SAM TAYLOR: The ‘hero gene’? We have bred it out of existence

SAM TAYLOR: The ‘hero gene’? We have bred it out of existence and instead choose to mind our own business

Imagine you are a woman travelling on a train when an out-of-control, 6ft stranger starts kicking you. Then imagine you are an able-bodied man sitting alongside your terrified fellow traveller. You have a friend with you who could be back-up if needed, Batman to your Robin, if you like. So do the pair of you A) Stand up and pull on your metaphorical superhero tights. Or B) Move seats and ignore her?

Last week fashion chief executive Tamara Cincik was left traumatised when, instead of responding to her pleas for help as she faced this scenario, two seemingly civilised, middle-class men chose option B and moved away from the affray, leaving her abandoned her in a Tube carriage.

Inevitably, there was a hue and cry shaming the men and calling them everything from cowards to words that I really wouldn’t want to type here. Because we all like to think we have a moral compass that would direct us towards doing the right thing.

But does it?

In fact, if such a thing as a hero gene ever existed, we are at risk of phasing it out by breeding a risk-averse generation. But do we really need to live like this?

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It’s true that there are real-life heroes. Benedict Cumberbatch, for instance, covered himself in glory recently when he leapt from his taxi and went to the defence of a delivery driver being attacked by a gang. True, he went to a school where he would have been expected to behave with honour in the face of adversity, but acts of heroism are not class-based.

I was once saved by a builder in a white van who screeched alongside my wobbly 2CV just as a crowbar-wielding lunatic driver was about to smash in my windscreen.

Nor are they gender-based. In fact, in my experience, women can be just as likely to ignore a call for help as a man.

Last week fashion chief executive Tamara Cincik was left traumatised when, instead of responding to her pleas for help as she faced this scenario, two seemingly civilised, middle-class men chose option B and moved away from the affray, leaving her abandoned her in a Tube carriage 

As a 20-year-old, I was once almost strangled to death in my bed in a rather smart corner of Oxford, and when police interviewed my next-door neighbour, she said she had heard the screams for help but decided they were being made by a vixen in the back garden. Perhaps the first and last time there was a speaking fox living off the Banbury Road.

Partly because they have yet to develop any strategic decision-making skills, children can be capable of the most eye-watering acts of heroism.

A nine-year-old schoolboy survived the collapse of his classroom in China’s Szechuan province during an earthquake in 2008, only to run back into the collapsing building when he heard two chums crying for help.

He later said he’d done it because he was a ‘hall monitor’ and that it was his job – to look after his classmates. Unfortunately, unlike the plucky little schoolboy, the two middle-aged men on the Tube decided it wasn’t their job to help the terrified woman and chose instead to ‘mind their own business’ – a phrase that has become the rallying call of the modern era. Small acts of altruism rarely get rewarded, and can, in our politically correct and litigious culture, get us into – to use another familiar phrase – ‘more trouble than it is worth’.

In fact, if such a thing as a hero gene ever existed, we are at risk of phasing it out by breeding a risk-averse generation. Last year I tried to help a young woman being harangued by a group of youths in the street by asking some passers-by to help me, only to be told by them that ‘I shouldn’t get involved’. In the end the police arrived and also told me I should be careful about ‘getting involved’.

But do we really need to live like this?

At Stanford University in California, they have been asking members of the public to take a ‘Hero Pledge’ – a promise to ‘act when confronted with a situation where I feel something is wrong’.

It might seem a bit hippy-dippy, but perhaps it is a much-needed first step to agreeing that we should stop minding our own business and reignite something of the spirit of the caped crusaders – without the dodgy tights, of course…

 

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