Comment of the Day: “Roshomon, Good Citizenship And Ethics: The Case Of The Concerned Stranger And The Indignant Father”

Poster - RashomonJeff Gates, the father, photographer and writer whose essay in the Washington Post prompted my post here and a lively discussion thereafter, has been kind enough to contribute additional thoughts and clarifications in response. This is one of the really good things about the internet, and his willingness to enhance the discussion with additional perspective reveals good things about Jeff as well. His original article is here.

At the outset, I want to clarify something about my post that I kept intending to do but obviously did not, at least not well. The fact that the man who was suspicious of his photo-session with his daughter said later that he worked for Homeland Security didn’t figure into my analysis at all, and still doesn’t. I am concerned with the original encounter, and the question of whether this was excessive Big Brotherism clouds the issue, which I see, and saw as this: we should applaud and encourage proactive fellow citizens who have the courage and the concern to step into developing situation that they believe might involve one individual harming another.  As the man needed no special authority to do that, I don’t care whether he was a federal agent or not; I thought it was pretty clear that this was not official action. Indeed, I think as official action, the man’s intervention was ham-handed and unprofessional.

Here is Jeff Gates’ Comment of the Day, on the post, “Roshomon, Good Citizenship And Ethics: The Case Of The Concerned Stranger And The Indignant Father.”

As the father in this story and the author of the Washington Post op-ed piece, let me offer my comments. First, I find your mention of the Roshomon effect to be an interesting one. Yes, both the man and myself interpreted what was going on in two very different ways. However, that’s where the analogy starts to bear fruit.

You laud the actions of the stranger who approached us as being responsible and proactive: as someone who was simply interested in the welfare of my daughters. Yet, there is a different way of approaching this.

Rather than just blindly accept the fact that this man had only good intentions, I sought him out later to see if I could find more context to his actions. I did this because, as my daughters’ father, I was being responsible and proactive, the very things you assigned this stranger and the very things you failed to see in my actions.

In our society, politicians and the media take very complex issues and cull them down to overly simplistic “black or white” soundbites. However, the very complexity of many contemporary problems demands that we, at least, investigate, the shades of gray that occupy the “in betweens.” And that’s exactly what I did.

I have heard from many Department of Homeland Security agents in the days since this article was published. In all cases they have said that any well-trained DHS agent would not have interceded after a mere 15 minutes of observation. In fact, they said, DHS agents are trained to observe suspicious activities for much longer in order to better assess the situation. They have also suggested that this man, even if he did work for DHS, might not have been an agent at all but someone who works as a paper pusher or other worker. And, of course, the possibility exists that he didn’t work for the Department of Homeland Security at all.

The article i wrote was about our biases and rush to judge. I actually took the ideas that encompass the Roshomon effect to do exactly what this stranger should have done. I investigated further. And once he said, “Let me give you some advice: those girls were hugging for 15 minutes,” and then claimed to “understand” when I calmly explained that I was a photographer and we often take lots of photos, I had gathered enough information to make a reasonable assessment of his actions. So, I was doing exactly what you praise this stranger for supposedly doing. I’m sorry you failed to see this. If he had answered “I’m sorry. I was just concerned…” the story would have ended there and there would have been on op-ed. But he didn’t say that. He stated an overly facial interpretation of my photographing my daughters, one that I found suspicious.

As citizens, are we to blindly accept another’s interpretation of an event. Or are do we have a right to, in turn, question these actions?

23 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Roshomon, Good Citizenship And Ethics: The Case Of The Concerned Stranger And The Indignant Father”

  1. “As citizens, are we to blindly accept another’s interpretation of an event. Or are do we have a right to, in turn, question these actions?”

    Nope. We aren’t expected to believe the only side of a story told. And should question it when it sounds fishy.

