October 28, 2019

Collective Action Derailed: The Danger of Judgment

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

We all jump to conclusions sometimes. We apply our past experiences and information that we may have gathered and apply it when processing information. Sometimes we do this so we don’t have to think much about a subject, especially if it causes us some distress. We may be especially likely to do this when we don’t have all of the facts about a situation or understand the context.

Hearing about people in poverty, people who are unemployed, homeless, victims of crime, and victims of police misconduct can be overwhelming. So sometimes we draw our own conclusions and focus on how the people affected must have done something wrong and are suffering the consequences. We do this in order to minimize any sadness, guilt, or responsibility to take action collectively.

Consider this scenario:

A hiker in his 60s died of heat stroke after he and a group of 10 hikers became separated and lost on an overgrown trail and ran out of water on a hot summer day. Search and rescue helicopters were able to airlift many of the hikers to safety, but they were too late to save the man, who succumbed to the heat on the trail.

What is your first reaction to this scenario? If you are like many people, it may be to consider what the group did wrong (and presumably what you would do right). For instance:

  • People should have been better prepared and had more water
  • People should always hike with maps and know where they are going
  • People should know their limitations and if a hike is too hard for them, especially older people; maybe do a shorter easier hike if they are not up for a challenging hike
  • People should stay with the group
  • People should plan ahead let someone else know where they are going
  • People shouldn’t do strenuous physical activity in the heat, especially midday
  • Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s mistakes by sending rescue helicopters

Now consider adding some context to this scenario:

An experienced hiker died, possibly of heat stroke, while hiking as part of an organized group of strong, seasoned hikers on a day when temperatures reached the mid-80s. They were hiking on a little-used trail near a major trail system and nearby a busy street, which was posted on a website that included maps, photos, and a description of a trail. While several people on the hike had run out of water, the man had been drinking his and still had some left when he became ill. Other hikers used their water to try and cool him off, and called 911, but they were too late to save him and he passed away on the trail.

The context complicates things, doesn’t it?

I am very familiar with this scenario, because I was hiking with this group and called 911 to get help when we noticed the man became ill. The first scenario is simpler and carries easy warnings for officials to provide to the public; in fact, this is the narrative that appeared in the numerous news reports about this incident (I chose not to link them to protect the privacy of my fellow hikers). One story even suggested that we were hiking without any water. Even people I spoke to who weren’t on the hike offered reactions similar to those above or wondered if the man had an underlying health problem.

Some of the simplified narrative may be explained by the difficulty I had providing clear answers to the 911 operator; we were not lost, but I had trouble describing exactly where we were (although I gave them general directions and the organizer later called in the GPS coordinates of our location). We were on the route that the organizer had planned and posted on the website.

No hiker was separated or left behind; because hikers go at different paces, it is common for people to be spread out on the trail. My estimate of 10 hikers was based on those within shouting distance. There were far more people in the group, most of whom finished the hike as planned without needing rescue (including me—we didn’t learn that the other hiker had died until we got back to the parking lot).

There are some important sociological lessons in people’s reactions to this incident and others that involve people facing difficulty or peril. If we can tell ourselves that we know better and the same thing could never happen to us (losing our homes, losing our jobs, getting sick, to name a few examples) we not only withhold sympathy, but we withhold collective action. Social problems become personal problems, not to be addressed with public policies (policies that would address the high cost of housing, the mismatch between education and skills for the new economy, for instance) but instead are met with public shaming.

As Peter Kaufman wrote in his final blog post on this site, when he was dying of lung cancer he often felt judged, and preemptively mentioned that the type of cancer he had was not related to smoking. Sometimes we even withhold sympathy from people with cancer.

None of this is to suggest that we don’t have and make choices, but we often overestimate the things other people have control over. Can you think of other ways that our judgments might get in the way of collective action?

 

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