When Should a Man Step In?

Cynric Whitaker recently put up a piece on the blog in the Art of Manliness Community that I wanted to re-post here on the Trunk. One of the questions I see pop up from time to time in the Community, and something I’ve pondered myself, is the question of when a man should step into a situation where he sees something wrong going on. There’s a big spectrum here, from incidents where most men would step in (a man is assaulting a woman), to those where some men would do or say something and some wouldn’t (you’re at a baseball game with your young son and the fan next to you is using foul language).

Anyway, so I’ll post Cynric’s piece, and then I invite everyone to discuss the question of when and where a man should step into a situation and where you draw the line.


I recently published an article on my website (www.theheroscape.com) about an incident that occurred while I was at the zoo with my little brother. Basically I happened upon a 13 year old kid spitting into the ponds and streams of several exhibits.

Even as I write this, almost a week later, it strikes me how many people were there who saw the same thing I did, but did nothing. It seemed a classic example of the Bystander Effect, a social phenomenon where a person does not offer any assistance or do anything to intervene in a crisis situation because of the presence of others. It seems strange to think that we are less inclined to take action when there are other people around, but studies have proven this to be true. The more ‘other people’ are present the less likely an individual is to take personal responsibility for doing something.

This wasn’t a crisis by any means. But I imagine people were shaking their heads and grumbling about what they saw. “Where are his parents?”. “Somebody should do something.”.

In my mind “somebody” should have been any adult who noticed. And this incident highlighted one of the failings of our society. Nobody wants to get involved. Nobody wants to take responsibility. If no one intervenes now when his crimes are relatively small, what will happen if this kind of behavior escalates to vandalism or something else? Where will he learn that society will hold him accountable for what he does, which can reinforce one of the foundations of manhood in a boy who is just beginning to discover his strength and power: respect.

It reminds me of the scene in The Dark Knight where Harvey Dent holds a press conference to announce that the Batman has offered to turn himself in. The citizens, even the police officers are scared and they’re willing to trade their liberty, their right to a peaceful and just society for a promise of safety. In the bargain is nothing to end crime; and by allowing this they shackle themselves like a woman facing a mugger. “Take what you want,” they say. “Just don’t hurt me.”

A man can’t be a bystander and consider himself a man. When others whisper ‘someone should do something’ he must be the one to spring into action, whether it be alone or with a dozen like minded men at his side. In times of calamity or relative calm, whether fighting for a cause or defending the public trust, a man must act. To do otherwise is to betray all of us.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Josef October 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

There is a beautiful quote in one of the Terry Pratchett books: “Lots of people say ‘Somebody should do something’ and then failing to add the necessary: ‘And that somebody is me.’”

Mary October 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm

To step in is hard, it takes moral courage and you rely on instinct when there is no-one seemingly around to help. I have often gone out of my way to say or do something when everyone else is scared. Use your instinct but don’t ever get out of your depth, by taking on a gang, or making yourself vulnerable x

Dave October 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm

In similar scenarios, I have stepped in, but on more than one occasion my fear is this: what if the child doesn’t stop? I don’t believe I can physically restrain him, at least legally, and possibly morally. How do you handle that?

Peter October 10, 2011 at 2:48 pm

@Dave, yeah, 50 years ago you could slap the kid or something, but unless you can somehow verbally intimidate him or he feels bad after you confront him about it, you’re pretty much just out of luck.

Nick October 10, 2011 at 4:50 pm

I agree that you did the right thing. I like the idea of letting him know that the way he’s acting is not acceptable, and he should cut it out. I have had to do this when with my so at almost every pro game I take him to…hockey more often than others for some reason.

I also think you should do this without sounding like a major “blowhard” , which is basically what writing posting an article about how you are awesome, and everyone else amounts to a room full of empathetic idiots. Make you point and move on…your back must hurt from the patting.

Mike October 10, 2011 at 5:37 pm

I think the problem, aside from the obvious weak-kneed idea of manhood out there today, is the fact that the lack of a general idea of a moral absolute means that a man doesn’t have the right to step into another persons business. Even in the case of something as crass as spitting into the streams at the zoo where obviously the child should be reprimanded is met with blank stares. It is obvious that he shouldn’t be doing that, it is disrespectful and therefore wrong, everyone recognizes it, but no one can say a thing because it’s ‘not my kid,’ or ‘that’s his parents’ job.’

