The Tale of “Running Fan”

Fan Meizhong, a Chinese language teacher at a private high school in Dujiangyan city, one of the hardest-hit areas in the May 12 eight-magnitude earthquake, got the nickname “Running Fan” from bloggers after he abruptly left his classroom to save himself, leaving his students behind. This critique came despite no loss of life (an event Fan could not have known as he ran from the building). The critical view was apparently shared by Fan’s school administration. “We learnt from the school that he was dismissed,” said Wang Xuming, Education Ministry spokesman. [Photo of Fan Meizhong: New Express]

The most revealing comments about Fan’s behavior focus on the condemnation of his self-interested escape despite the apparent acceptance of the “human nature” character of his actions. This is a rare case of the public discussion of bystander behavior, and a vivid disclosure of some of the public’s obvious discomfort with people’s choice of self protection over helping others.

I think that Fan’s statements justifying his behavior (he focused on his allegiance to his own daughter) are a breath of fresh air in a debate often filled with a combination of rationalization and wishful thinking. This is not a support for Fan’s behavior. Rather, it recognizes the near universal compulsion to save our own skins (and those our families) at the cost of largely ignoring the peril of others. This is, for many people, a matter of considerable shame, and it makes them uncomfortable to talk about it honestly.

It is also rare that this story has gotten so much play despite the fact that Fan’s school did not collapse and none of his students were killed. This does not change the moral debate, of course, but certainly would change the outcome in most western courtrooms. Without damages, there is no reason to go to trial.

Here’s the key question: If we apply to other high risk incidents the self-sacrificial standard some think Fan should have applied, how can we excuse all the ordinary people who remained silent, or made only modest efforts to forestall harm?

In all the cases in Flirting With Disaster (Challenger, Columbia, Katrina, Vioxx, BP Texas City, etc.), many people knew of the risks, but chose self-protection of their jobs, status, and political position over the safety of others. What happened to the public outrage in those cases?

There are several important differences that explain the public silence. First, the danger in the case of the earthquake was certain. The ground was shaking when Fan bolted out the door. In contrast, in all the cases in FWD, and most other similar situations, the risks were uncertain, making it much easier to rationalize that one’s selfish actions won’t make any difference. On the other hand, the costs to the whistle-blower — though they may only affect a single individual — appear both real and inevitable, thus making it easy to justify keeping silent.

Second, Fan was a teacher, and therefore in a formal responsible position. In many people’s minds, such positions are morally equivalent to that of a parent. Fan was therefore obligated to put his own life at risk in order to save the children in his charge. Third, Fan was the only person in this role in his classroom, and thus his selfish lapse was easy to point to. As you may recall from FWD’s discussion of bystander behavior, when there are many people in potential helper roles, individual feelings of responsibility quickly evaporate. The opposite is also true: it’s easy to point the finger when there is only one person who might have made a difference.

To better understand the issues, let’s imagine a different scenario. Let’s say that you were in the classroom. You might be a parent, an administrative person, or a technician fixing a piece of broken equipment. What are your responsibilities to the children in comparison to that of Mr. Fan?

It’s easy to see that many people would differentiate these responsibilities. They might even say that while Mr. Fan was responsible, other people were not. In fact, such other people might be seen as being responsible to look after their own families by trying to get home, especially since High School students have significant capabilities to look after themselves, especially if there was the teacher to take care of them.

Lest you think that all of this is a confusing whitewash of Fan’s behavior, let me set the record straight because that’s not where I’m coming from at all. I think that Fan shirked his responsibilities, both as a teacher and as a responsible adult. However, I’d guess that there were other adults who ran out of that building, perhaps other teachers, but even more likely administrators and staff who also might be seen as having a role to protect the children. Did such individuals run from classroom to classroom to make sure that all the students were safety evacuated? I leave that to you to ponder.

Importantly, the real issue is that none of this individual behavior in the moment is the greatest crime. That dubious distinction must go well back in the causal chain to the officials who allowed dangerous schools to be built in the first place, to the architects who drew up the plans, the contractors who knowingly constructed them, the inspectors who looked the other way when the inevitable warning signs emerged that these buildings were unsafe, and to the officials who read worrisome building safety reports but deliberately ignored them.

Thus, while Fan and others did not fulfill their role in loco parentis, he is far from the guiltiest party. Far from it. The anonymous “collective many” silently collaborated to kill 10,000 children. So if there are fingers to point, let’s go after them and not poor Mr. Fan who, while morally responsible for abandoning his post, didn’t actually contribute to killing anyone at all.

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