Cell Phone Cameras and The End of the Fair FightS

Here we see two young women grab each other and start fighting at yesterday's Giants victory parade. A large crowd gathers around them. What the crowd does: point their cell phone cameras and film the fight. What the crowd does not do: make any move to break up the fight. Cell phone cameras have given us a fine excuse to become a bunch of moral zombies.

Cameras of any sort have the effect of removing us from the reality that surrounds us. A person behind a camera goes from being a bystander fully engaged in the circumstance at hand to being a designated observer, recording but not participating in the occasion. When that means a minuscule number of war photographers will take pictures as bullets fly in order to bring images of an important conflict to the outside world, it's a net social good. When it means that every single asshole in every single subway car, fast food restaurant, or high school hallway is able to instantly absolve themselves of all moral responsibility to act as a Minimally Decent Fellow Citizen simply by whipping out a cell phone, it is a problem. This is the situation we find ourselves in today.

Nobody is obligated to be a hero. Nobody is obligated to risk serious injury or death in order to save a fellow human being. But we are all obligated to help as we can. You don't have to jump into a fight between two grown men. But you should seriously consider intervening in a fight between two diminutive girls. You don't have to throw yourself at a handgun-wielding mugger sticking up an innocent victim. But you should probably call the police. These are very simple and basic obligations, which are a small price for us to pay to know that we live in a somewhat civil society.

Before cell phone cameras, bystanders were at least forced to make a choice when something violent or objectionable happened in front of them. The people who ignored Kitty Genovese's cries for help as she was being murdered (leading to the coining of the term "Bystander effect") were roundly condemned as heartless cowards; their example made many others vow to never do the same thing. That's an extreme example, but it illustrates the simple process: event. Choice. And later, public sanction against those whose choices were self-evidently poor.

Cell phone cameras remove the choice. Fights are spectacles, and everyone is a cameraman, who can't be held responsible, because hey, he was filming. Fast food restaurant fights. Subway fights. Mall brawls. All consisting of a writhing, violent center surrounded by the glow of dozens of cell phone screens on "record," constantly maneuvering into the best angle. You people aren't even watching the fight. You're watching your cell phone, cheering on violence while you yourself stand to the side. It's fine and healthy to be scared of violence. That's why we should all try to make it a point not to encourage it. Like, by screaming "fuck that bitch up!" as a girl gets punched in the face by another girl on the sidewalk two feet in front of your cell phone lens.

When the "Bumfights" series of videos came out a decade ago, it was at least notionally a cause for concern. Now, amateur violence one of the most common Youtube genres. I like watching fights. Fair fights, in which both participants are fully willing and accepting of the consequences and take reasonable precautions. That constitutes perhaps 1% of fights. The rest are people who are either very drunk or very stupid or bullies or, most likely, very scared at heart, wishing that someone somewhere would put a stop to this, but unwilling to back down in front of a taunting, shouting, bloodthirsty crowd of bystanders. Can't be a coward. This will all end up on Youtube.