What would you do?

January 1, 1970
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During a class break this week I asked my students to teach me something. This video is what they showed me.

WWYD (What Would You Do?) is a YouTube sensation. It takes an event from the news, in this case a black man being questioned by a member of the public simply because he was looking after white children, and recreates the scene using actors. Secret cameras in public places allow us to see ordinary citizens’ reactions to such a move.

Yes, the show is designed to inflame: it’s sensationalised, Americanised and dramatic. But it captivates my students, and I’m still figuring out what they were trying to teach me.

Ultimately, this show seems to function as a test for the adult world. It enables people to see whether we would actually intervene in a case of injustice, or whether we would permit it to go unchallenged as a bystander. It checks on our citizenship by providing a blind assessment of our moral compass. This is particularly important for young people who have good reason to feel particularly vulnerable to everything from a misuse of police authority to a criminal attack. Would an adult actually step in to help?

At the heart of this fascination then, may be a kind of fear. A fear that many adults in our society actually can’t be depended on to do the right thing; that there might not be any good Samaritans left to cross the road. This show may be a pretty grim and sensationalist test of that suspicion, but it speaks directly to it.

It’s uncomfortable viewing. Even though the “unsuspecting” members of the public always seem to heroically intervene (in this video, someone fetches the manager, another asks the offender to “get out”), the thing that seems to stick with you is the original offence, the sense of indignity that the original event could ever happen and the open judgement of other people’s reactions to it.

But not all lessons are comfortable. Maybe on some level, that’s what my students wanted me to feel. Maybe it’s a feeling they have to live with more than me. What should we all do when faced with that uncomfortable insecurity, that test of our commitment to others? When I go back to school this week, I’ll be asking them.


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