Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Safety dance

This morning, when I was walking up Queen Street in Auckland’s CBD, there was an incident. Relatively minor in the overall scheme of things, but it resulted in me taking action on the spur of the moment. And I’d do it again.

Here’s how I described it on my personal Facebook:
I think this was the right thing to do – judge for yourself.

I was in the Auckland CBD this morning walking along Queen Street for the first time in maybe a couple years. It was fun seeing all the changes, all the people walking up the street toward work, busy city-ness. It was great.

But then ahead of me I saw a drunk beggar approach a thin, pretty blonde young woman (probably mid to late 20s). Every time she moved to avoid him, he moved to block her. This happened a couple times, then she stopped, backed up a step and tried to pass and he blocked her again.

By this point I'd drawn even with them, slowed, and was about to pass when I saw her back-up. I stepped sideways to block him and said, "Look, she's really busy," which gave her the space and distraction she needed, and she passed us both behind me.

Once we were both clear, she smiled and thanked me, but I felt a little guilty for just intervening when she didn't ask, so I said to her, "Sorry for intervening, but he seemed a bit aggressive." She smiled and said, "That's okay. Happens to me all the time," which didn't surprise me. She thanked me again, I wished her a great day, and we parted.

I don't like assuming a woman "needs" my help, and this woman may have had a black belt in karate for all I knew. But the drunk, even though he was unsteady on his feet was quite bulky and COULD have hurt someone, drunk though he was (like I said, he seemed aggressive). But I towered over him and I think I had the advantage in bulk (and sobriety, of course), and I just acted on impulse and maybe instinct.

Maybe the woman could have taken care of herself far more effectively than I could have been helpful if it had come to physical force. And in the time since then I've thought of better things I could have said to the drunk man (as always happens...), but I couldn't just stand by and do nothing when someone may have been in difficulty or danger. Sooner or later that could get me in trouble, either by insulting someone who doesn't need my help or by intervening when someone really is dangerous.

But if I was in trouble, or someone I love was in danger, I'd hope that someone would help, even if it wasn't needed. That's why I have to be that someone for strangers. It's the human and humane thing – the right thing – to do, I think.

As I finish typing this on my phone, sipping my warming coffee (it's COLD today!), the music playing is Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance". Perfect: That's what I had this morning out on Queen Street in Auckland's CBD.

Have an awesome day!
Several of my Facebook friends commented, and I realised pretty much right away that I’d made a mistake in the first sentence. As I put it in a later comment:
I feel I should apologise, though, because I realise now that the way I started this made it sound like I was looking for validation, while what I was REALLY thinking at the time was "this is what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do. Others may not approve, but I'd do it again."
That was why I’d explained in the original post how even though the woman didn’t ask for help, and she may have been better equipped to handle it than I was, I acted on instinct. To be completely honest, I don’t really care if someone didn’t approve of what I did: I still think it was the right thing to do at that time.

Other comments noted how women are often just tired of having to confront this sort of male behaviour, and what a bad thing that situation was. As I said to a friend:
And it makes me sad as a human being, and pretty damn pissed off as a man that other men make women feel like that. Those men have no excuse, and the rest of us men should never let them try to make one up. IMHO.
Here’s another truth in this for me: Men have to stand up to the bad behaviour of other men—it’s kind of our duty, I think, when it’s safe to do so. Of course, as I also commented, these situations are much safer in New Zealand than in the USA because no one will have a gun. That possibility in the USA would make me hesitate.

Still, this isn’t the first time I saw something I thought was wrong and acted on impulse. Last year, it involved me driving to check on a woman who I thought could be in danger. What I’ve found is that action makes more action easier.

Friends also commented about how support for the woman today was important, and how distraction is an important tool in a situation like this. All of that’s true, but in a sense, I was doing it wrong, which is what I was alluding to when I wrote: “…in the time since then I've thought of better things I could have said to the drunk man (as always happens...).” What I had in mind when I wrote that was a graphic I saw online last year:

While that graphic is about dealing with islamophobic harassment in particular, it’s obviously applicable to any sort of harassment. An important point in that graphic is that the intervener talks to the victim, not the aggressor. By not engaging with the aggressor at all, it helps avoid the risk of escalating the situation, and makes defusing more likely. At least, that’s what I read mental health professionals say at the time; I've never tried it.

So, in the aftermath, when I had some quiet time to reflect, I thought that maybe I could have talked to the woman instead, pretending that I knew her, and talking to her, while I escorted her away. The main risk is that she may not have clicked to what I was doing and may have acted as if I was mad, but if it had been a stronger harasser—someone who was not impaired or who was bigger than me—this may have been a better strategy. I’ll try to keep it in mind as a possible tool if there’s a next time.

The main thing for me, though, is something I keep repeating: Be the change you want to see. I want the world to be a better place, where we treat each other with dignity and respect and where we stand up for those who are in difficulty of whatever kind. It’s not easy for anyone, but if we try our best to be our best, maybe one day we won’t need strangers to engage in a safety dance with us.

We have to start some place. Dancing is optional, though.


rogerogreen said...

The problem is Rashomon - everyone sees it differently. I had one of those events, not nearly so clear cut. Requires writing about...

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

Yes, it does!