Thoughts on "What Would You Do?"

There was a spot on 20/20 this week that I watched online today.  The spot, called "What Would You Do?", features actors in a check out line at the grocery store who verbally harass another actor, playing the bagger.  The point is to see what the actual shoppers at the store think and do when they witness this harassment happening.

Although I think they were trying to do something good by making and airing this spot, I have some problems with it.  Obviously it was very painful for me to watch the shopper actors harassing the bagger actor, even though I knew it was acting.  It was particularly painful watching the silence and even complicity of other shoppers, who didn't realize this was acting, and didn't necessarily think it was a big deal that an employee with Down syndrome was being verbally abused.  This was the point of the show:  to demonstrate that ordinary people in the world will witness injustice and do nothing.  Not necessarily a surprise, but a huge bummer to see documented.

But another, subtler, problem is how the show celebrates shoppers who spoke up.  While I am very glad they spoke up, there was a way in which these shoppers--like the woman at the end, who's introduced by the narrator saying, "No one responded with more eloquence than this woman"--talk about the employee but don't fully humanize him.  I agree with everything the woman at the end says (she, in fact, does say that every human being deserves education, a job, a chance for a meaningful life--all stuff I'm fully on board with), but she doesn't include the bagger as a participant.  In a lot of the show he becomes a kind of "it," a poor powerless victim who needs support and advocacy.  Very few people make eye contact with him, or look at him at all, even if they're speaking in his defense.

The one guy I thought challenged this framework wasn't even in line.  He comes up out of the middle of the store, tells the harasser to leave, and then--most importantly--comes and stands beside the bagger and talks with him.  He says, "Sorry about this guy, man.  You doing okay?  You're doing a good job."  He clearly sees the bagger as a fellow human being with whom he can and will connect. Turns out this guy's sister has Down syndrome.

Another blogger who posted about this show wrote, "Even the smallest baby with Down Syndrome is born with a backbone."  I love this quote, and the show made me sad because it was set up in such a way that the bagger actor didn't get a chance to demonstrate that, to step out of the victim role. 

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