Tuesday, April 11, 2006

We don't need another hero

The professor of an online class I took in grad school kicked off the first week's discussion by asking a simple question: “What is art?” A lively and somewhat contentious flurry of text messages ensued.

For the most part, the class believed that art is the production of music, painting, writing, acting and all of the other forms that we traditionally think of as art. To engage in these acts, the consensus went, was to create art.

I was of the minority, a group that included the professor and perhaps one other student, who had certain expectations of what was being created before we would call it art. To say that someone blowing into a trumpet for the first time is creating art, I insisted, was a slap in the face to the works of Miles Davis. Art requires dedication, proficiency, and perhaps even suffering. It requires expression and transcendence, not just mechanical manipulation. To say otherwise is to put Picasso on the same level with Thomas Kinkade - Painter of Light. Nobody wants that.

We held fast to our ideals, we idealists, and although I still think we were correct, had the proceeding been a judged debate we would have lost. The reason the majority ruled on this issue is that they were able to provide a definition of art ( essentially anything that resembles art) while the minority opinion was limited to old “I know it when I see it” * bromide. This is hardly the type of Socratic reasoning that wins one a laurel crown.

I thought of this after reading the comments on last week’s post where I questioned the heroism of public works employees during the aftermath recent tornadoes.

(As an aside, let me say that this blog gets some of the most intelligent commenters in the entire blogosphere. There may be only five or six of them, but what they lack in number, they more than make up for in IQ. I know many bloggers who have to suffer illiterate insults from dolts who seem to be only distantly familiar with the concept of logic. Here at BFS, on the other hand, we are treated to the opinions of insightful and often witty commenters who express themselves clearly and pay the proper respect to the rules of the written language. And they tolerate my sometimes insufferable ramblings. I know I don’t say it enough, but I appreciate your input in my little venture.)

Back to heroism. If you don’t follow the comments (you should), it was generally agreed upon that while the linemen and road crews put forth a praise-worthy performance under trying conditions, they were also just doing their jobs as they agreed to do, AND, were compensated handsomely for it.

Yet there are citizens who would disagree with our impassive assessment. Those people who trembled in the dark, fearful that a freezer-full of beef was in peril as its body temperature slowly dropped, would likely have no problem hailing the public workers as heroes.

All of which leads me to conclude that heroism, like art, is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Yes there are those cases when someone will run into a burning house and rescue a baby, there’s little debate to be had there. But more common are instances when someone does a good deed that just happens to have a profound emotional impact on the beneficiary of that act. For instance, when a police officer assists a stranded motorist or the number eight hitter in the lineup hits a walk-off homerun. Heroes? Not to me, unless I was the one stranded or I had a large chunk of money riding on the game.

While identifying heroism is often a subjective matter, it’s clear that it is something that almost everyone aspires to, at least in their fantasies. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed of freeing the damsel tied to the railroad tracks split seconds before the speeding locomotive passes by? Who hasn’t envisioned themselves bravely disarming the dastardly assassin just as he raised his revolver towards the much-beloved leader? And who hasn’t, while deep in reverie, rode in on a white horse and rescued Angelina Jolie from the evil paparazzi, earning her eternal favor and inadvertently trampling Brad Pitt during the getaway? **

We all aspire to true acts of heroism, but seldom are we offered the opportunity. And if we are, we might not be up to the challenge. Which may not be a bad thing.

This week’s assignment, dear commenters, is to contemplate the following scenario and explain how you would react (or at least, how you would like to react.) This applies mainly to parents, but anybody who has people who depend on them can play along.

You’re standing in line inside of McDonald’s. A young punk enters and begins yelling at the girl behind the counter. It quickly becomes clear that he is a boyfriend spurned and that he is there with bad intentions. He produces a weapon and brandishes it at the girl.

Now, were this a daydream, you would deliver a karate chop to his shoulder, an uppercut to his solar plexus, and then calmly step over his unconscious body to place your order. But this is reality. If you intercede too forcefully, the punk may decide to use his first bullet to dispatch with you.

So this is the question: Is it heroic (or smart, or responsible) to risk your life in this scenario? Is the call to save a complete stranger more noble than providing for your own safety and sparing your children the heartbreak of losing a parent?***


*This is the same type of insufficient reasoning that upends many people’s arguments as to what is a “sport” and what isn’t. They want to say that football is and figure skating isn’t, but their determinations aren’t based on set criteria, just personal preference.

**Feel free to reverse the Brangelina roles in this vignette to suit your preferences.

***I realize that my little “What would you do?” scenario is flawed. No one who is put in that situation would contemplate the potential repercussions in that manner. You would simply react, either in defense of the burger clerk or your own hide.


The 26th Man said...

