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On Not Being a Good Samaritan

January 12, 2009

This evening, around 11pm I was riding my scooter home from the train station. Close to my home, I started up a hill. About 50 meters ahead, blocking my lane, I saw what appeared to be a large trash bag in the road. Approaching it, I thought I’d stop and clear the hazard from the road. About 15 meters away, I realized it was a man laying flat on his back in the street with traffic doing 50km/h. around him. His head was towards me, feet away. I noticed three Korean men walking past him, staring at him. They slowed, as if unsure what to do, but they didn’t stop. I got off my scooter and he raised his head, trying to sit up. It was bloody and under his head was a pool of blood the size of a DVD. I looked at the Koreans incredulously. They looked back at me. In English I said “WHY AREN’T YOU CALLING THE POLICE! IL-IL-GU! PPALI!” They just continued to walk, slowly, their eyes going back and forth between him and I.

A police car just happened to roll up about this time, and I flagged them down, and they began to help the man, who appeared to be in his 50’s.

I was incredulous as to why they didn’t help him, so I made that question the focus of a cultural inquiry this morning with my students. I explained the situation to my first class, who told me that because the man was likely drunk, they didn’t want to get involved. It was his problem. I asked them if that was because drunks in the street are considered low people, and they said yes. So I asked “If it was a man who had been hit by a car, and obviously wasn’t drinking, would you call the police?” They indicated they would. Then a student came in late, who was not privy to the discussion taking place. I asked him “If you were walking, and you saw a drunk man laying in the road, bleeding heavy from his head, would you help him or call the police?” The student said “No, I’d just go home.” I found this very interesting.

A common error that people make when conducting a cultural inquiry is to ask one or two people of a particular culture about something and then assume that their answer represents a general cultural tendency, trend, or attribute. For this reason, I always ask lots of people that don’t know each other.

I gave my second class the same hypothetical question I had given the first. Most of them said they’d call, whether the man was drunk or not. One asked “Am I alone, or in a group?” I inquired as to whether that made a difference. She said that most Koreans who are alone would not help, because they would worry about their own personal safety (“What if he is crazy?” she asked). She also said that if they were in a group, they’d be more likely to help or call. I said “Most of the people in my other class said they wouldn’t help or call.” The students told me they’d give it a 50/50 on whether any given Korean would help or not.

I don’t have any conclusions to make, as I don’t think a value judgement is appropriate. Koreans not wanting to get involved are simply putting their own security over the security of others, which is something we all do from time to time. What would you do if you turned a corner just in time to see six people about to gang rape a man? Would you ignore your own safety and start hollering for the police? Or would you jump in? If you say yes, you’re either in a very small percentage of the population, or you aren’t being honest with yourself (its hard for many people to admit that they wouldn’t “do the right thing” in some situations. That’s a more extreme example, but the principle is the same. For those of you still saying “Man, not helping someone on the ground who is seriously hurt is messed up, no matter how you slice it,” I have a comparison for you.

After my father got out of the Navy, he spent about five years working as a police officer. I sat in on some of the police first aid training. The sargent teaching the first aid class instructed the police (and other students) taking the training: if you roll up on a scene, and you see someone in need of CPR, and you don’t have a CPR mask, don’t administer it. Otherwise you could end up with a communicable disease, even HIV (before you say “Hey, HIV isn’t contracted by mouth to mouth contact,” let me tell that it IS if while you’re administering mouth-to-mouth rescuissitation, the victim coughs up blood.). Someone in the class said “So if you didn’t have a CPR mask, you’d just let the victim die?” The sargent said “Yes.” I checked this out and this view is commonly shared by law enforcement officers nationwide.

Every culture has values: loyalty, honesty, personal security, freedom, etc. However, the order of priority of these values is one thing that differentiates cultures from one another. Just think about how many Americans view cultures that put a low emphasis on “freedom.” The People’s Republic of China is bad, because their government tightly restricts the freedom of the people. But really, hasn’t that restriction of freedom had some benefits? Of course it has. There isn’t much fear of a crazy Chinese walking into a school and blowing away a dozen kids, for one thing. But an American who values her/his freedom to carry a gun more than the probability that such an event will happen takes a dim view of such a restriction. So don’t take a dim view of a South Korean who walks past a bleeding drunk. Either he’s putting a higher priority on his own protection, or he just doesn’t give a shit. You don’t know which, however, so try not to assume. The world would be a better place if we gave each other the benefit of the doubt a little more.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    January 13, 2009 1:39 am

    This is a tough one. Helping strangers in distress is always something that sparks debate and controversy. I find your students’ responses interesting and very telling. I also find the information garnered from police officers in the US very telling as well.

    It seems human nature transcends culture here. Indeed, when faced with a man bleeding on the street the human trait of self-preservation and the emotion of fear seem to bubble to the surface and overide other considerations.

    It reminds me of the lady who died in Toronto, Canada a few years ago. It was downtown during the winter and she got mugged and stabbed. She lay on the sidewalk bleeding and moaning for help and no one did a thing. People walked past her and she ended up bleeding out and dying right there. This was reported in the papers as a tragedy but people walked by her (they found some people who were in the area who said they thought she was some sort of homeless person on drugs). It is amazing and yet pretty understandable when you consider human nature.

  2. January 17, 2009 3:19 pm

    Another contributing factor here is the fact Korea has no “good samaritan law” whereby people who attempt to help a stranger in such a situation are protected by law from being held responsible for any bad stuff that happens in the situation. That is, if I move that guy off the road in Canada, and he later dies of injuries, I’m protected by law from his family pressing charges against me, and trying to find a way to hold me responsible for his death.

    There is no such law in Korea, so by offering a helping hand, I’m opening myself to litigation from the guy’s family if something goes wrong, and they think I’m responsible.

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