We go astray when we assume that our dark side is our true, real, essential, natural side. According to this view, the rules that govern social relations are luxury items, discarded in disaster as one might shed a gold bar while trying to escape a sinking ship. But the truth is that our daily lives are built on a multitude of civilities and cooperative exchanges between people, from opening a door for someone to maintaining city fire departments. And sure enough, when disaster strikes, people still routinely help perfect strangers.
In the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, and all of the racially tinged and weirdly partisan rhetoric I’ve been reading about it, I decided to go back to this uplifting interesting piece I read a few years ago but never wrote about.
It’s a relatively short and thoughtful reflection on human nature and helping behavior, based on social science research, and it highlights a crucial aspect of heroism. In particular, it makes clear the challenge for heroism highlighted by Florida’s peculiar Stand Your Ground law, which is that any Floridian who wants to be a hero can essentially go looking for an opportunity.
The language of the piece shows the problem, as it focuses on the way that people routinely exhibit helping behavior “when disaster strikes.” In a sense, heroism is something that is thrust upon those who take decisive action in a situation that demands it. Heroism isn’t about casting about for, or manufacturing, a situation into which a person can heroically interpose himself.
A conventional Stand Your Ground law allows a person to use deadly force under threat, after having exhausting other means of defusing the situation or removing himself from it. Florida’s law, on the other hand, doesn’t place any such requirement on the person; he has no obligation to try to escape a dangerous situation before he opts to use deadly force to protect himself.
In this way, disaster doesn’t have to strike in order for someone to act in a way he deems heroic; he can actually put himself in a dangerous situation in order to then act heroically to get out of it. That’s what we saw in the Zimmerman case and it’s what we’re likely to see again and again until we figure out that heroes are never the people who are spoiling for a confrontation. Quite the opposite: they’re the ones who step up to defuse intense situations and who rush in to help when the situation absolutely demands it.