“O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!”
—Robert Burns Jeff Gates, a writer and adoptive father, contributed a thought-provoking column in the Washington Post’s Outlook section this weekend, describing what seemed to him to be a traumatic experience at Cape May. It begins…
“After my family arrives on the Cape May ferry for our annual vacation to the Jersey Shore, I take pictures of our two daughters on the ferry’s deck as we leave the harbor. I’ve been doing this since they were 3 and 4 years old. They are now 16 and 17. Each photo chronicles one year in the life of our family and our daughters’ growth into the beautiful young women they have become….On that first day of vacation, the sea was calm and the sky a brilliant blue. As I focused on the image in my camera’s viewfinder, the girls stood in their usual spot against the railing at the back of the boat. I was looking for just the right pose…Totally engaged with the scene in front of me, I jumped when a man came up beside me and said to my daughters: “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you were okay.”
He goes on:
“It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, but then it hit me: He thought I might be exploiting the girls, taking questionable photos for one of those “Exotic Beauties Want to Meet You!” Web sites or something just as unseemly. When I explained to my daughters what he was talking about, they were understandably confused. I told the man I was their father. He quickly apologized and turned away. But that perfect moment was ruined, and our annual photo shoot was over.”
Many of us might laugh off the experience as a funny anecdote, but not Gates, and not his daughters. He is Caucasian and they are both of Chinese heritage, having been adopted as infants in China by Gates and his wife. He obsessed about the incident for a while, and worked up sufficient indignation to track down the man and confront him, saying “Excuse me, sir, but you just embarrassed me in front of my children and strangers. And what you said was racist.”
The man did not apologize, other some equivalent of the non-apologetic, “I’m sorry I upset you.” He explained that he worked for the Department of Homeland Security, and that seeing a middle aged white man taking photos of two nubile Asian girls as they hugged for 15 minutes set off his ethics alarms.
“I see,” writes Gates. who is a professional photographer. “So we didn’t fit the mold of what he considered a typical American family, and he thought my picture-taking was excessive, possibly depraved. How long should family snapshots take?” He concludes, bitterly,
“The world and its suspicions had intruded on our family’s vacation as we crossed Delaware Bay. Racial profiling became personal that day. And while our experience was minimal compared with the constant profiling experienced by others, it left a repugnant taste in my mouth. Homeland Security instructs Americans: “If you see something, say something.” But at what point do our instincts compel us to act? And when does our fear of getting involved stop us? What causes someone to perceive one thing when an entirely different thing is happening?”
Let me enlighten Jeff, and perhaps unburden his mind:
- He was not the victim of racial profiling.
- One’s instincts should compel one to act when there is a significant chance that not acting will allow something harmful and preventable to happen to another human being.
- “When does our fear of getting involved stop us?” When we care more about ourselves, embarrassment, confrontation, the consequences of being wrong or being publicly criticized in the Washington Post for being responsible and proactive than we do about preventing possible harm to strangers.
- We “perceive one thing when an entirely different thing is happening” all the time, indeed, more often than not. If we allow that to be an excuse to avoid positive interactions with what we see, then I have no doubts that the net effect will be more human misery and catastrophe than we have now. The Roshomon problem is with us always, especially in the field of ethics: it is very common for the same conduct to be unethical from the perspective of one individual, ethical from another’s, and ambiguous from the viewpoint of objective onlookers. The answer to any Roshomon ethics question is “it depends,” and in weighing the various options, the primary consideration is which approach will have the most damaging consequences if you choose wrong.
In the case of the misconstrued photo session, that’s an easy call, isn’t it? If, in fact, this had been the case of a man with power over two young women forcing them to participate in some form of pornographic activities against their wills, or were victims of sex trafficking, the Homeland Security employee’s intervention might have prevented an ongoing crime. The consequences of being wrong, with a somewhat less-easily offended father, would be momentary embarrassment for the intervenor, an amusing story to tell around the dinner table for the family, and nothing else. A rational reaction by Gates would have been to admire the willingness of a stranger, security professional or not (he may not have really been a government employee, and only making that claim to avoid a nastier confrontation with Gates), to make an effort to investigate where he felt investigation was called for, and be grateful for it. Essentially Gates is demanding that the man be a mind-reader, or that the rule be that in cases where conduct one observes is ambiguous, and may be sinister, the default analysis always be to assume the benign, and do nothing. That approach is irresponsible, dangerous and cowardly. It is at the root of the passive bystander problem, a frequent topic here. We should all be proactive: not paranoid, hysterical or seeing monsters around every corner, but alert and ready to take action to prevent harm if there is good reason to believe that harm may occur. A website that is mostly concerned with battling illegal police efforts to stop citizens from filming arrests takes another view of the incident, undoubtedly influenced by its own Roshomon angle, which comes complete with a jaundiced eye:
“..That still wasn’t enough reason for the stranger to intervene. However, the stranger later claimed to work for the Department of Homeland Security, which means he is trained to view anybody with a camera as a suspected criminal. He later told Gates that he found him suspicious because he had been taking photos of his daughters hugging for 15 minutes. But Gates has been taking photos of his daughters for more than a decade on the family annual retreat to Cape May…so he obviously wanted to take the time to snap the perfect shot.”
The problems with this analysis are evident, aren’t they? :
1. The author, Carlos Miller, is hostile to Homeland Security, which does not “view anybody with a camera as a suspected criminal,” and did not in this case.
2. No, the man was suspicious because he saw a white man taking what could have been sexually provocative photos of two Asian women who appeared under-age. If he knew they were Gates’ daughters, he wouldn’t have been alarmed.
3. “But Gates has been taking photos of his daughters for more than a decade on the family annual retreat to Cape May as you can see in the above collage, so he obviously wanted to take the time to snap the perfect shot.” It’s obvious now, because Miller read it in the Post. See what he did there? He adopted Gates’s point of view to condemn that actions of the man, who had no way to know about the photographer’s vacation traditions. This is unfair, and an ethics foul.
But Miller sees no reason to be fair to Homeland Security, so he isn’t. I salute that unnamed intervenor, and suggest that Jeff Gates stop looking for opportunities to regard himself and his daughters as victims. We all have an obligation to look out for each other, and along with that comes an obligation to be understanding, forgiving and to extend the benefit of the doubt when a well-considered intervention is based on seeing a situation from the wrong perspective. Gates’ correct and ethical response to the man, after explaining what was going on, should have been, “Thank you for looking out for my girls.”
UPDATE: Reason has weighed in, not surprisingly, against the man who dared to ask a question, because the folks at Reason are more suspicious of the government than this government employee was suspicious of the photo session, pronouncing his suspicions, “absurd.” Of course, the Reason reporters weren’t there, so they have no idea whether the instincts of the man were absurd or not. They were mistaken, however. And if he had been right, with the exact same facts? Would his gut feelings still have been absurd? Of course. Absurd, but correct!
Facts: Washington Post