Last week, a feel-good story about Good-Samaritan snow-shovelers broke into national news. A group of teenagers in Centennial, Colorado, shoveled the walks and driveways of 50 of their neighbors, without being asked, for free.
In the version that reached me, a blurb in The Week, it was framed as a pleasantly surprising sign that the culture isn’t as self-centered and indifferent to communal values as it generally seems to be. “You just don’t see that in this day and age,” one neighbor was quoted saying. Why did they do it, according to this version? “We just felt it was a really good way to serve the whole neighborhood,” said one of the shovelers.
When I read this, something seemed to be missing: motive. So I tracked down the original source, a TV piece by Denver’s Channel 9, and it was just as I suspected: the motive was religious. The kids left flyers with a drawing of Christian crosses and the message, “You’ve been served,” and the effort was organized by their church youth group.
We would like to believe that people just spontaneously organize into groups of altruistic do-gooders. But the fact is, they don’t. The reason that acts like this are so rare and newsworthy (newsworthy enough to reach the pages of a national magazine) is that a culture dominated by other values does not spontaneously produce them. It spontaneously produces actions that reflect the values that it does hold. When something like this crops up, you’ve got to look for a source in some subculture that holds other values. It might be Christian, it might be hippie, it might even be an Ayn Rand recovery group, but it’s going to be something. Individuals may commit “random acts of kindness,” but groups need an animating idea to cohere around.
So why, if this is true, was that crucial element left out of the story? It appears that Channel 9 produced an online text story to accompany its video, and that story was recirculated by USA Today. It omits all reference to the religious motivations. In this version, the neighbors “all had a flier attached to their front doors that simply read, ‘You’ve been served.’” Which isn’t true; it didn’t simply read that, because part of the message was the drawing of the crosses. “The high schoolers said they just wanted to pay it forward,” the article says. Which isn’t accurate either. They didn’t “just” want to pay it forward. They wanted to pay it forward because of their very specific religious beliefs about the nature of service and the purpose of human life.
The reason this matters is that it seems to me we’d like to have our cake and eat it too. We’d like to be a culture that doesn’t do the hard work of cultivating values like altruistic service, and also have people do altruistic service. But that doesn’t happen. Our actions are shaped by our values, and if a subculture is not shaping those values, then the broader culture will. I’ve seen this same sort of story in a different version, with news media crowing about a high percentage of teenagers choosing sexual abstinence. But those teens aren’t making that choice in a vacuum; they’re nearly all motivated by religious perspectives and commitments that value abstinence. A sexually libertine culture does not spontaneously produce large numbers of people with contrary values.
This story of the shovelers, as reported by USA Today and The Week, suggests a naiveté about this very basic fact of human behavior. In both cases, it seems to be a matter of reportorial and intellectual laziness, repeating the story without asking any questions. But somewhere along the line, someone—perhaps the original Channel 9 reporter, perhaps his editor, perhaps an editor higher up the chain—decided to omit crucial facts and sketch a story that deliberately cultivates naiveté and delusion, allowing us to see what we want to see instead of what is really there. That is a service to no one. Let’s not pay it forward.
The Channel 9 video: http://www.9news.com/story/life/2015/02/22/centennial-teens-snow-shoveling/23860807/