Is this McDonald's crowded? Perhaps trying by yourself to take out some dude who is carrying is reason to pause, but if you make eye contact with a few other hungry, No.-9-with-Coke-craving latent heroes, maybe together you could bum-rush the guy.

Art is dead, by the way.

The 26th Man said...

Sorry for the double comment... I meant to attaboy you for the Tina Turner reference.

ThirtyWhat said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ThirtyWhat said...

Before I answer, I thought it would be fun to share an interesting tidbit. A year so ago, my husband changed employers and began working for a local credit union.

They required him to sign a form acknowledging that he would be immediately dismissed if he ever tried to foil a robbery attempt. Apparently for insurance reasons, they tell all employees to NEVER attempt to stop a robbery, either by force or by diplomacy. Just give them what they want and let 'em go.

I understand the "by force" thing ... but by diplomacy? You can't even talk to the would-be robber ... weapon or not. I just thought that was odd ...

Back to your scenario ...

I think you're right, Dan ... no matter what we believe we'd do, our instant gut reaction might be different in a real life situation.

I'd hope I'd at least have the courage to say something. "Common, you don't want to do this ..." or "Dude, are you ****ing insane? Put the gun down." You know, something.

I'm conflicted on the art issue ...

My grandmother painted on saws and such. Was she a Picaso? No way. But in her own way, she was trying to create art ... to get those creative urges out.

On the other hand, I don't consider it art when Yoko Ono paints the inside of a tea cup red, breaks it, and displays the pieces in a gallery.

I suppose that makes me a hypocrite. Maybe if Yoko Ono were my grandmother I'd be a little more tolerant? Hmmmm ...

PS - Sorry ... I deleted my first post. That's what you get for not proofing your text.

UMRBlog said...

Truthful answer is always "Nobody Knows." It's the reason some of the worst soldiers make some of the most noble POW's. We never know till crunch time.

I would hope I would respond as I was trained many years ago. "Gun" or "Knife" changes everything. Improvised weapon is better than no weapon. The guy's not gonna leave any witnesses to murder, so I'm already dead--nothing to lose. Find a weapon, chair, umbrella, hard laptop case, hot coffee refill carafe. Find a freaking weapon and surprise him!

But what makes this delicious is that I might freeze. I might do something stupid like they do on television and try to talk him out of it. She might provoke him and spoil my surprise attack. If it played out a hundred times, I might get it right 80 and people die 20. The most dangerous thing about dealing with abnormal human behavior (including our own)is to believe that we can accurately predict it. How long does it take me to get clarity on what to do this day? Do I have the flu, allergies. Am I fatigued. How do I stack up against this guy, even without weapons? The variables will be, well, variable, each time you table top it.

And, in the words of UBL, we only have to get it wrong once.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

26th Man,
When developing this scenario, I never considered how the intense need to satisy caffiene cravings could alter the hero/coward dynamic by producing a fall sense of courage and how this effect would be further influenced by the self-perpetuating emboldenment common in groups that are highly susceptible to subliminal cues placed in advertisements, in this instance, both for the Golden Arches and the Real Thing. Thanks.

Also, you can’t discuss heroes for long without evoking Tina Turner.

I’m not surprised by the credit union’s “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” policy. Do you think it was put in place to ensure the safety of its employees, or to safeguard themselves against liability should an intervening employee get injured or killed?

Were I a singer/songwriter, “If Yoko Ono Was My Grandmother” would be the title of my next album. With your permission of course.

I’ve never before looked at a hot coffee refill carafe and thought “That could save my life some day!” You obviously have more highly refined instincts in matters of this sort. This alone could make the case for mandatory military service for all citizens. If I’m ever trapped in a fast-food restaurant with a homicidal maniac, I want you by my side.

One question that I was interested in hearing your opinion on, which I sort of buried in the text, is this: Is it noble to risk your life to save the life of a stranger?

If the girl behind the counter was killed in a car accident on her way to work, you might feel slightly sad if you read about it in the newspaper, but by and large her passing would have almost no affect on your life. Yet in the scenario I’ve presented, you might be willing to endanger your life and shatter the existence of those who love you (especially children) should you die, all to save someone you don’t know. So, do you have more of a responsibility to save your own life* for the benefit of those closest to you who need you to be there for them? Or should you do everything within your power to save the stranger?

*Let’s assume that you can exit the restaurant safely during the commotion and that your safety isn’t dependent on preventing the aggressor from turning the gun on you.

Thanks for commenting,

UMRBlog said...

This may be simplistic but my starting point is "What would I want another able-bodied citizen to do if it were my daughter behind the counter." I couldn't ask any less of myself.

That's aspirational but not a bad place to start.

