There was a time when we went about our daily lives barely noticing the goings-on of those around us.
The anonymous couple next to us on the street was invisible, unless, of course they had a cute kid. And we hardly ever discussed what our friends did with their friends, unless there was gossip to be had.
But now here we are in the midst a public health crisis. So understandably, it’s hard to ignore the urge to ask the seemingly sweet family of four beside us: Where are your masks? And, sir, yes you, working behind the deli counter: Will you be so kind as to pull your mask up over your nose? I know we’ve been best friends forever, but before we meet for drinks next week: Can you provide me with a detailed list of all the people with whom you’ve socialized in the last month?
Dealing with the pandemic has changed our relationships, for sure. But it’s not just coronavirus fears fueling our newsiness. The election and the protests have also made us look at family, friends, and coworkers differently. Do they support Black Lives Matter? Who is this stranger walking around our neighborhood — now is not the time for Amazon packages to mysteriously disappear. We want to know not only if our cohorts are voting, but who they plan to vote for.
Never have we felt so entitled to poke our nose in grown folks' business for the sake of our well-being. But when is it appropriate to butt in? There is no right answer. But here are some questions to help figure out when you should step in or step away.
Are you certain you know what’s happening?
Because we have such high anxiety about COVID-19, it’s tempting to try to control what we can about other people’s behavior. So we feel justified minding people’s business, explained Sukaina Hirji , a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies ancient philosophy and contemporary ethics. “The problem is that we often don’t know the whole situation.”
ASK YOURSELF: Why do you need to be in control? Is your mission just — are you truly concerned about safety and the safety of others — or do you just want to be seen? Do you want to be right?
Are you being a busybody?
The concept of the busybody — the nosy, do-nothing who pokes around in other peoples' business and in the process thwarts justice — goes back to the days of Plato and Aristotle.
The classical busybody seeks to intervene all of the time, but they don’t have the good of the community in mind, explained Sally Scholz, Villanova University’s chair of Philosophy. “In fact, in ancient Greece, the politician was considered a busybody because they didn’t really understand what the community needed, or their own motivations. He was just looking to be seen.”
A more modern example: The phenomenon that has become known as “the Karen.” Think: San Francisco beauty entrepreneur, Lisa Alexander, who interrogated a Black man before calling the police on him back in June for writing Black Lives Matter in chalk on his property. The reason: She didn’t believe he lived there.
These kinds of actions — white people calling the police on Black people for living — are not driven by virtue, Scholz explained.
But the non-mask wearer bopping around an indoor restaurant? That’s another issue, entirely. That, Scholz said, is when you may want to speak up.
“If you are in a crowded area where people could come in contact with vulnerable people, your failure to act could contribute to harm,” Scholz explained.
ASK YOURSELF: What is driving your need to interfere? Are your actions driven by virtue? Or fear? And is this fear justified?
Are you — or is someone else — in danger?
So, you’ve been honest with yourself and your intentions are good. Now, says Peter Koch, a philosophy professor at Villanova, the next important question to consider: What’s the immediate danger?
ASK YOURSELF: Is someone’s life at risk? What are the consequences if you stay silent or if you speak up?
Take this moral dilemma: You are on line at a big-box store and you think you see someone grab something at the self-checkout counter without paying for it: Do you call security, or do you let it go?
Of course the store will be grateful for your keen ability to stop a thief. And when things are stolen, stores pass that cost on to everyone, so it does affect us all. But who’s really in danger here? Is anyone’s life in danger because a few rolls of toilet paper go missing?
Will getting involved cause more harm than good?
In the situation above, there’s even more to consider. Are you sure you have witnessed a crime? It’s worth considering that perhaps your unconscious biases against young people or people of color may be influencing how you interpret what you saw.
But also: What if you alert security and you are wrong?
» READ MORE: What should we do with our anger right now?
This is really something to think about, Koch said, especially given the relationship between people of color — especially Black men — and police.
What if you know that when you turn someone in for stealing toilet paper there is the very real possibility they will be mistreated, perhaps even lose their life, for a minor infraction?
Are there universal laws which always apply? “Or are there times when our morals are relative to the culture in a particular period? These are time-honored questions of philosophers,” Koch said. “These are the moral dilemmas that philosophers study all of the time.”
What is the risk for you if you butt in?
Part of what the Greeks say about being a busybody is that there are times when you butt in and it creates injustice. But intervening can also be about making a space for justice, and you can’t stay silent when there is real injustice happening.
But sometimes, intervening comes with risk. In September, an 80-year old man in New York named Rocco Sapienza asked another man to put on a mask in a bar. But the man pushed him instead, and Sapienza died of his injuries five days later.
For some groups, especially Black men, that risk can be greater. Especially when a police officer’s biases can often confuse a do-gooder with the bad guy.
Take the case of Jonathan Price. The 31-year-old Black man intervened when he saw a domestic dispute at a Texas gas station in October. But when the police officer arrived, Price became the target, and the officer tased him and then shot him to death.
Both Sapienza and Price would have passed the busybody test — someone’s life was clearly in danger so both men stepped in — but it cost them their lives.
“When is intervening worth the risk to your own life?" Hirji asked. “There is really is no answer.”
ASK YOURSELF: What danger am I in if I intervene? Is there a safer option?
What’s the desired outcome?
This is the most important question to ask yourself: What do you want the outcome to be?
“Sometimes you have to speak up. Sometimes you have to stay in your lane. There is no easy answer," said Hirji. But if you are honest with yourself and your intentions are good, the best advice we have for you is follow your gut.
ASK YOURSELF: What should happen next? Take a beat and pause to reflect on what you want to see happen here. Don’t act out of anger, but try to think through each step of what happens if you intervene, or don’t, and which scenario gets you closer to what you think makes the world a better place.