The Omaha have a saying: He who is present at a wrongdoing and does not lift a hand to prevent it, is as guilty as the wrongdoers.
How does this statement adddress (or not) issues of personal character?
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What I like about that saying is that it does represent an idea that we are responsible for what we do NOT do, as well as for what we do. Or to put it another way, inaction is still a decision, a use of our own will. Most societies have a similar more, and even some states have a "good samaritan" law that makes it a crime to do nothing when witnessing a criminal act. Social customs such as this are what make the difference between an actual society (or at least a functional one) and merely a set of competing individuals.
Well said mshurn! The Burke/ Tolstoy/ Bondarchuck quote came into my head immediately as well. Too often today we condemn the evil deeds of others and yet have found it too hard to take the step to intervene, speak up or even acknowledge our suspicions. The lack of neighbourliness in some communities has meant that people do not inquire into the health and welfare of others - it is seen as 'snooping'. However the number of child abuse cases and incidents of domestic violence could be reduced by opening our eyes and lips more to those around us. We have an excellent domestic violence education commercial running in NZ at the moment which highlights this very issue.
A "wrongdoing" encompasses more than violent actions. Deceiving someone in a hurtful way or destroying a person's reputation through cruel gossip are both wrongdoings. Planning or imposing illegal or immoral policies, in government or in any other realm of society, would certainly be wrongdoing. Demeaning others through prejudice or blatant racism is wrongdoing.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation in which we know these kinds of wrongdoing are taking place, and our response does become an issue of character, I think. To remain silent suggests consent. Actions do speak louder than words. For a person to say he or she deplores racism, for instance, and then to remain silent while observing it in action, does not demonstrate a sound character; it suggests fear and weakness, or perhaps even hypocrisy. The gold standard for character in action is Atticus Finch.
To paraphrase, all that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.
There are many instances in the Christian bible which illustrate the statement of the Omaha: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and not feed you? Thirst...etc." Charity and "communal responsibility" are essential in a worthy society. As Emerson and Thoreau and many of the Early Americans knew, a responsible society is essential to one that is free in the true sense of the word.
I think we also need to examine what is involved in helping. Does it have to be physically going and getting involved and possibly causing harm to yourself, or can it be calling the police and ensuring that they are able to get there and intervene. While I might get involved in trying to physically stop someone from harming someone else, I would not expect my wife or daughters to do the same. I would however, expect them to at least call for someone that could help.
I am old enough to remember the case of Kitty Genovese, who was stalked for over an hour and then murdered while many people heard her cries for help and did not respond because they did not want to get involved. Communal or not, to refuse to help another person in distress is a character flaw. It demonstrates either weakness or cowardice. To refuse to step in says that I am the type person who will not help; which to me is a scathing indictment. One wonders if this same person would expect others to help were he in a similar situation and needed a helping hand. It was Cain who first asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The very nature of our society, and of ourselves, says that indeed we are. To refuse to help is an abdication of personal responsibility, which says volumes about ones character.
But doesn't the way we, as individuals, respond to our "duty" speak to our character. If we passively stand by and watch something occur that we know is wrong, that shows poor or weak character. Think of the number of cases of spousal abuse that go unreported by people who don't want to be involved or are afraid of the repercussions. The problem that might crop up is that different cultures have different perceptions of right and wrong. Some cultures hold it is a husband's duty to punish his wife for transgressions. So the question would then become one of culture.
What is important about this saying is that it effectively removes the category of a neutral, passive onlooker. According to this saying, we are not allowed to just merely watch wrongdoing and sit back thinking that we remain neutral. If we observe such acts and do nothing to prevent it, that makes us as guilty as those who actually committed the act because of our failure to do nothing. It is a wrongdoing because we have chosen to do nothing rather than a wrongdoing because we have done something. Both, of course, are equally wrong, according to this statement.
I think this is not so much about personal character as it is about personal and communal responsibility.
To me, what's striking about this saying is that it implies that each person in a community is responsible for the behavior of the others. It is saying that it is the duty of one to prevent wrong actions by the others. This is not really a statement about what a person's character should be. Instead, it is a statement about what each person's duty is with respect to the community and to other individuals in that community.
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