Primetime Special

ABC had a "What would you do?" special on last night, where they set up various scenarios (couple arguing in a park; racist cab driver, etc.) and then televised people's reactions (do they intervene? do they agree with the racism?) It was one of those "Isn't society rude and horrible!" kind of specials. It was interesting, but I thought the ABC folks missed some rather obvious clues.

For instance, one of the scenarios was a boyfriend yelling at his girlfriend. Last year, they chose a white couple (two actors); this year, they chose a black couple. The question was: "Are people more likely or less likely to intervene?" the implication being that they will be less likely to stop to help the young black woman.

This may be true (although it was disproved in this particular case), but the scenarios weren't fair. In the first, the girlfriend was sitting on a bench. The boyfriend leaned over her; he often grabbed her wrists; she was hemmed in. She kept her face down and didn't answer back. In other words, she appeared to be a victim. In the second case, the couple both stood (most of the time). The girlfriend had room to walk away, and she did occasionally, but more often, she faced the boyfriend and often, even, closed the gap between them. She raised her voice. She told him off. When he picked her up, it looked like he was horsing around. ("No, it didn't!" exclaimed the Primetime people. "Here's another shot." Oh, that's a good argument: when people are walking in a park, they always have multiple camera angles from which to comprehend an event.) Also, he was slightly taller than her, but not by much.

In other words, the body language of the second exchange was totally different from the body language of the first. Although the same number of people intervened in the first as in the second, in the first they were more likely to walk up and intervene directly. Interestingly enough, the one direct intervention in the second scenario occurred when the girlfriend sat down on a bench, and her boyfriend leaned over her.

(The Primetime people also didn't ask whether people were more worried, in the second scenario, about being racist or appearing racist: i.e. Am I just assuming that this is bad because the two people are black? This is a bigger concern, I think, than they allowed for.)

Another 2-part scenario was bullies in a park: would people intervene to help a young boy being bullied by three other boys? People did intervene, the majority of them women. The Primetime folks then changed the dress of the bullies so they appeared like gang members (these were 11/12 year old boys). Oh, my, wasn't Primetime surprised by how many more people intervened!

But again, the scenario is problematic. The boys were all of a height and similar in appearance. In the first case, it was difficult to tell (despite Primetime's aggressive assertions that it wasn't difficult to tell) which kid was being bullied. Are these other kids his friends? Classmates? Is the bullied child going to turn around in just a sec and bully the others?

In the second case, the difference in clothing (more, I think, than the clothing itself) signified that the bullied child was not one of the group. Again, again, body language makes a difference. I think this is important. Do we really want a society where people automatically assume negatives when they look at a scenario? Isn't it better to have a society where people aren't sure what the entire facts or story of a situation might be and are reluctant to pass judgment?

Which isn't to defend bullying or to negate the positive example of the adults who did intervene and tell the bullies off. But as with the fighting couple scenario, I think people aren't always quick to sum up situations; they are quick to react to perceived victimization.

As for the racist cabbie driver, also an actor: he did manage to solicit racist comments, but again, the various encounters struck me as more complicated than the Primetime people realized. (They wanted immediate aggressive responses: "Why didn't the passengers stop the cab and walk away!"). We live in a society where we are expected to ignore race and yet talk about it. What I saw going on was a continual effort at negotiating the fine line between these two expectations. Also, Primetime labeled racist ANY passenger's comment about race when, in some cases, the comments were no less or more innocuous than saying, "The English can't cook," or "The French are snotty." Not very nice statements maybe. Inaccurate statements maybe. But I wouldn't deem them racist.

In fact, I was impressed by how many people were willing to deal, in some fashion, with the experience. It wasn't this knee-jerk--oh, racist comments are occuring, let's shoot the driver--reaction; they were trying to understand their driver on a non-racist, non-judgmental level. Which was rather extraordinary. (The Primetime people pointed out that the drivers in Savannah, Georgia didn't get as many arguers because they were a bit too charming.) When the woman in my master's program sneers about Christians and damns them all with generic statements, do I get offended (as a Christian), do I exercise tolerance (as a Christian), do I start an argument, do I take issue, do I sue the school, do I walk out of class, do I support her right to free speech? It isn't that easy an issue, and the Primetime people, in their search for THE TRUTH ABOUT AMERICANS, totally missed how well people in general handled the driver.

But then, it is television.


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