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Confrontations 2: John strikes back - John C. Kirk

Feb. 25th, 2007

10:00 pm - Confrontations 2: John strikes back

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Following up on Wednesday's post on confrontations, here are a couple more situations that I've been involved in. The main difference is that these were cases where I was the aggressor (more or less).

I've never claimed to be a pacifist (although I respect people who are), but I generally think that there are better ways of solving problems than being violent; I also think I have a sufficiently good success rate at finding alternate solutions that people often assume I am a pacifist. Admittedly, I was more prone to losing my temper when I first went off to boarding school ("blowing a psycho" as it was known), but I'm glad that I learnt to exercise more self-control while I was still too small/weak to do any real damage.

The first event happened in about 1999, when I was living near Aldgate. I was standing at the bus stop one evening, when I overheard a conversation between two other people (a man and a woman, both black). I don't think they knew each other, but she clearly wasn't interested in talking to him, and he wouldn't leave her alone, following her around when she tried to walk away. I didn't think that she was in any real danger (I'd categorise him as a pest rather than a rapist), but I also felt that the chivalrous thing to do would be to intervene on her behalf. A situation like this needs to be handled carefully, so I looked to my role models for guidance. What would Spider-Man do? Make a joke, then punch someone. Entertaining, but probably not helpful in this case. Hmm, how about Benton Fraser (the Mountie from Due South)? He'd be extremely polite, and solve the problem that way; ah, that sounds more promising.

I don't recall exactly what I said to the guy, but I think I was mainly trying to distract his attention from the woman. After I first said "Excuse me", he looked at me for a few seconds, then said "You're a white geezer, aren't you?" (Thus confirming my previous thoughts that race would play a part in this.) I replied "Yes, that's right, very observant of you", trying my best to sound polite rather than sarcastic. As we continued talking, I was aware of the woman leaving (in my peripheral vision), but I didn't look at her directly because that would have destroyed the point of my diversion. I'd like to think that she gave me a grateful look when she left, but I don't know; I'm guessing that she didn't say anything to me for the same reason that I didn't look at her. Anyway, I gave her enough time to get a decent head start (which sadly meant that I missed my bus and had to wait for the next one), then I finished the conversation. All in all, I think that worked out well: I was able to solve the problem peacefully. Admittedly, she didn't ask for my help, so arguably it was arrogant of me to think that I could handle things better than her, but I'm not going to lose too much sleep over such concerns.

The second incident happened in 2005, when I was at a tube station. I was heading down an escalator, and following etiquette by walking on the left while other people stood on the right. Anyway, when I was part-way down, I saw another guy walking up the escalator towards me. There were a few people standing on the right, so I assumed that he wanted to stand behind them, and I stopped to let him get there. However, he then stopped as well, right in front of me. I then realised that he actually wanted to keep walking up the escalator (the wrong way), and he wasn't even willing to go around me to do it, i.e. he wanted me to step aside to let him past. He was a bit smaller than me, and significantly older (probably in his 50s), so he was no physical threat; he was also white, so I didn't have to worry about race. Anyway, I tried to apply reason to the situation, by saying "Excuse me, you're going the wrong way." He replied: "No, you're going the wrong way!" So much for reason.

Plan B was that I could resolve the problem by force, although I'm keeping that distinct from violence: my idea was to turn him around and make him go down the escalator to the bottom. If I'd wanted to hurt him, that would have been easy: a hard shove would have tipped him over, and since he'd be falling downhill his head would probably have hit the escalator quite hard. However, that would have been inappropriate, so I was just trying to restrain him instead. I reached out and grabbed hold of him, but he then grabbed hold of my arm. As I say, I didn't want to push him too hard, so we stayed like that while I tried to pry his hands loose with my other hand. Meanwhile, the escalator continued downwards, and eventually we reached the bottom, Since he was going backwards (although now on the flat), and not watching where he was going, he tripped over the bit where the stairs join the ground, and fell backwards. Since he was still holding onto me, he pulled me down on top of him, although I think that I slowed his fall (since I could hold onto things with my spare arm and move my feet).

