generation that seems so much less hung up on old prejudices, labels, and definitions. Yet the down-to-earth, sort of “blue collar” sensibility of our campus — something I really like most of the time — may be much less progressive on issues of sexual orientation and identity than I’d like. Some of this is hard. For example, I think I am not alone in struggling to understand the issues and challenges and even the biological and sociological constructions around the idea of transgender, for example, but none of us should waver for even a moment in our commitment to understand and be supportive of our transgendered students. We should not waver for a moment if faced with intolerance or bigotry.
That said, we are doing too little to change the culture and set expectations. I don’t want to be in a position of reacting to an episode after the fact. We need to do more training, more education, more speaking up when we see someone in need or hear intolerance, even in the guise of a joke.
Yet I worry at my own two opportunities to do the right thing, both lost to hesitation and doubt. If this was true for me, how much harder for a student who also has to deal with peer pressure or the risk of ridicule?