  2. I’m late to the party, and with 60+ comments, some of this ground might have been covered. A citizen who observes activity that they think is suspicious is under no obligation to act. However, I would also agree that we’re all better off if suspicions are investigated. In my mind, the question is how deep, how much, and how intrusive an investigation are we willing to grant “random stranger with a feeling”? This sounds like morbid curiosity to me. Further observance might have satisfied the “homeland security experts ” creepy feeling, and his ethical responsibility without having to say a word to the family. What if the father had answered his inquiry with “none of your damn business”, or worse yet, admitted to exploiting the girls and asked what he would do about it? Taking pictures is not a crime, and we have a sleuth operating without enough training, insight, or ability to do anything other than call the cops and report the activity. (to which they might not have responded with the same level of concern as our amateur PI.) Unless this incident occurs in Mayberry, and our do-gooder intends to make like Gomer Pyle, his choices are to observe longer, immediately call the cops, or leave it alone. Direct intervention should be a last resort, and should be reserved for things more serious than ferry boat rides. More observers, we can use. More citizens self empowered to challenge those whose behavior disturbs them, not so much. Solid response from papa bear…

    • This was my question on the original post… what happens after asking the question? It could not figure out what the plan was if he gets an unsatisfactory answer. Two options arise: escalate – and now we know the original fears of the father were right – or disengage – and now the point of intervening is moot.

      I did not get an answer from anyone in the debate, so I hope someone raises to your inquiry.

        • Person A-speaking to teenage minors- “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you are OK”. Right off the bat, the inquisitor has made a judgement that something is wrong, and he chooses to ask the minors if they’re ok (not acceptable) versus the conversation you outlined earlier-civil and while I still am not thrilled with it, would not take offense. By speaking first to the girls, he’s accusing the adult, father or not, of untoward behavior based on an ill advised hunch. My issue here is not the fact that he interfered. It’s that he did so in a cavalier manner that rightfully offended the girls father. He could have explored this situation in a number if other ways, or not at all. And I’m this case, either would have been better than this.

          • Uh huh. If you wanna accept as fact one side of a fishy story.

            And even then the “offended” father can engage in completely humble, civil, and no assuming malice conversation with an eye to deescalate until obvious malice or harm is evident.

            You aggrieved people need to chill.

            • What’s fishy about the fathers story? What was he doing wrong? Why should he be subjected to the whims of someone he doesn’t know simply because the scene didn’t “look right”? The right to be let alone is the most fundamental of rights. If you suspect but are not sure, you have no right or authority to bother someone or intervene. Find another way or call the police.

              • The commenters on the first discussion made many valid observations on the the father’s tone and after actions and sense of self-righteousness that raise more questions than answer. Refer to those comments.

          • Urban:
            You said “My issue here is not the fact that he interfered. It’s that he did so in a cavalier manner that rightfully offended the girls father. He could have explored this situation in a number if other ways, or not at all.”

            One of Jack’s original main points was that when making a decision to intervene in such circumstances one must assess the relative costs of being wrong to both sides. The cost to the girls of non-intervention, if they were being exploited, would have been very high while the cost of embarrassing the father would be relatively low. In statistics we call this a type one and type two error. When confronted with an unknown probability the choice should fall on that which has the least negative consequence. You find these in medical diagnoses regularly. An example would be getting a false positive result for cancer (type one) and getting a false negative (type 2) error. If a diagnostic error is made I would prefer to get a type one error as opposed to the doc telling me I am healthy all the while the cancer is metastasizing in my body.

            If you read my comments on this matter you will know Jack took me to task on several points I made when it was clear I was not ready to jump on the bandwagon for rapid direct intervention by this unknown third party based on his feelings of impropriety. Nonetheless, I do agree that we as a society must weigh the consequences of inaction even though we may not have a legal duty to act. With that said, I am absolutely in agreement with everyone that said there were alternate courses of action that could have been taken. Even if the third party decided to intervene, it would have been much wiser to engage in polite non-threatening conversation with the dad before rushing to judgment and engaging the girls inquiring as to their wellbeing as their father looked on.

            DHS wants people to say something when they see something but I don’t think they want people yelling “Bomb” when someone leaves an unattended piece of luggage at the airport or train station. We should look out for each other whether we have a moral or legal obligation to do so. However, we cannot allow our personal phobias or unsubstantiated hunches to cloud our judgment. Often it’s what is said and to whom that makes the difference in mitigating the damage to all parties involved.

            • Well said. I for one, am likely to intervene when I suspect something is wrong. But we don’t always know. The cost of inaction only exists if we walk away. Better, longer analysis or calling for the authorities is acceptable action. It’s simply short of direct confrontation. And I don’t think I’m reading arguments in favor of that based solely on personal whim. Or am I mistaken????