I'd let go of him by this point, and I was telling him to let go of me so that I could stand up when a member of staff came over, and told us both off for getting into a fight. I thought that this was a bit unfair, since I'd been trying to do the right thing, and I told her that the older guy had been trying to walk up the down escalator. She asked him if that was true, which he freely admitted to; surprisingly, he also told her that I hadn't done anything wrong. She said that even though he'd done that, I'd still handled it the wrong way, since I'm old enough to know better. Fair enough: I'm always happy to learn, so I asked her what I should have done. She repeated that I shouldn't have done that. I said that I understood that, but that I wanted to know what I should have instead. She said again that fighting wasn't the answer.

Taking an analogy, I can imagine this type of situation in a maths class.
Pupil: I think that 2+2=5.
Teacher: No, that's wrong.
Pupil: Oh, ok, what is it then?
Teacher: Well, it's not 5.
Pupil: Right, but what is it?
Teacher: 5 is not the answer!

Anyway, she then left, having made her point. I'm therefore inclined to say that she didn't have a better solution, and she just wanted a quiet life. This would fit in with the behaviour of the train driver (as mentioned on Wednesday), and the bus driver who didn't do anything to stop a passenger smoking a few years ago. Regarding the bus driver, I emailed TFL in November 2004 asking for their guidance in this type of situation, and they never replied: given that it's now been over two years, it seems unlikely that they ever will, which then leads me to think that they don't have any official policy. In other words, if there's trouble on public transport, you're on your own; they won't help you, and they'll criticise you if you try to help yourself.

Coming back to the escalator issue, I'd had to make a decision on the spot, while the member of staff had the luxury of time to consider it. I then pondered this further myself, wondering whether I could have handled it better. I've come up with a few ideas, but none of them are particularly appealing.

I could have simply stood still and refused to move. He was apparently unwilling to walk around me, so we would have stayed like that until we reached the bottom. However, we would have been blocking anyone else who wanted to walk down (by standing on the wrong side). Also, he would presumably still have tripped over at the bottom, but this time he would have fallen harder, and possibly sustained a serious injury.

Alternately, I could have stepped aside to let him past, and gone in search of official assistance. However, I couldn't see the member of staff who I spoke to later, so I didn't know how long it would have taken me to find someone. Also, what would they have done, once I'd transferred the problem to them? She didn't seem to have any bright ideas when I did speak to her. It's possible that he would have behaved himself if they'd spoken to him sternly, but I doubt it. If they pressed the emergency stop button that would be risky for anyone whose forward momentum meant that they fell forward, and in his case it would be even more serious (falling backwards). Alternately, if they sent extra staff onto the escalator, those staff would be adding to the problem (more people in the way, blocking passengers), and I don't know if they'd be willing to send staff up from the bottom (health and safety regulations), so it would cause a delay to co-ordinate staff from the top.

In the meantime, let's suppose that everyone else was willing to co-operate with him, by moving aside: sooner or later, there'd be a problem where the person in front of him couldn't step to the side, because there would already be someone standing there. They would then be faced with the decision of either turning around and walking up in convoy with him (maybe difficult with a queue of other people further up) or persuading him to move. However, that hypothetical passenger might not be as well-equipped for that as I was.

Ultimately, this comes down to Ben Parker's legacy of power and responsibility: if I'm in a position where I can solve a problem, I feel that I have a moral obligation to do so. I also feel that there's something wrong with the idea that everyone has to tiptoe around the rights of someone who's causing trouble.

Anyway, I'll close with a poll:

Poll #935181 Escalator

How would you handle someone walking up the down escalator towards you?

Step aside to let them past
6(85.7%)
Stand still
0(0.0%)
Try to continue walking down
1(14.3%)


Edit: I forgot that you can't add a poll to an existing post, hence the deletion/re-creation of this entry.

