Thought-provoking piece the other day in what we Standard-bearers used to call The Other Newspaper. Headline (for which the writer is of course not responsible) seemed to be having trouble making its mind up. It said “Yes, it’s legal, but that doesn’t make it right: Hong Kong’s ‘can-do’ spirit has been twisted.”
This is interesting, indeed the first part of it is an important point which bears repetition any time: what is legal and what is right are two different things. Hong Kong’s can-do spirit, on the other hand, generally means overcoming obstacles by ingenuity and hard work. I am not sure how, or whether, that connects with doing whatever you like, a rather different matter.
Continuing to what we print dinosaurs used to call the second deck of the headline we were told that the author “Luisa Tam argues that merely following the law is not enough in our society – there is no legislation to guide us on how to be a Good Samaritan.”
Indeed there isn’t, and this is a problem. One of the more robust findings of experimental psychology is that, given a situation where help is needed but other people are also in a position to supply it, something between 60 and 75 per cent of us will leave the heavy lifting to the other people.
And this seems to be what Ms Tam wished to talk about. Indeed by the end of the piece it is what she is talking about: “For individuals, there is no law to guide people to be a Good Samaritan. The fact that we are not legally obligated to do good deeds or behave admirably towards others doesn’t mean we should stand idly by and do nothing when help is needed, or behave in such a way that benefits no one but ourselves.”
With which I hope many readers will agree. What puzzled me about the piece was what happened in between.
Pieces lamenting declining moral standards are a respectable form of journalism drawing on a long tradition which can be traced back through General Booth and Savonarola to the Elder Cato. During my lifetime I have seen many variations on this complaint, with moral decay attributed to American comics, rock and roll, sex, the pill, the decline of religion, the deplorable example set by politicians generally and Mrs Thatcher in particular, cheaper booze, easier divorce, outsourcing, investment bankers, video games, pagers, mobile phones, and Facebook, to name a few.
The success of this kind of writing depends on the specific examples given. Nobody is going to be interested in, or persuaded by, bare appeals to abstract principle. The horror story is the heart of the story.
Well we are offered two, and both of them seem to have problems. One concerns an employer who wanted to curtail his workers’ entitlement to compassionate leave in family crises. Well shame on him. As a sidelight on contemporary mores, though, it had two disadvantages: the employer was eventually talked out of it, and the whole incident took place 20 years ago.
This brings us to Ms Tam’s other example, in which she is a victim. Ms Tam apparently drives an electric car, and was outraged to find, in a public car park, that someone had parked an ordinary petrol-driven vehicle in one of the spaces fitted out with a charging gadget for chariots like hers.
Indeed Ms Tam sees “almost every day” charging stations occupied by non-electric vehicles and this is because they are often “non-reserved spaces”.
Which raises an interesting ethical/legal question, though perhaps not the one the writer intended. If a space is a non-reserved space, and spaces are in short supply, why should a driver seeking a space not park in it, whether his car is electric or not?
If someone can afford to spend half a million bucks on a car (I note without comment that journalism seems to have become more lucrative than it was when I was a full-time practitioner) then perhaps he or she should be expected to make arrangements for feeding it which do not involve depending on specialised spaces in public car parks.
Indeed I am a bit puzzled by this enthusiasm for putting power points in public car parks. The manufacturers of electric cars now maintain that the range of these creatures is comparable to that of their petrol-drinking counterparts. So why should they expect or need a quick top-up while the boss is doing the shopping?
We have never, after all, had petrol pumps in car parks. And I fancy that requests from drivers with retro tastes for hitching rails and horse-watering troughs will not be entertained.
Ms Tam says she “confronted a woman with a baby on the back seat of her car” who was occupying a charging space. The woman replied that it was not a reserved space. Ms Tam responded with “But it’s not very nice, is it?” Not very nice? Some of us would have been tempted to answer that in terms not fit for a baby’s ears.
The pity of it is that there are plenty of examples of morally questionable goings on in Hong Kong if you want to explore present values, without getting involved in the hardships of millionaires driving technically exotic cars.
Indeed the best thing in Ms Tam’s article was a link to an excellent piece, also by her, about the disgraceful treatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong.
There is a story by Hans Christian Anderson of a princess who established her royal status by being able to feel through a pile of mattresses that there was a pea on the bed. This is not recommended as an inspiration for journalism.