              • “The cost of inaction only exists if we walk away.” Good statement. Now, I’d be interested to know why people have such a hard time understanding that this applies to me as their father. The cost of not understanding who this stranger is and the possible cost to my daughters only existed if I simply accepted his initial inquiry. No one was hurt by my decision to talk to the man again. And as I said, if he had explained himself adequately (like “I was just a concerned person who has two daughters,” or something similar that would have been the end of the story. And no op-ed. But he didn’t say that. What he said, gave me cause for concern and I began to consider that he wasn’t just a “concerned citizen.”

                • Jeff, I don’t criticize your decision to investigate further. I think your point on that matter is entirely valid. I think it was the responsible thing to do, if you had any doubts about the man’s motives at all.

            • Jack has also insisted that one have a minimum level of competence before acting (say don’t run for president if you can’t be a leader). You should not try CPR if you only know what you’ve seen on ER (or is that passé now?). Same here, you need to know what is your plan of attack if you’re intervening. Thinking of the worst case scenario in this situation – imagine the girls were being exploited – all the strange would have accomplished is for the perpetrator to move to a less public venue and possibly retaliate against the victims for looking distressed.

    • Is no one allowed to have conversations with strangers anymore? Is no one allowed to ask someone something based on what they observe that someone to do?

      The standards you have established amount to a completely sterile community where communication between anyone is verboten.

      Have you forgotten there is a wide gulf between the pole of engaging someone out of curiosity and to be reengaged with no assumptions of malice and it’s opposite pole to be an aggressive jerk towards someone on assumptions of immediate guilt?

      Come now, let’s be more nuanced than that.

      Person A (worried there may be possible misconduct): Hey, how’s it going?

      Person B (engaged in completely innocent behavior): Pretty good, stranger, yourself?

      Person A: Is everything ok?

      Person B (ASSUMING NO MALICE LIKE ANY POLITE PERSON WOULD DO): Yeah, absolutely! Something troubling you?

      Person A: Well, I don’t want to embarrass anybody and feel kinda foolish asking but…


      Urban, Do you disallow that? Your comments taken as principle would disallow it. What a crummy society that would be.

      Assuming no malice and approaching with humility actually would lead to a healthier society in which distrust (the kind you lamented in your errant analysis of Ferguson) would be rapidly dispelled.

      And no, you don’t need special training to engage in conversation. You just need civility, humility, and assumptions of no malice…so simple. Only when necessary, elevate hostility, and then so proportionately and with an eye to defuse and understand. So simple.

  3. I had to think about this one for a while, because it actually confused me a bit. As nearly as I can tell, we have two possible ways to interpret this: 1) a white guy, who may or may not have been a Federal agent (and the consensus, with no actual evidence in either direction, seems to be that he LIED and was NOT actually an agent) approached another white guy (notice, both white guys) and asked a couple of apparently Asian girls if they were OK. He apparently did this because he was racially profiling, in this case the supposed victims, not the perpetrator. The father is all offended because his daughters are Asian (Chinese) and believes the OTHER white guy was profiling.
    Now, let’s look at number 2) real life. A white guy is taking pictures of two Asian girls, possibly minors, who are hugging. A lot of pictures. At least 15 minutes worth. Since a large number of girls who are being trafficked as sex slaves are, in fact, Asian; Philippine, Vietnamese, Chinese and in fact Japanese, this was a legitimate question. The fathers indignation stems largely from “I wouldn’t do that to my girls” but is not realistic. The DHS worker, whether he was a field agent or not, asked a legitimate question, and the Father, if he was in the least concerned about his daughters, should have been grateful for the concern. Apparently he was not, but was, rather, indignant that his motives were questioned. By someone who had no way of knowing what his motives were and no way other than what was done to ascertain them.
    Which gets us to the question of the ethics of the DHS employee. Was what he did ethical? Insofar as it was geared to ascertaining the status of the girls and insuring their safety, absolutely. We ALL owe it to our children, whether they are our birth children or the children of others, who MAY be in danger to make sure they are safe. If that includes making ourselves look a bit foolish and, indeed, pompous, then so be it. The safety of our children is and should be paramount. Was the Father acting ethically by sneering at the DHS employee for “ruining his photographic moment”? Not likely. What’s more important, your daughters safety or your 15 minute photographic moment (as an aside, I could and have gone through three roles of 32 frame 35MM film in 15 minutes, roughly 96 pictures. A digital would likely be even faster.)? I’d go with daughters safety. Especially since I have four granddaughters and will kill if need be to insure THEIR safety.
    I have to say, then, that I think the father is out of line. Was the DHS person being a jackass, possibly, even probably. But his motives were likely good, and if the father of these girls was anywhere near rational, he would thank this stranger for caring about his daughters. Unfortunately, he seems more concerned with saving his “magic photographic moment”. Which, incidentally, inconvenienced a number of people, I’m sure, with his monopolization of the fantail of the ferry.