Comments:

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From:pozorvlak
Date:February 26th, 2007 12:16 pm (UTC)
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The perversity of walking up a down escalator appeals to me, so I'd almost certainly just smile and let him past. I have in fact tried doing this once (on an empty, short escalator), but desisted when I got threatening looks from the security staff.
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From:susannahf
Date:February 26th, 2007 12:58 pm (UTC)
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I have a vague recollection of seeing one of those terrible fly-on-the-wall docusoaps following underground staff/british trasport police, and them mentioning that it's illgal (or possibly just contrary to the conditions of carriage) to go the wrong way in a London Underground escalator. I found this amusing at the time, as I can't see any real harm in it, unless the escalator is very crowded, in which case it is just pointless as you won't get anywhere.
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From:johnckirk
Date:February 26th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
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I suppose the main risk is that you'll have to run in order to get anywhere, and that makes you more likely to trip over; this would be more of a danger if you're going down an "up" escalator rather than vice-versa.

Back when the "Gladiators" TV program was on (mid-90s), the final challenge involved running up their "travelator", which was a bit like the conveyor belts you get at supermarket checkouts (i.e. flat rather than in steps) except that it was tilted rather than horizontal. They'd always have a voiceover at the end of the program saying something like "The Gladiators are trained athletes, do not try this at home!" I don't know whether this did lead to a spate of people doing impromptu training at supermarkets or stations...

Regarding the situation that I was in, if the guy had been willing to go around me then I would have left him to it. However, I think that if you're going to go the wrong way then that puts the burden on you to avoid blocking other people, rather than putting the burden on them to accommodate you.
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From:pozorvlak
Date:February 27th, 2007 02:12 pm (UTC)
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FWIW, this was in Borders in Oxford...
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From:nou
Date:February 26th, 2007 04:01 pm (UTC)
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I think I'm with the staff member here. You don't know that the other person would have got in anyone else's way; he might have made it to the top, or he might have given up and gone back down again. It sounds like there might have been something a bit wrong with him, and I doubt your intervention did anything to teach him "proper" behaviour; if anything it taught him that random strangers are likely to start manhandling him. Regarding why the staff member didn't specify what you should have done, I suspect that she felt it should be unnecessary to explain to a grown man why you don't start grabbing other people on escalators, and didn't feel like getting into an argument with you.
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From:johnckirk
Date:February 26th, 2007 05:49 pm (UTC)
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It's certainly true that I don't know what would have happened if I'd acted differently; however, this is almost always the case, and so I can only base my decisions on likelihoods. In the same way, if someone is threatening to kill me or stab me, I don't know whether they're actually going to follow through on that threat, so I just have to make the best risk assessment that I can under the circumstances, bearing in mind that I'm under a certain amount of time pressure, and a lack of decision will often become a decision itself. (For instance, if I'd stood there thinking about it then eventually we would have reached the bottom of the escalator.)

As for teaching, if animals can be trained to associate actions with rewards/punishments then I think it's reasonable to expect the same of a human who is wandering around unsupervised.

it should be unnecessary to explain to a grown man why you don't start grabbing other people on escalators

Out of curiousity, how much of a blanket statement is this? Bearing in mind that she didn't know he'd been trying to walk up until I told her, that means that she would have made the same initial criticism if something different had happened. For example, suppose that he'd tried to steal my bag/wallet, and I'd grabbed hold of him to stop him from getting away: would that be completely unacceptable behaviour on my part? If you do feel that physical force is never justified, that's fair enough; as I say, I'm just curious to know where you would draw the line.
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From:pozorvlak
Date:February 26th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)
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I suspect that she felt it should be unnecessary to explain to a grown man why you don't start grabbing other people on escalators

Nah, I'm with John - I reckon she didn't have an answer, and didn't want to admit it (possibly not even to herself). This kind of argument pattern is common among the kind of people who like to argue from "common sense". And you know what? I think you're doing the same thing.
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From:nou
Date:February 26th, 2007 11:27 pm (UTC)
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As you've noticed, I really can't summon up the energy to argue about this with John — and I know and like him. I can totally empathise with someone who has to deal with this kind of thing all the time not having the energy either.
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From:nou
Date:February 27th, 2007 09:10 pm (UTC)
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I'm sorry; I thought I was going to have time to come back to this properly, but I don't think I am, after all. But if you're interested in this sort of stuff (and you haven't already read it) you might enjoy reading Gary Klein's Sources of Power. It's an interesting study of the way people make decisions.
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