I think of the guy who pulled the woman out of the Potomac after the DC plane crash. He died. She didn't. I'll bet anything he didn't do a "dependents" or "people left behind" calculation before he acted. He was loving his neighbor as himself.

It's probably noble and even biblical but that pesky abnormal human behavior hangs there. Would I cower? Would I choke? Could I think fast enough to save everybody?

Damn human behavior is tough stuff.

ThirtyWhat said...

First off, let's address this:

>>I’ve never before looked
>>at a hot coffee refill
>>carafe and thought “That
>>could save my life some day!”

Dan, you've obviously missed out on one of the greatest films of all time ... "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

While waking out of the bathroom in a convenience store, stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) interrupts a robbery in progress. Our hero, Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) grabs the coffee carafe and throws the scalding liquid into the robber's face ... thus disabling the robber and becoming an instant hero.

Off subject, yet still hilareous, Spicoli ends up blowing his share of the reward money on hiring Van Halen to play his birthday ... a choice I totally agreed with back in the 80's. Today, in retrospect, I would spend the money on home improvements. As the Stones would say ... what a drag it is getting old.

In any case ... is it more noble to save a stranger than a loved one? I think so, yes. Most people wouldn't hesitate to stop an act of violence against their child. A stranger? Umr's right ... there's always that possibility that you're going to choke ... or wait too long to act.

In this same line of discussion, did anyone see the TV news segment about "getting involved?" There was a hidden camera on a street where the crew set up a scenario where a child was being abducted. They had the child scream bloody murder. She yelled, "This isn't my Dad! Help me! Somebody help me!"

They showed people just walking past ... not saying anything, not calling 911 ... nothing. I was speechless. How can anyone justify that?

Monkey Boy said...

There are too many factors to consider before anyone could realistically say "yes, I would" or "no, I wouldn't."

Is the guy 6'3", 210 lbs. or is he 5'8", 160 lbs.?

Does the girl look like a skank? The type who looks as if she doesn't get whacked by this guy she probably will soon by her next paramour?

It is my belief that one who may be inclined to intervene will suddenly have 100 reasons (like the ones I just mentioned) pop into their head in a split second that reflect their biases which will strongly guide their decision.

But to answer your question I say as long as everyone else has a chance to remove their selves from danger you be a good witness, call 911, and let the thing play out. Good chance he doesn't end up shooting her. Why should I end up suffering because of horrible life-choices that this girl made in dating such a nut?

Anonymous said...

For an interesting read on how we may react, read the story about the murder of Catherine Genovesee and how 38 witnesses to her murder reacted. I pray that I would react differently.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Monkeyboy makes some good points. While we may not want to admit it, I think that it is human nature to make such value judgements. That's why I think more people would be inclinded to intervene if a child is threatened. A child is innocent and can in no way be thought to have brought the situation on themself through bad choices.

On the otherhand, UMR's comment about what we want someone else to do if it was our daughter behind the counter, demonstrates how precarious it is to make such determinations. And after reading the Catherine Genovesee story, I can see how just being a good witness can result in tragedy.

I guess in the scenario I first offered, the ideal situation would be if several people decided to act at once, reducing the chance of someone getting hurt. This might also might make the case for concealed-carry, although I'm very conflicted about the wisdom of such laws.

On a lighter note, I stand ashamed for missing the Fast Times connection to the hot coffee as weapon example UMR mentioned. Thanks to Thirtywhat for pointing it out and Alright Hamilton!

Also, my brother-in-law Rob made a connection to the original "are CWLP workers heroes?" question that was also quite interesting. In light of that, I realize that the original post should have been titled: This Ain't No Higglytown. Anyone with children under the age of five who watch the Disney Channel should get this reference.


ThirtyWhat said...

Someone special ...
Who could it be?
This job's too big for you and me!
We need some help!
But never fear-o ...
It looks like a job ...

God, I'm a tool ... especially since I don't have children under the age of five. I just dig those little babooshka characters ... especially the squirrel. LOL

It's depressing to think that I (or anyone else) would consider whether the girl was a skank ... to even have it cross your mind that she deserved to get it ... but, after reading up a bit more, you guys are right, it's human nature. It seems that people really do tend to look at a situation and decide whether it's worth jumping into the fray.

Boondock Saint said...

What is more EVIL ? The man committing Evil deeds or the good people sitting by and doing NOTHING ?

I say dump some of that law suit HOT coffee ( the org not the Prime roast ) on the guys Kibble & bits .

Then disarm him

Then kick his meth rotted teeth out JUST for kicks and the waste of coffee !

Also 99.8899 % of Punks with a hand gun can't hit jack nor sh&t !

But if it's a Sawed off 12 ga . Sit & cry b/c that girls Sh*t out of Luck !