Benevolence of a Culture

 Posted by on 2 July 2013 at 10:00 am  Benevolence, China, Culture, Ethics
Jul 022013

A while back, Robert Garmong posted the following story on Facebook:

Walking home from work, through the hard-packed ice left over from yesterday’s snow, past the construction zones, I saw a row of cars stopped, waiting impatiently while a very miserable-looking minivan spun its wheels on the ice.

(Incidentally, a Chinese minivan is truly mini. It comes up to my eye-level, at most, and it looks as though I could fit it into my backpack, yet somehow, like a clown car, you can get 8 people into it. They’re very crummy, and mostly used for low-end delivery businesses and the like.)

The driver clearly didn’t know what to do about his situation. He obviously didn’t get his driver’s license at age 16 in a small, snowy town in Illinois. After spinning his wheels a few times, churning up ice and spewing oily exhaust into the air, he got out of the car to come back and scratch his head, staring down at his rear wheels. He didn’t do any of the things I would have done: he didn’t put a rock or a piece of cardboard under his tire, didn’t throw dirt down, didn’t try to push his van past the glossy spot he’d worn by spinning his wheels. He just looked for a few seconds, then when the cars behind him started honking he got back into the van and started spinning his wheels again. The unofficial motto of China might as well be: Work harder, not smarter.

If this were Texas, there would have been five people lined up behind his little clown van to push him along (not that you’d need that many). The guy in the car behind him would’ve jumped out of the car to give him a shove, without even thinking about it. Passers-by would’ve joined in. Street vendors selling fruit alongside the road would have paused their haggling for a minute to come pitch in. (Well, I guess in Texas there wouldn’t be street vendors selling fruit alongside the road, but IF there were, they’d be helping.)

Here, all the guy got was a glance or two from the pedestrians, and a bunch of blaring horns from the cars piled up behind him. A larger bus going the opposite way rolled down its window so the driver could offer him some fairly useless advice, then drove off.

The clown-van driver was getting nowhere, so I jogged out into the road and gave a little tiny shove — I mean REALLY tiny — no stronger than would be required to open a stuck backyard gate. The van shish-shish-shished forward a foot or so, then got traction and chugged slowly up the road. The driver of the car behind him tooted a little honk of thanks, then the whole lot of them tailed the van-driver slowly, carefully up the hill.

For the most part, Americans are steeped in benevolence. We are willing to help others — including strangers — in a thousand small ways at the drop of a hat. That’s a huge value — and not one that we should take for granted. Such makes life so much better in a thousand small ways.

As it happens, I mentioned that culture-wide benevolence in my end-of-year Philosophy in Action Radio of 30 December 2012, where I talked about all the good in American culture. (That was the whole episode!) So if you’ve not heard it, take a listen:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Also, if you’ve not yet heard my two interviews with Robert Garmong on life in China… don’t delay! They’re chock-full of great stories and insights.

First, I interviewed Robert about “Teaching in China” on 19 September 2012. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Second, I interviewed Robert about “Should We Fear or Embrace China?” on 27 March 2013. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

  • rogerzimmerman

    I would observe that the waiting drivers were not only being unbenevolent, but were also showing a distinct lack of self-interest (assuming they wanted to keep moving). I have always reasoned that Rand’s notion that “the moral is the practical” needed the qualification “at the long-range time scale that is proper to humans as rational animals”. However, there are circumstances, such as this one, where the overlap is evident immediately!

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