Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Rhetoric of Compassion, or do we have a responsiblity to help others?

On this morning's Today Show, Meredith Vierra interviewed a young woman who was raped in a subway station in 2005. According to the woman, who is going public with her story now, at least two Metropolitan Transit Authorities witnessed her attack and did not offer her any significant form of help. A conductor and a ticket clerk did notify their superiors about the attack, who then contacted the police. Neither the conductor nor the ticket clerk made any other attempt to aid the young woman. By the time the police arrived, some 10 to 15 minutes later, she had been raped twice and her attacker had fled; no arrest has ever been made in the case. Following her assualt, the woman filed a civil suit against the MTA, alleging that the policies of the MTA enabled the attack. A judge ruled recently that the workers “had taken prompt and decisive action” in notifying their superiors, but they had no obligation to act beyond notifying their superiors. The young woman openly admits that she did not expect either worker to leave the train or the ticket booth, but she does believe that either could have stopped the attack by getting on the loud speaker and telling her attacker that the police were on their way.

As C and I watched this, we were both horrified. The young woman states that she met the gaze of both the conductor and the ticket clerk, and neither did anything more than notify their superiors. I honestly can't fathom not helping someone who was being attacked in front of me, even if interfering meant putting myself at risk. This story has bothered me all morning.

I do wonder, however, if the judge is right. The workers followed MTA procedure to the letter, but the procedure resulted in, at least indirectly, this young woman being raped twice. The judge's ruling, which had to be based on MTA policy, seems to have been right, as much as it sickens me. But did these individuals have a responsiblity, as human beings, to do something more to help this young woman? Is there such a thing as the rhetoric of compassion? Do we have a responsibility to help others who are in immediate danger?


Supadiscomama said...

That's fucked up. No, they weren't legally bound to help the woman, but for fuck's sake! To stand there and watch her being raped? Completely disgusting and unforgivable. Yes, I'm cursing a lot in this comment--sorry.

solon said...

While this is a very tragic story, it seems to reflect the ethos of the subway and, unfortunately, some of the people who ride the subway. It may not be too surprising that this occurred.

There are many problems on the subway. Fights are always ready to break out; assaults here and there; sexual harassment, both physical and verbal between every stop.

The subway is a very alienating place where most people avoid making eye contact as you never no where it may lead.

Good people who ride the subway remain silent because of the fear and uncertainty. If anything were needed to be done, you would need to find structural and cultural means to approve the alienation. Whether or not this could be done through a rhetoric of compassion or through more surveillance-- the more likely option-- would be interesting. The rhetoric of compassion may fall on deaf ears.

The Roof Almighty said...

First off: what they did did not lead to her getting raped. It failed to stop the rape thathad already happened. Let's not confuse causation here. The rapist caused the rape. The method the MTA workers took to stop it was not the most humane.

But to my point: let's not blame the subway. This can happen anywhere.

I've seen a man jumped and beat on a crowded street and we all looked around for an "adult" to help us-- every bar-aged one of us. I've seen a car erupt into flames in a parking lot and we all stared, the car's owner included. I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark... wait, no, that wasn't me.

There is a smidgin of cultural desensitivation. There is also the very fact that, video games and TV not withstanding, we have, and will continue to have, padded lives where real violence is not common. Even the worst lives here in the modern world rarely become casual with violence.

Even more so, the MTA workers spend 40+ hours a week obeying casually cruel rules, rigid patterns of behavior, and asking questions of adults when normality is breached. This is the wage slave life. Something goes wrong, you ask for help.

When I worked in malls, one Sunday morning, a run-of-the-mill shoplifter accidentally tossed his gun on the floor. I had, literally no idea how to react. I convinced myself it was a stapler. That was easier. If it is a stapler, I can finish my shift in 2 hours and go home.

My manager, an "adult" did the same thing. She almost convinced herself it was a peppermill. And she owned guns.

EVEN MORE SO, do keep in mind that for every seemingly ethical cut-and-dry story like this we see, there are three stories of "guy tried to stop a rape, he and the woman were stabbed" or "well-intentioned hero arrested and sued"-- which, for their carnivalesque illogic, stick in the head and keep us in place.

To paraphrase Chris Rock, I don't condone what they did, but I understand.

M said...

I agree with a lot of what you wrote, Roof, but as the young woman conveyed in the interview (and what wasn't so clearly conveyed in the article I linked), when she was seen by the ticket clerk, she had not yet been raped. The ticket clerk actually watched as the rapist grabbed the woman from behind while she was running up the stairs from the train into the actual subway station and pull her back down the stairs. She made a compelling argument that had the ticket clerk done something more than just notify his superiors (like getting on the loud speaker and screaming at the attacker that the police were on their way) she may not have been raped. By the time the conductor, who was on a train that passed through this stop, saw her, she was being raped.

While the ticket clerk is in no way directly responsible for the rape, this person was in a position to try to prevent it.

M said...

Also, I am not blaming the subway or the culture of the subway at all. You're absolutely right that this could have happened anywhere.

Anonymous said...

I think it could happen anywhere, but subway culture is, I think, a particular breeding ground for this type of behavior. We are socialized to avoid eye contact on the subway, for fear of violence. I've been afraid on the subway on several occasions but, as soon as the ride is over, I push it out of my mind. I often don't even mention whatever occurred to solon. The subway, to me, feels like a subculture in which our usual impulses are heightened. Almost to the point at which one feels like what happens isn't real.

(Sidebar: I do think, as an interesting addendum, that the presence of children fracture the norms of the subway. Since the girls--and other kids--don't know or understand the "rules," they break them every time. Young Jeez stares at the creepiest guy on the train, hands down. But their actions allow the adults to break the rules, too. I'm often in lengthy conversations with other parents or just admirers of the girls. Had the girls not been there, we would have looked at the floor or the advertisements until it was time to get off the train.)

