Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Observations On The Florida Teens And The Drowning Man”

My old friend Mark drops in to comment just a few times a year, but always delivers his trademark optimism, fairness, and perception. When he talks, I learned early on in our relationship, attention should be paid.. His was one of several excellent comments on the horrific episode in Cocoa Beach, where five teens stood by watching a handicapped man drown, and seemed to enjoy the sight mightily as they recorded his death on their cell phones. In response to another commenter’s query, “Are “kids” that are so disconnected that they’d do something of that magnitude rehabilitatable?”, Mark leaped k took the discussion to a related topic that I had found myself thinking about a lot while I was trapped in a lobby and two airports yesterday with nothing to do but wait and silently curse. What are electronic devices and social media obsession doing to our social skills and ability to relate to the world? At what point to we start sounding the ethics alarms…or the societal survival alarms? [ I’m going to include the last part of Mark’s earlier comment on the story, because it is a helpful introduction to the rest.]

Here is Mark’s Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Observations On The Florida Teens And The Drowning Man:

…The natural human reaction to observe has been enhanced by our ability to record, and it now seems to be the first response in almost every situation – the more harrowing the better. I’m sure there is some personal thrill involved in being able to post the result, garnering comments and ego-gratifying oohs and aahs.

The situation in Florida is only the most horrible of them, right up there with the guy who posted pictures of himself with the corpse of his step-father, whom he had just murdered. Like everything else, this is a tiny part of a much bigger picture of who we are becoming as a culture. The 21st century ability to remain safely behind a screen while still feeling a full participant in life (Internet commenting a prime example) frees us of the necessary empathy (or simply humanity) to come from behind that screen to behave in ways that might be heroic or even civil. I have little difficulty seeing that behavior manifesting in children raised viewing life through a cell phone.

The much larger question – at least for me – remains “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s a nagging question, versions of which swirl in and around almost all the major political issues of our day and, now, into our personal dealings with one another. It is always there, but we come up with more and novel ways to avoid actually answering or acting on it. Clearly, it never occurred to these boys. Cain didn’t want to answer the question. And, I suspect, neither do we.


 I carry two cell phones, absolute wonders of technology, which remain in my briefcase most of the time although I’ll take one of them with me to a picture-taking occasion. My friends grit their teeth at receiving responses to texts that are weeks old. My relationship with my cellphone(s) was cemented when I had the opportunity to whale watch off of Maui. I realized that I was so concerned about my precious iThing getting wet or falling into the water that I wasn’t watching the whales. I put the phone away and decided that watching the real world with both eyes was more interesting and that’s what I try to do. I hope sincerely that that attitude would ensure that I offer whatever aid I can in a dire situation rather than wondering what it will look like on Facebook later on.

Jack will tell you that I believe in the essential goodness of people and my capacity for the benefit of the doubt is probably well-developed past the point where it is good for me. Your 2.0 question begs that in a serious way, starting with the idea that in a once-removed way of living in and viewing the world (disconnected), these kids probably didn’t see that what they were doing was wrong which is a truly dreadful starting point. I can only hope that whatever innate kernel in us that speaks up for right and wrong does not shrink beyond our ability to hear it.

Figuring out what and how to deal with this particular incident is screaming for a larger look at a far larger sense of general disconnection. I walk the streets of Washington, DC, every day and rarely meet the eye of another person – both their external and internal lives are happening on a device held in front of them. I recently had to explain to a friend that photographing and posting an event to his other, far-away, friends was impacting his attention to me, and I didn’t care for it. Suffice it to say, he didn’t see it that way. That was a fellow 50-something.


14 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Observations On The Florida Teens And The Drowning Man”

  1. To be somewhat cynical, I wonder what these would have done if it was a drowning dog. I bet one of them would have called the fire department. This is a sickening story reminiscent of the Kitty Genovese incident that happened a long time ago although at least somebody eventually bothered to call the cops.

  2. I’m not sure the disconnect began with the hand-held devices, Mark. That was Phase III. I think the first part began with the invention of teenagers (as a group) in the early 50s, still “post-war” time — and “post-war” was barely “post-Depression” time, so it had been at least two decades and a full generation gone since the the good times rolled. The early 50s coincided with the installation of “labor-saving” devices which took over a lot of household chores for youngsters, not just for the housewives the companies advertised to. All of a sudden, I could keep what I earned on my paper route (though I did have to replace my own bicycle once, used, of course, after I carelessly left it in a neighbor’s driveway), mowing lawns, delivering groceries, raking (and burning) leaves, shoveling snow, sitting for the rowdy 7-year-old twins down the block. All of a sudden, we had a refrigerator in place of the ice-box, so I didn’t need to help chop ice; meat came ground so I didn’t have to cut the chunks and push them slooowly through the grinder; . . . I keep forgetting some things and remembering others, like ruining the dessert one night we had guests because I got some rock salt in the motor of the ice cream maker . . . having a clothes washing machine which got rid of most of the water so I didn’t have to help hold up the soaking wet sheets to be pinned on the lines above my head. All of a sudden, I had both privacy (my own telephone), my own music, and “free” time, however much my parents tried to fill it with after school lessons-this and lessons-that. Money and time. Time and money. It was time for friends to bump together with other pairs and bond like atoms in a molecule, becoming a “gang,” having our own things and our own things to do. Choosing our own movies, having sleep-overs, cook-outs, camp-outs, or just standin’ on the corner (“Most Happy Fella’) watchin’ all the girls/boys go by …. choices my mother had as a flapper for a very short time but in her young adulthood, not a teenager, already making the transition from one family to another.