    • Dragin_dragon, as the father in this case, let me comment on your words. Here’s one thing you said: “The DHS worker, whether he was a field agent or not, asked a legitimate question, and the Father, if he was in the least concerned about his daughters, should have been grateful for the concern.” Let me look at this a slightly different way using your own words: “A father, if he was in the [least] bit concerned about his daughters would have made sure his daughters were safe from this stranger, no matter what the surface of the man’s comments sounded like.” And, that’s exactly what I did.

      Some more of your words: “Was the Father acting ethically by sneering at the DHS employee for “ruining his photographic moment?” Sneering? At best, you are editorializing, at worst, you are conveying a total fabrication of how I reacted. Tell me why you did that?

      More of your words: “…if the father of these girls was anywhere near rational, he would thank this stranger for caring about his daughters.” I was quite rational and nothing I said or wrote about indicated otherwise. In fact, I wrote that when he made his initial statement I could see what he was seeing: a white guy taking photos of Asian young women. I think that’s quite rational.

      So, where do you get off saying all of this? Did you read the article? If you had you would have seen that this sneering, irrational father actually took the time on the way back to suggest that both he and one of his daughters try to look at people through this other man’s eyes. A teaching moment, which, btw, any seasoned parent would do in a heartbeat.

      Ironically, the whole point of the op-ed was to talk about people’s biases and rush to judge. It seems you missed that point in spades.

      • I hope this does not get doubled up. I am apparently fairly inept and after typing it in once, lost it. First, let me apologize for taking so long to get back to you. Our Internet is satellite, and when it rains, we lose it. It rained all day yesterday.
        To answer your questions “How can I say that?” and “Why would I say that?”, I worked for Child Protective Services before retiring, so I have see the results of good men doing nothing. I have seen those results in Emergency Rooms, funeral homes and twice in black garbage bags dumped alongside of an Interstate Highway, so yes, I am sympathetic to strangers who wonder what is going on. And, yes, I read your original article. As nearly as I can see, the man saw what was POSSIBLY a problem, satisfied himself that it was not and that was that. There was not a problem, again, that I could see, until you sought him out and confronted him. To be fair, if you saw something I did not in your writings, you had a duty and a responsibility to follow up on it, more so than the stranger, because you are the father of the girls in question. Still, being a boor does not equate with being a child molester.

  4. Seems to me, as a person who DOES say things when something looks/smells fishy, that it’s all about HOW the supposed-Homeland guy did it (as mentioned above). And I also doubt he was Homeland; I think that was a backpedal when he felt cornered. I appreciate Jeff’s indignance, but I think the issue wasn’t what happened so much as HOW. And frankly, it sounded like Jeff escalated not only with the guy, but also with his daughters, who could have safely been left in more darkness about this. I’m with Jack in that people who see and say something are keeping society healthier. I’ve said things to parents and kids having issues at the store- sometimes a shrieking child just needs someone alien to them to distract them. My OWN kid once screamed out in Target when I was 6 feet from her, “STOP! Don’t hit me!” at the top of her lungs. Jack knows me in person, and my daughter is almost as loud as I am. I hadn’t, wasn’t going to, and was shocked, horrified and immobilized by that strange screech. No one did or said anything. But had I seen this (not heard it without being in line of sight, frankly), I might have said something to both to try and defuse it. I’ve smilingly said, “Hey, is everything ok?” to families in the grocery store. One dad got really, really pissed. But his younger kid’s screeching actually stopped and started paying attention to him. Other moms (maybe there’s a gender connection) have told me, “Yup- I’m just not buying Froot Loops.” And often a few brief smiles and comments and we’re both on our ways and often the kid HAS been distracted enough. Teenagers hugging on the deck of the boat wouldn’t have set off my alarms, regardless of the race differential. I might have offered to take a shot of the family, just because that’s a thing I do. I hope Jeff and his girls can shrug off this thing AND that enough of us can think of how to settle that gut impulse in a more calming way.

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