I have a close friend who is a middle school teacher. He will tell you that the kids born to parents who were spoon-fed the 60s mumbo-jumbo of ‘no moral absolutes,’ ‘if it feels good and it doesn’t hurt someone do it,’ from their parents then have no real moral ground to teach their own children. They’ll say “don’t do that!” to which the child relies, “why?” They have no answer. You can’t say that it is just wrong. You have to give them a reason why it is not in their best interest.

It is the responsibility of a man to stand for right and against wrong. In order to do this he has to stand on absolute moral ground. That means that to a lot of people you’ll come off as a crass, old-fashioned yuppie from bygone days, but that’s really what being a ‘man’ in the sense of AoM really means isn’t it? We don’t care what stone-cut model shaves his chest and carries a man-purse. We care about what makes a real man from boys. Honor, dignity, virtue, pride, hard-work, sacrifice, graciousness, compassion, justice, and fortitude.

peter October 11, 2011 at 4:35 am

This points to a larger issue, and that being if the act greatly upsets you, then why not do something about it. Me personally I would have done something to the point of letting that kid know that all is not and he better stop, or else, repercussion be damned. Think and act like a gentleman in this instance, apply tact, but be firm when the situation obviously calls for it.

Luis October 11, 2011 at 10:46 am

In a situation like that I would definitely tell the kid. Issues arise when the parents are right beside the child when he/she does something that is clearly wrong. It happens to me often in church. There is a kid yelling and making a tantrum and their parents just ignore it. Sometimes the priest will shut up till the parents deal with it but most of the times nobody does anything. I have had to restrain myself many times since it made my family uncomfortable, but my first impulse always is to talk with the parents, even if “its their child”.

Adam October 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Run up and kick the kid in the head. Definitely. It is the most reasonable course of action.

Ryan October 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm

To use another scenario, in Melbourne Australia a few years back, a man was pulling a screaming woman from a taxi in the city and mistreating her. Two men, a European backpacker and a Melbourne lawyer, stepped in for the woman. They didn’t know it when they did, but the man was a Hells Angels bikie, and shot them both. The backpacker survived, sadly the lawyer did not, and he died right there in the intersection. I remember at the time most people said they were foolish for intervening. I disagree. It cost that lawyer his life, but he died a man. If I saw the same situation today, I’d like to think I’d do the same thing.

James October 11, 2011 at 2:50 pm

I’ve missed my fair share of corrections, but I was angered into action recently.

Picture this. I’m at the park with my young 2 year old son. Some older (7-9) boys are throwing rocks at ducklings in the pond.

I yell at them. “hey kids don’t throw rocks at the ducks”. They run off, I guess surprised that no other adults corrected them.

I feel happy that I set an example for my son, and potentially saved ducklings. I also worried about the implications if the child says no, but what parent could really sit there and say ‘its ok to throw rocks at baby animals’.

I felt like I was out of the gray area.

Wayne October 16, 2011 at 1:47 pm

I feel like I have wasted my time reading this post. The kid isn’t doing anything wrong, kids spit in ponds and streams and puddles. They don’t do it to be rude, they’re just kids. If he was littering or throwing something in that could hurt the animals that would be different, but it sounds to me like he was just being a kid. You’re writing a “hero” blog, but you sound like a punk who wants to act tough by policing the behavior of little kids. If you want to get more satisfaction out of being a man, I suggest picking on someone your own size.

Ben October 17, 2011 at 6:16 pm


You sound like someone who needs to learn some manners… and like kind of a punk to boot. Spitting in the exhibits is dumb and inappropriate. Kids are kids, but come on, don’t be an ass.

Dean October 26, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I think what we are discussing here is discernment.

It takes a bit of wisdom and a bit of self assuredness to step in. Here’s my rule of thumb: We must act firmly and wisely without embittering or embarrassing others. I took this from a famous prayer you can find here: http://atextfortodayandreadings.blogspot.com/2009/01/greet-coming-day-in-peace-orthodox.html

Mike November 1, 2011 at 6:58 pm

My most recent occurrence was at a local park where we take our 2 yr old daughter to a special playground designed for 2-5 year olds (imagine miniature everything so littler kids can manage). At some point there were 3 appropriately aged kids playing and two older kids around 8 or 10 y/o came around jumping all over everything. I gave them a couple minutes to see if they would come to the decision to leave on their own. They didn’t. I could see nervousness on the faces of the other parents but I was only one to tell them to go to one of the bigger playgrounds where they weren’t at risk of mowing down small kids.

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