    Until I was in my 20s and living outside the US, I didn’t realize that growing away from my family (not spending most of my days with them) had not been a natural shift, and not a gradual one either. Nor was it particularly safe – a lot of new habits were acquired (smoking was mandatory, drinking less available, less so; under-exercised/over-eating — unrecognized for another generation!), and a lot of lessons were never learned properly, like working through emotion-based arguments, and almost everything about sex). By the time I left for college I was, though without realizing it, estranged from my parents — my peers and some self-appointed guides knew better than they did! — and stupid enough socially to be a total jerk. There was a missing link. So what? I let go of the past and caught up with the future.

    I’m not regretting it. Just noting. Phase II: The age of baby-power (the late 60s) when the teens discovered the “higher order” (government) and tried with more success than I think is realized today to take it down — if they’d gone for influence instead of revolution, who knows what kind of damage might have been done! This was followed by the electronic age that bounded forward with the miniaturization in the 70s and PCs of the next level … and the next … ever faster … to push an even younger generation further beyond their elders. Built-in obsolescence was a forgotten phrase; it was the price of doing business. All for no particular reason; it was done because it could be done. Whatever Man can think of, He will Make Manifest.

    Phase III, the age of implantation or at least that’s the goal: to think it is to make it so, Scotty. The Me Generation segued into the My Generation, the facebook with no real face, the laptop without any dance to it, the music discomposed of both melody and harmony, the art honoring no form, and so forth. The disconnect is accomplished. The chain of 80 rescuers is the dramatic and, I believe, a singular and opportune event today (my grandfather spoke of similar rescues out on Coney Island in the late 90s, his 90s, that all the young men practiced under the lifeguard’s tutelage, regretting that he’d never had a chance to actually save a life — preferably of a fair maiden). More the style now is the misshapen selfie taken to preserve the moment(s) of selfishness, of distancing oneself from anything that cannot be legislated, such as morals or ethics. Do they know the difference between right and wrong? Certainly. They just have no idea why one would be preferred over the other.

    As for recording, I’ve gone from having a handful of true friends and loved ones, an album of vital people and experiences, a life of movement and joy and sex, of grief and loss, from a few cherished choices to a gazillion of ’em. So happy they’re not affordable. The only record worth keeping — and one which has begun slipping away in spite of being continually filled — is the one of the mind. Preserving that record beyond its span by mechanical or electronic means, (say, a PHD, Personal Hard-Drive? Is that on the market yet?) would take up more space in my being than I have left to waste. I have absolutely no interest in “RE-living” anything except in memory or imagination: there is no Groundhog Do-Over Day.

    • Pennagain, I enjoyed reading your comment – will likely read it several times, maybe copy and paste it to read yet again in future times – and respect your “Phase III” thesis and reasoning to support it, plus your hard-hitting closing. I think you speak well for more people than you know – more than most of them will admit or even recognize.

      • Thank you, Lucky. This was one of those times when I started out without knowing clearly where I was going; kind of surprised myself. I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. I don’t have any bells or whistles on my computer that tells me when I get a new message. About once a month, I just go back over the ones I’ve put in a folder marked “EA” and work my way up to today. That also gives me a chance to appreciate many more comments, like yours, on so many other topics that I would have missed the first time around.

    • I appreciate Mark’s comment, too, and share his hope, namely: “I can only hope that whatever innate kernel in us that speaks up for right and wrong does not shrink beyond our ability to hear it.

    • Pennagain – I am a musician, mostly classical, and I tend to think in musical terms. I love it when I encounter something non-musical that is “symphonic” in its scope. Your response to my post is positively Mahlerian and, like a Gustav Mahler symphony, it must be listened to many times with each hearing offering up new ideas, connections to old ideas, or even bringing to life something completely new.

      Like another commenter, I’m going to re-read this and sit with it awhile. I also petition Jack to consider it for a COTD.

      Thank you for taking my little tune and expanding it far past anything I’ve considered. The whole question of social disconnection is important to me, but as something of a “Big Picture” guy, I’ve missed a good deal of the detail you’ve so generously supplied. There is much here that I must now take into account as I continue to wrestle with the question.

      • “symphony” leaves me breathless, Mark. And thank you so very much for setting my creaky writing mode in motion — it’s usually just Jack who can do that. I take credit only for creating a patchwork piece out of what Max Morath calls “a ragtime life”. As I edge up to 80 I am more and more surprised at what new connections my brain makes out of old experience.

        And thank you for being a musician. The world is in great need of you.

        p.s. see under Lucky’s comment for my apology for the tardy response. It’s not a “ten” but it will have to do.

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