Thursday, July 10, 2008

Will we ever graduate High School?

(On re-read this post seems kind of dull to me, but it's what's on my mind today. Feel free to scroll down to more interesting material from previous days, I won't be insulted. I had a much better post here: The Increasing Irrelevance of the American Jewish Community.)

One of my favorite reads, Mother in Israel, ran an interesting story on Monday and I’ve been mulling it ever since I saw it:

A large day camp also attended the zoo today. A camper, who appeared to be about seven, began throwing water bottles into the bird lake. Another camper pointed this out to the counselor. "Wait!" she called. "Is that my bottle?," and proceeded to examine it. "Oh, it's not mine," she decided, and returned it to the camper. Who promptly threw it into the water. . . .

I’ve been mulling it because this story encapsulates so much of what I see in myself, and in others around me, in scenes where intervention is warranted.

It reminds of something that happened to me just last night, when I was sitting at a table at a social gathering and someone started reporting a nasty rumor about the head of a local Jewish institution – and for what felt like forever, no one spoke up to stop him. Frankly, I wasn’t even the one who spoke up in the end, to change the subject.

Start with the givens:
- Throwing plastic bottles into the bird lake is wrong. Yes? (You nod here.)
- Camp counselors are supposed to keep their seven-year-old charges from doing things that are wrong. Yes? (Nod again here.)

- Reporting nasty, unsubstantiated rumor is wrong. Yes? (Nod. An “Amen” would be appropriate as well.)
- We are supposed to quash conversations which involve nasty, unsubstantiated rumors. Yes? (Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy-MEN!)

So why doesn’t the counselor do anything? Why doesn’t anyone at the table say anything?

Psychologists point to something called the Bystander Effect, under which individuals witnessing an emergency will intervene, but members of groups witnessing the same emergency will not intervene. Everyone expects someone else to do it, and feels less personal responsibility.

I agree with this observation, but I think there’s more involved. It’s peer pressure, a fear of condemnation by others, and it’s so powerfully, fundamentally instinctive, and so reinforced by our youthful and adolescent experiences, that we don’t grow out of it after high school… or even after marriage and four kids.

I’ve been working in “Youth and Prejudice” conferences for years, and we always talk with the high schoolers about what keeps them from intervening, from becoming a
“rescuer” instead of a “bystander.” The answer is always the same: Peer Pressure.

Peer pressure, in this context, means that if I see what I think is a dangerous situation, and no one else is acting, on some level I question myself, “They’re not acting – maybe I’m reading the situation wrong. Maybe what I think is appropriate, is not appropriate.” And I am less likely to act, unless I am a supremely arrogant person or someone practiced in bucking community opinion.

Some 15-20 years ago I was in a beit midrash in a summer camp’s Kollel when Rav Herschel Schachter entered to deliver a guest shiur. Rav Schachter walked to the front, and en route noticed a pencil, and stooped and picked it up. That pencil must have been there for hours. No one else had picked it up. Why? Because no one else was doing it, so it didn’t seem like something to do.

Personal note: It’s the same thing when you see a tissue on the floor in shul. Why don’t you pick it up? Yeah, YOU - you know who I mean. Is it your bad back – or is it the fact that if no one else has done so, the tissue must not be worth intervening? (And who knows – maybe it’s for some bizarre ritual… yeah, let the rabbi do it.)

It’s the same thing at the table last night. No one else is saying anything to stop him. Maybe the story is true and I’m the only one who doesn’t know? Or maybe they’re not saying anything because speaking up will only make things worse and stir up the conversation? Better to speak, or to quietly look away? Follow the pack.

And let’s look at our camp counselor. No one else is stopping the child. Maybe that bird-lake-spot- is actually where the bottles should go. Or maybe this child isn’t old enough to understand, so I should let it go. Or maybe they tried before and the kid went wild.

I don’t think the blasé response is a function of not caring; I think it’s that society, the people around us, are telling us not to care. If no one else cares, then that voice inside telling me to act is clearly wrong.

I’m not going to make the Pinchas connection – I have a different topic to speak about this Shabbos. But you can connect the dots at home.

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