The worst people ever

2 May

“The worst people ever.”

That’s what baseball site Deadspin.com (whose tagline is “Sports news without access, favor or discretion”) called a couple for catching a foul ball and not handing it to the crying child next to them (http://deadspin.com/5905250/worst-people-ever-catch-foul-ball-refuse-to-give-it-to-a-crying-child-are-vilified-by-michael-kay).

Now, maybe you’re thinking: they should have given the kid the ball! He was crying!

I sort of did. Sort of.

But the coverage of this incident got me rethinking my impulse.

“Worst people ever”?? I must have missed the part where they committed genocide while diving for the ball. “Douchebags” and “dicks” because they didn’t hand the ball over to the kid? Why such extreme judgment, perpetuated as the story got picked up by other news agencies, including NPR?

Because of normative bias: a belief we hold as a culture that seems so obviously right and true that we tend not to question it. What bias? That children should come first.

Makes sense, right? Without adult protection, children as a group have very low survival odds, which is not just bad for them but for the species as a whole. Adults need to look out for children and prioritize their needs. Period. Beyond the argument of necessity, there’s just being nice. Child + tears = needing comfort. And what kind of douchebag (to borrow a term) doesn’t comfort a crying child?

But this incident seems to me a case of a bias gone wild. Why is it so reprehensible for an adult to put her/his interest before a child’s when that interest doesn’t threaten the safety or well-being of the child? (Arguably, the child in question is not feeling so well when he doesn’t get the ball, but then again, I have no idea if the kid cries at everything or was having a really bad day that made him prone to crying even before the ball got tossed into his section.)

And why is it I feel a bit of guilt in siding with the couple? In part, it’s because I know what I’m supposed to feel and say. Not just as an adult, but as a woman: I’m aware of the expectation to react to the child’s tears with my sympathy, and to regard the provocation for those tears as The Badness That Should Be Stopped. I also anticipate that my reaction will be cast as the aberrant opinion of someone who is Not a Mother (who would respond the “right” way if my maternal instinct were functioning correctly).

I’m not even arguing they shouldn’t have given the kid the ball. Just that it seems totally defensible that they didn’t. In fact, that it shouldn’t even require a defense. What would I have done in this situation? I probably would have given the kid the ball. Why? Maybe out of caring or altruism. And very likely out of self-consciousness and obligation to some sense of social propriety. Not to mention not wanting to look like a jerk. So would that qualify me as one of “the best people ever”?

The more I think about how normative bias has driven the commentary on this story (even making a story out of this one foul ball), how it’s probably haunting the “worst ever” couple and how it impacts me everyday (shaping my interactions with children and their parents/guardians, whether or not I know them personally), the more I believe we need to stop, pause, reflect and discern. Because it’s not just the accused and judged couple who could grow from reflecting on why they acted they way they did; it’s all the people who would thoughtlessly, automatically and self-righteously hand over the ball who could benefit from taking a moment to ask themselves: why?

One Response to “The worst people ever”

  1. Cee Salberg May 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    In the spirit of offering another perspective, as a baseball fan I know it’s “the norm” to offer a baseball thrown into the stands to a child. I don’t do it because I feel I should or to appease a crying child but because I’m hoping to instill my love of the game in a new generation (I know it sounds sappy). I see “the worst people ever” hyperbole as just part of the whole overamped sports mania so many people seem to engage in these days similar to overamped political commentators or overamped reality shows.

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