Our Kitty Genovese Moment

By Dennis Loo 

Kitty Genovese was a 29-year old New Yorker stabbed to death in 1964 in front of her neighbors in Queens. The case is famous because dozens of bystanders in their apartments are believed to have watched, listened and done nothing to save her while she was being murderously assaulted over the course of an hour. As it turns out, contrary to common perception, someone did call the police and the widely reported thirty-eight people who watched was in fact a handful who did not see the attack occur in its entirety. The incident has, nonetheless, become important for what it symbolizes about the bystander effect problem: the more people there are who are witness to an emergency, the less likely any one of the people will act in response because of the diffusion of responsibility.
Why should this be? I'm not a psychologist (though I am surrounded by many of them in my joint department at work), but in investigating this on trusty Wikipedia, I came across this: "pluralistic ignorance is a process which involves several members of a group who think that they have different perceptions, beliefs, or attitudes from the rest of the group[1][2]. While they do not endorse the group norm, the dissenting persons behave like the other group members, because they think that the behaviour of the other group members shows that the opinion of the group is unanimous. In other words, because everyone who disagrees behaves as if he or she agrees, all dissenting members think that the norm is endorsed by every group member but themselves. This in turn reinforces their willingness to conform to the group norm rather than express their disagreement. Because of pluralistic ignorance, people may conform to the perceived consensual opinion of a group, instead of thinking and acting on their own perceptions." 

And then there is this: Social proof also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed." Importantly, a new social proof is established when someone steps in and acts, in so doing, creates new terms for others. Group dynamics are thereby realigned.  

Most of America has been puzzled at the failure of most of America (or enough of America) to speak out effectively against the crimes against humanity and tyranny being carried out by our government. "Why isn't someone doing something?" you hear again and again in social gatherings and in classrooms. "Why don't the Democrats show some spine?" millions of people say. "What's wrong with Americans?" people decry.  

The whole world is wondering the same.  

The absence of any real and determined opposition from the Democratic Party and the mass media to the Bush regime's tyranny has put most Americans in a state of social proof. The people that the public thinks should have the expertise and greater knowledge and should therefore be acting on that knowledge aren't, so many people have so far concluded that the problem must not be all that bad, even if their own sense of it is that it is.  

The situation we confront today  - while significantly attributable to complacency among all too many Americans, and significantly attributable to extremely narrow notions of what political action and engagement are (that the people's role is restricted to supporting and voting for candidates and that voting decides public policy and that's it) - is principally due to the abdication of leadership by the existing, customary leadership class and a resultant condition called pluralistic ignorance.  

"[S]ocial proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist."  

Many years ago my significant other and I were standing on a city sidewalk while a fire was blazing in a storefront, brightening up the night sky. A crowd of several dozen other people was standing next to us. I said to my partner that I was going to move a little closer for a better look since we were all standing behind the unblocked driveway entrance. She said: "No, don't do it. Nobody else is." I said, "Why not?" As soon as I stepped over the invisible barrier everyone else did.  

"[S]ocial proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist." 

"Honestly it was one of the most frightening things I've done in a long time. I was praying for a familiar face, but I just dove in and started asking students as they walked by if they wanted to pick up a[n orange] ribbon to support our anti-war movement, at first many of them just kept walking and said no thanks (a little discouraging...). However, as more students began to come out of class I was able to grab the attention of a few who came up to the table and wanted to know what the orange and the ribbons were all about "  

"I was so pleased to see many people taking the ribbons and putting them on their backpacks and on their shirts. As time passed and more students came out, I begin to get people to pledge to get three other people to wear the orange ribbons. I got about 10 pledges from people who said that they had friends that would wear the ribbon in support. I remember this one guy who came back and asked me if he could have one for his girlfriend :) It was great! "  

"Another young woman from the CGU [Claremont Graduate University] mentioned that 'people in this generation haven't had their "1960s" yet and need to' and that she would try to spread this out in Claremont... Another gentlemen " had friends that would wear the ribbons too and that he was interested in how this turned out. My most memorable one was the professor that took a ribbon and thanked me for doing what I was doing :) Another professor said that he wanted to see us in front of the school picketing just like they did in the 60's.  

"Overall, even though my palms were clammy and I was nervous each time I spoke to someone it was very rewarding and I think I passed out about 150 ribbons, if not more, out [over the course of an hour and three-quarters], especially to classmates and even to a gentlemen at an Empire conference." 

"[S]ocial proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist." 

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffective. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material which no man or woman could have dreamed would have come his or her way. Whatever you can do or dream that you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now." - Goethe 

"[S]ocial proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist." 

When one person in the crowd steps in to help and breaks the spell of inaction, others realize that they are not alone in their sentiments and they will move as well. Social proof has been established. New terms have been set by your actions. The ramifications of the actions of individuals - and organizations - who step forward to create new conditions by their actions cannot be overestimated in times such as these.  

Some of us need to be brave and this will help others to be brave as well. Stop wondering why others aren't doing what you yourself need to do and do it. The task ahead of us is historic and extraordinary. It won't be accomplished without courage, boldness, initiative, persistence in the face of difficulty, and sacrifice. No great things have ever been accomplished without these.  

As I have written elsewhere, how can reversing the terrible wrongs committed by this government be so easy and so simple as voting for someone to take care of all of this? How could we really expect rectification to result from the presidential elections when the two major party presidential candidates have ruled out impeachment? Moreover, Obama and McCain have both personally colluded in the tyrannies and war crimes of this White House by failing to stand up and condemn and filibuster the bills permitting this government's outrageous behavior.  

How can individuals so cowardly as to fail to combat barbarities such as torture - when it has been their moral and legal responsibility to do this as Senators - be expected to be legitimate leaders of our country?  

Doesn't a government that is daily committing atrocities - and planning more - need to be taken on by the collective actions of the people, taking the political stage as an independent force? How could it be otherwise?


World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.