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“I Didn’t Want to Get Involved”

Posted on 05 Jun | 1 comment
“I Didn’t Want to Get Involved”

How often do we hear that phrase—“I didn’t want to get involved”?

The reasons are always excellent—“I was way too busy,” “I had problems of my own,” “I had too much on my plate,” “It wasn’t my business,” or the piece de resistance, “Someone else will take care of it.”

And the issue never seems to matter—whether it is helping bring food to one’s child’s school event, protesting Monsanto’s latest Frankenfood, or supporting one individual’s human rights and dignity.

We claim we are good people, we believe we are good people, and usually we are.

So were the people, who 50 years ago, watched as a woman was attacked and murder on a quiet street in Queens, NY.

The anniversary of the death of Kitty Genovese passed quietly in March, and if you weren’t looking to remember it, you probably missed it. But the event that the Pacific Standard said made the term “bystander effect” a household word marked its 50th anniversary in March. Social psychologists held a conference at Fordham University, while many news organizations wrote obligatory columns.

For those of you too young to remember the details, the famous lede paragraph that ran in The New York Times a full two weeks later, but on page one, ran as follows:

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

As the Pacific Standard explains, it would turn out that the number 38 would be contested and that there were only two attacks and not three, but the essence of the lede paragraph remains the same. As was the quote from Kitty Genovese’s friend and neighbor Karl Ross, “I didn’t want to get involved” (Pacific Standard, ¶ 8). A group of people saw a woman in trouble and did not act.

An article in The New Yorker suggests, however, the real story is even murkier, in that two people did, in fact, call the police, because an ambulance did arrive to find Genovese dying in the arms of a neighbor, who had indeed left her apartment despite not knowing whether the murderer had fled. And one of the attacks was in a vestibule, making it difficult for witnesses to see one of the two attacks clearly. What remains is that two key witnesses, Ross, and Joseph Fink, who lived across the street, saw both attacks clearly, and did nothing, lend much more credence to the “bystander effect.” The New Yorker suggests Ross is a “murkier” figure in the story because he was said to be both drunk and gay, making him a potential target for attacks, should he have spoken out. Fink, according to the article, is a true villain in the story, since he was said to have witnessed the attacks and then went to take a nap.

Whatever the case, the important part of the story is the question Maria Popova asks: “How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do?”

We live in a world where we get so focused—and I use the word “we” quite intentionally, and not as the royal we, because I know I fall victim to this quite easily—on our day-to-day “busyness” and self-importance that it becomes so easy to not step out of our comfort zones and do something for another. How many times do I tell someone not to interrupt me because I am in the middle of a project that honestly can wait five minutes? How often do I rush past people asking for help on the street because I don’t want to take the time to figure out what they are saying? I almost did that today, when a woman stopped me the Times Square subway station who spoke almost no English. I didn’t want to wait for her husband to come over because I was in such a rush (to do errands? Seriously?) and I felt the tension boiling in my bones but I did wait the entire five seconds to simply help him figure out that he needed the downtown trains. I showed them the way—the same way I was going. I really didn’t lose anything in the transaction, and I gained a little something for being able to help some people, as small a gesture as it was.

When we are caught up in the question of what are WE going to get out this, we get nothing (or maybe ulcers, insomnia, and back pain or worse). If we can step back and remember to ask is there something in this that others may get out of it—will my act touch others in an empathic or kind or caring or useful way?—maybe we will stop being bystanders in our lives.

-- Sarah Kass

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Comments and Discussions

Thank you, Sara. As a retired

Thank you, Sara. As a retired police officer, this is a meaningful issue. I remember the Genovese case being discussed in my academy class in 1982. That was the first time I had heard of the incident. If we could have coffee, we could enjoy quite a conversation on the root issues that create the bystander effect. It is a favorite of mine. Your question is a good question: "...will my act touch others in an empathic or kind or caring or useful way?"

My empirical answer is not only, "Yes!" But also, taking the risk to be involved empathically performing acts of kindness, mercy, and if necessary, even dangerous acts in the protection of weaker persons is a fulfillment of our capacity for reason as human beings to act in emotionally rational and situationally appropriate ways. It is as important as many other things we consider part of being healthy human beings such as emotional regulation, cognitive processing, and other types of healthy self care.

Aristotle said, “Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” Moral excellence cannot come from doctrine but only from the truth we discover about ourselves when we see ourselves in the other. As Thomas Aquinas said, “Prius vita quam doctrina, "life is more important than doctrine," (De Anima II, 37). As we act humanely on behalf of others, aren’t we really acting toward ourselves? As Donne (1624) said, “No man is an island entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (p.446). I am the other.

References

Aristotle (350 B.C.E.) Nicomachean Ethics. (n.p.) Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.2.ii.html

Donne, J. (1624). Devotions upon emergent occasions: Meditation XVII. The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne. Charles M. Coffin (Ed.). The Modern Library Random House (Pub). New York, NY. (pp. 421-461).

Thank you so much for your

Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply, Robert! I grew up in Queens, so this story was very foundational for me and one I always struggled to understand--it never made sense to me how people could ignore a person in such obvious pain--and it still doesn't.

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