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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

What would you do?

<ther night, as I was messing around on Hulu, I came across something quite interesting. On a list of the website’s most popular clips, a hidden camera show called  “What Would You Do?” was featured. The premise of the show is simple: ABC producers hire actors to do insensitive and disrespectful things in public places, and then capture people’s reactions. In one scenario, an actor in a bakery goes on an Anti-Semitic tirade directed at a group of Jews (also actors). Cameras show the store’s patrons becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Some of the customers walk out of the store; a few even yell at the bigoted baker. One man joins in and echoes the hate speech. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of customers don’t do anything at all. They stand there, pretend to ignore what’s going on, and pay for their items and leave. Naturally, it was frustrating to watch these people tacitly accept what was going on. Still, I’d be hypocritical if I said that if I found myself in a similar situation I would react differently. One evening in particular left me feeling similarly powerless.

A couple summers ago, as my friend Josh and I were exiting a Chinese restaurant; an, elderly woman came up to us and asked us if we enjoyed our meal. The woman was very well dressed, and had been standing next to her large Mercedez Benz. My friend and I told her we had enjoyed our meal very much, and politely asked if she had enjoyed hers. What followed was the longest conversation if I’ve ever had with an elderly woman outside of a Chinese restaurant. I learned a lot about Ms. Merkle that day. It seems that her husband had “gone and got Parkinsons, which was a real inconvenience” for Ms. Merkle and her family. She contemplated leaving him and moving to Florida but decided not to “because she wasn’t Jewish.” Interestingly, Ms. Merkle’s eyes lit up when I told her I went to Carleton. She and her daughter had looked at the school because they wanted a “small Christian college.” (I know). However, Ms. Merkle was now worried about her daughter. It seems she had fallen into a dangerous crowd and was now making bad decisions. Merkle’s daughter was out late partying all the time, going to “those nightclubs” and such. Merkle says her daughter started supporting this community of “gays,” now talking about their lifestyle as though it were “acceptable.” Ms. Merkle thought her daughter needed a good man to set her straight, “even a Catholic might be alright.”

In a ten-minute conversation with complete strangers, Ms. Merkle had managed to be anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and anti-Catholic all at once. In a way, it was funny that Ms. Merkle felt so comfortable discussing all of this with two Jewish boys. It was as if we were old friends sipping iced tea at the country club pool and discussing our privilege. I wanted to say something to this woman, but what? She was clearly set in her ways. It was funny too, because up until that point, I always felt such openly prejudiced people were uneducated hillbillies. Ms. Merkle was problematic. Try as I might, I was not able to dismiss this articulate, wealthy woman as an uncouth lout. Her ideas were far off base, but they were an essential part of her intellectual framework.

It’s not hard to understand why the people on the television show don’t respond. People don’t like discussing these issues; they certainly don’t want to confront them head on. When John Quiñones jumps out from behind the camera and asks the people in the scene why they didn’t get involved, they always have the same response: “What could I have done?” There is no easy answer.

Personally, I think it’s less about action than about self-growth. The problem with the TV show “What Would You Do?” is that it gives people closure. People can easily distance themselves from the incredulous experience: “Oh, I am on television! This makes so much sense! People would never really act like this in the real world.” But my situation was a lot different than that of the people on television. Ms. Merkle wasn’t an actor. I really did encounter someone who held such insensitive beliefs. I was then forced to confront my own assumptions about what it means to be homophobic and anti-Semitic. This helped me realize why Ms. Merkle’s words were offensive, and prevented me from getting into an ad hominem debate or worse. Indeed, directly confronting someone using vitriolic hate speech is difficult, and not necessarily that effective. Instead, using the experience for self-reflection, I became much less naïve about such things.

-Dustin Goldberger is a Carletonian columnist.

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