British newspapers today related the tragic story of a wheelchair-bound man who choked to death on the floor of a McDonald’s restaurant. He did so while, as shown on CCTV footage, other people simply watched or stepped over him to order their food.
This story, from the large spa town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, raises important questions about our society. Why don't people get involved in helping the injured or stricken? Was this always the case in our society? If not, when did it begin to change – and why?
Of course, we should be wary of taking singular or isolated events and reading into them a trend, but cases like this one warrant a deeper look if only to support our claim that we live in a civilised society.
Though the two stories are different in many respects, this incident casts our minds back to the events in a London Tube station a couple of weeks ago. An allegedly mentally troubled young man attacked three people with a knife.
Local reports suggested that two men stepped in to try to restrain the attacker while others either fled or stood by watching. Eventually, the man was brought down by police using Tasers.
In a panic situation, it isn’t unusual for a fight-or flight-response to take over, so reports about people fleeing a scene like this are not unusual. Indeed they are understandable when, as was apparently the case here, some of them have children in tow.
However, some onlookers had the presence of mind to take photos or shoot video footage, without in any way getting involved in real events that were unfolding just a short distance away.
To offer up as a pretext the trend toward citizen journalism is objectionable. We are not all journalists and we do not need to weigh up our professional ethics before becoming involved.
I think there are at least two factors in play with incidents like these.
I offer these not as excuses for walking by in the face of human need, but in the hope that they may cause us to reflect on appropriate responses. (And why we may sometimes be predisposed toward avoiding those responses.)
Firstly, in an age of social mobility and social alienation, the sheer size of the population and the fact that families and friendship networks are so spread out arguably combine to leave us feeling less engaged with people in our immediate vicinity.
This is perhaps exacerbated in the wake of the digital revolution and, in particular, our growing reliance on social media. We are relegating a great deal of our human interaction to handheld devices.
As a consequence, the real world environment is capturing less of our attention, which means that our reaction times may be slower when something goes wrong in the real world.
Research coming out of the US has implicated social media and the internet generally in a rise in levels of narcissism in society.
Well documented studies suggest that levels of self-centred behaviour have risen alongside the growth of self-gratification technologies such as those provided by the digital economy.
One US study involved the so-called Narcissistic Personality Index, a tool used for measuring relative levels of self-obsessive behaviour between generational cohorts. It reviewed narcissistic traits among college-aged students between 1976 and 2006. It found that levels had markedly increased during that time.
Some experts postulated that the difference was due largely to different styles of parenting.
A number of other studies have suggested that parents of Generation X young people tended to be less engaged or overtly encouraging than those of the subsequent Millennial generation. This was suggested as one reason for the rise in self-obsessive behaviour patterns in the early part of this century.
However, technology has also been cited as a possible contributing factor. The fact that social media platforms have emerged with such speed, driven largely on the back of their popularity among Millennials, suggests that something fundamental is changing in the way people interact – and that this change began among young adults.
These technologies allow us to meet many of our own needs with little more effort than the click of a smartphone button. This arguably lessens our sense of reliance on human beings in our immediate physical space.
Ironically, an age of digital connectedness corresponds with a time of increased off-line disconnection.
Last month I wrote that in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, we might reflect on the fragility of civilisation.
In the digital age, we might imagine that we can safely exist within highly individualised mental enclaves, cut off from the discomforting realities of civic life.
The Paris attacks reminded us of the importance of engaging with the real world; that we may sometimes be called upon to actively and deliberately stand up for the freedoms we take for granted.
For most of us, that invitation comes not in the form of a call to arms, but in smaller and seemingly more prosaic things such as helping a fellow traveler in need.
The second factor in play here is that in a more disconnected age, we may find ourselves asking more questions about whether or when it is appropriate for us to engage with a person in need.
We sometimes fall into what I call the Complexity Trap. The sheer volume of information we process in a day leads us to conclude that life is more complicated than it sometimes is.
So, when faced with a situation like the one in Gloucestershire, or even the Leytonstone Tube attack, some of us may find our minds filling with questions about whether it is socially acceptable, ethical or even legal to lend a hand.
Is helping out the role of someone in authority – for example, a staff member in a shop? Are we doing more harm than good by getting involved?
More importantly, perhaps, we ask ourselves: will there be future implications to getting involved? Will I be required to provide legal witness in a court case? Will I be socially expected to maintain an ongoing connection with the person I have helped?
Data overload in our work and personal lives may make life seem an unrelentingly complex affair. However, in some respects life is a very simple proposition.
We are all connected one to the other. The simple act of helping one person elevates us as individuals and dignifies our shared humanity.
When there is an urgent human need and I can do something to fill it, I should at least try. In these cases, I may need to leave the future to take care of itself; the present is all that matters.
Helping out is not an opt-in or opt-out question, posed and easily dismissed on a digital screen. If we take nothing else from the traditional Christmas story, surely it is this.
Click here to listen to Mal Fletcher’s BBC interview on this subject.