M said...

Here's what I don't get. How are we socialized to subway culture? I'll certainly agree that there is a certain code of conduct, which includes not limiting eye contact and not making conversation, but how do we know this? I mean, I didn't grow up in a city, and I never took the subway before I visited London and NYC as grad student. But I knew these things. Seriously, is this one of those unwritten things that people seem to automatically know?

As an aside, I will say my experiences in the DC metro and even--to some extent--the London underground have been vastly different from my experiences in NY and Boston subways. People are often chatty on the DC metro, and people often spoke to PW and I when we took the tube in London. In NY and Boston, however, you don't speak to anyone, let alone look at them. What is it about these cities that make their subway culture different?

M said...

Yeah, that was supposed to read "limiting eye contact."

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about your questions a lot, M. Even, for example, when Baby Bean wouldn't sleep last night and I was up, too. I don't know how we're socialized to subway culture. I'm leaning toward the CSI variety. Think about how many TV shows feature subway crimes. They actually don't happen very often, but they do get a lot of news and drama coverage. So why is that?

Also, my experience on the Chicago metro sounds like your experience in DC. (Solon has used DC's but I walked that night.) From what I remember, Chicago's metro is mostly above ground. (Roof, Amy Reads, is that correct?) Do you think that makes a difference?

Anonymous said...

Also, I've been thinking about the actions of the MTA worker who didn't say something over the intercom. This may not prove anything other than the fact that I'm not quick on my feet, but I can honestly say it wouldn't have occurred to me to say the police were on their way. (Are those panes of plastic bullet-proof, by the way? I'm assuming they are, but I don't know I'd want to test it. I hope I'd be brave enough, but I honestly don't know.)

I think we can say what we think we would have done, but we might not have any idea what our true actions would be. (And, again, maybe I'm just outing myself as a coward.) When we first moved to NY, solon and I heard a woman scream "No!" on our street one night. We looked out the windows, but couldn't see anything. Solon decided to go outside and see if someone needed help. I was livid. When he came back up, after seeing nothing, I seethed for the entire night and, actually, the rest of the week. I kept reminding him that he had a wife and child and didn't need to be some city cowboy rescuing everyone in need. Thing is, that reaction totally surprised me. I would have thought, given what a sucker I am for a sad story, that I'd have been totally behind his decision. Turns out I was wrong. So now, if anything were to happen--which it hasn't, thankfully--we'd call the cops. Now that I've read this story, I hope I'd yell out the window, too. But I can't be sure.

solon said...

There is probably a never ending list of factors that contribute to the socialization of subway culture: the vast number of experiences handed down from generation to generation; the rather dark and dingy nature of most subway stops (versus the well-lit D.C. stops); the socio-economic elements to all of this as the NY Subway connects the high-end areas of the city and the rather dodgy areas; the great number of people that live in the city and all of the related problems of pluralism; the ideological disposition toward the subway (and public transportation), in the US; the pervasive anomie in NYC; the lack of security and cameras (though not too many people are clamoring for more racial profiling, er, police watch points and security cameras; the fact that The Roof Almighty does not patrol the streets anymore; the retirement of Batman; etc... etc... etc...

M said...

I have to say, Solon, I actually find the NY subway stops to be better lit than the cavernous stops of the DC metro, but that's a matter of opinion. The NY stops are certainly smaller (at least a great many of them), which means people are generally closer together. That may explain, at least in part, why people are less likely to engage in any sort of conversation. The vastness of most DC subway stops seems to allow those who want to to maintain their own sense of space; the NY subway stops definitely don't.

And Megs, while on some level, I get your anger, I would have been the one telling C to go outside and check it out. And if he refused, I would have said something like, "Fine, I'll do it." When we lived in Upstate NY (which I know is vastly different from your metropolitan neighborhood), we lived in fairly close proximity to a lot of undergrads. We were often awakened by the drunk college students making their way home. We overheard one girl fend off an attacker (turned out to be her drunk friend who was getting too friendly) and several fights. In the case of the assault, C ran outside at 2 in the morning to see if he could help while I called the cops, and in the case of the fights, we both yelled out the window that the cops had been called (and they had) which caused the fights to end immediately.

That said, I have no idea what I would have done if a gun had been involved, but I feel fairly certain that I would have done something other than just notify my superior if I had seen the young woman being drug down the stairs.

Supadiscomama said...

I second Megs's statement that, while we may *think* we know what we would have done, we really can't know until we're in that situation. I also *hope* that I would be active in a way that the subway workers were not. However, I do have a concern for my own safety, and (CAUTION: I'm pulling out the Mama Card) now I feel like knowingly endangering myself is selfish in that it could cause Supa-T to lose a parent. Of course, I wasn't eager to insert myself into a scary situation when I was a single gal running wild and free, either...

I, unfortunately, have no solution to offer. And I can't promise that I would leap in to save someone myself if I witnessed something similar. I *think* that I would at least make it known that authorities had been called, though.

And, M, it's fine to go all "Brave One," but, if you think about it, getting involved when you are not equipped to really do anything could actually make things worse. You and Megs are petite ladies, and, like it or not, most men would be able to overpower you--no matter how much you work out. I am decidedly *not* a small thing, but I have absolutely no training in self-defense, nor would my size make me anymore able to match a male attacker's strength. Biology is a bitch.

So, I've lost my train of thought because Supa-T is calling for me. But, I concede that my initial response to this post was a bit quick on the draw, as it were.

M said...

I don't mean to suggest that I'd get involved physically. If you note from my previous comment, I didn't get involved physically. I called the cops and/or hollered out the window from the relative safety of my second story apartment. Believe me, I'm well aware of my physical limitations.