If I had a bucket list, disagreeing with Anderson Cooper on national television would be on it. And I would be crossing it off!
A few weeks ago, a man got pushed onto the tracks of a New York subway station. Someone managed to take the picture below, which wound up on the cover of the Post. You probably saw it.
The next day, in the context of a national bitch session in which America heaped blame on bystanders for their inaction (including the cameraman) and their own culture for producing a population of cowards, I was asked to join a “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show on HLN, a CNN sister channel, to talk about why we acted in the face of danger when others did not. What was our awesome sauce? Why did I reach out and grab the guy’s hand, who was getting shocked by the third rail, when I knew I could die? (Checkout the 15 minutes of fame tab above, which I suppose now is my 15.5 minutes of fame, if you don’t know what I am talking about.)
Sorry it has taken a long time to post the video clip of my interview. I know many of you have been waiting. My segment is only 2 minutes and starts 12.5 minutes in. I was told the discussion with Anderson Cooper went long and they lost my feed for second. But for what it’s worth:
While I was super pleased to be on the show and enjoyed myself, I was frustrated that I did not get a chance to share a couple of important points, especially when I felt like we were all living in a fun little fantasy. While Cooper was right on some things, and the conversation was in many ways more substantive than I have come to expect from cable news, he is completely wrong about wider culture. It is ludicrous to think that emergency situations are some magical prism in which our true character is revealed. Keeping Your Head is a specific skill that is cultivated through practice. Most of us have little.
Instead, we do what we are trained to do. The modern human, generally, is good at whipping out phones and taking pictures. We usually have no clue what to do in pressure situations. A couple reasons might be that our lives include sitting in cubicles and exclude panicked flight from saber-toothed tigers. But, when the modern human does have a clue (read soldiers, fireman, police officer, etc.), we almost always act bravely.
After I grabbed the guy on the subway and it was caught on film, everyone in my life was calling me a hero, and it was obnoxiously irrefutable that I was one. I was uncomfortable with it, it made me reflect, and I came to a startlingly life-affirming conclusion that I have blogged about previously. Here is the elevator speech:
We are a brave and caring species: you, me, pretty much everybody. I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train. My actions says something about all of us, about average people. We rise to occasions. It would be absurd to think, for example, that the folks on flight 93, which crashed in PA on 9/11, who acted way braver than me, were by some fluke of travel planning in the top 1% of brave people in the country, or even the top 10% or 30%, and that this flight full of super duper heroes happened to be one that was hijacked. Nah. The folks who stormed the cockpit on flight 93 were most likely a swath of regular folks. This tells me that the average Joe can be counted on to be brave and is most likely capable of incredible human kindnesses.”
Famous psychologist and Stanford proffessor Phillip Zimbardo agrees. He writes in “The Banality of Heroism”:
The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,”…[which ascribes] very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us.
But if incredible bravery is normal, why are we so blind to it? Why did the country roundly condemn the bystanders who let the man die on the subway tracks? Good question. I’ll blog about that next time, but I’ll say this much: What struck me as I listened to Anderson Cooper and Dr. Drew talk before I went on the air is that negative news and looking down on others seems to serve an important social function that I had been reading about in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. Namely, gossiping about what’s wrong with other people helps us bond to the people that we gossip with.
Oh…and here is a picture of Alicia and I at a little shin-dig that happened 20 blocks away from our house. Thank you Derek Schwabe for getting us tickets!