This week I took two of my children (ages 6 and 7), along with one of their friends, on a group outing to the amusement park Six Flags over Georgia; it was their first visit to a place I loved to go as a child. While standing in a fairly long line for the Superman ride (which is my favorite at this park – simulates the feeling of flying as well as I can imagine), I noticed a group of young males – teenagers and younger – making their way through the line with the excuse that they were looking for their cousin, who was purportedly further up in the line.
When they got to where I was standing, I stopped them and asked what they were doing. They said they needed to find their cousin to get some money and acted like they were going to retrieve him to bring him back. I suggested to them an easier way to do that and told them that they could not break in line just because they knew someone further up in the line. That small bit of confrontation stopped their quest and they remained awkwardly behind me for the rest of the wait, clearly having no intention of going to the back of the line. At this point, I had been waiting in line for over 20 minutes, which gives you an idea of how far they had cut.
A few minutes later, while still in line, I noticed them gesturing to some friends way behind them to come through the line to stand with them. This prompted me to speak up again, this time threatening to get a park employee involved. This was met with more grumbling along the lines of “Man, who put you in charge? You don’t even know me!” Eventually, they decided to let everyone between them and their friends pass, thus restoring some semblance of order.
This experience reminds me of a recent hidden camera TV show on ABC called, I think, “What Would You Do?” The show sets up fake crimes or immoral activities perpetrated by actors and then secretly video tapes the response of unsuspecting witnesses. Over and over again, most people fail to intervene in spite of the nature of what they witnessing being made quite obvious.
The significance of this minor incident in my mind lies in the question “How were they able to get that far with no one stopping them?” They probably passed a 100 people before getting to me. Undoubtedly, many of those people knew they what they were trying to do and disapproved of it, yet no one confronted them. I cannot say for sure what would have happened in this situation when I was a child at Six Flags during the 80s, but I would surmise that they would not have gotten so far. I would like to speculate on a few reasons why public confrontation is so rare (and I would enjoy hearing your own ideas):
1. Morality is largely not viewed as a matter of public knowledge, but of private opinion. Belief in objective moral norms that apply to all is eroding and giving way to the belief that morality is a matter of private sentiment. As a result, people are reticent to hold others accountable in public settings, lacking confidence to make moral proclamations by confronting evil.
2. Digital communication has become the forum we turn to in order to vent our moral disapproval. It gives us a way of expressing moral judgments without the risk of being wrong or shamed ourselves. It would not at all surprise me if there was at least one facebook “Status Update” that day saying something to the effect of: “Standing in line at Six Flags; some linebreakers just pushed through. What a bunch of jerks! They need to stand in line like everyone else!”
3. We increasingly rely on authorities to govern our communities, abdicating responsibility for self-government. The concept of self-government that shaped the founding of our country is about much more than me as an individual regulating my own behavior and determining my own path; it encompasses “we the people” governing ourselves. Everyone has a role to play in government, which includes enforcing basic moral norms that we all rely on for protection and stability by holding others in the community accountable to them.
In a biblical, theistic worldview, moral knowledge is possible because God is a moral being who has revealed moral truth to all men (see Romans 2). We testify to this reality when we confront darkness in the world, whether big or small.