There is a social-psychological phenomenon called “The Bystander Effect.” Back in 1964 the country was rocked by the story of the murder of Kitty Genovese, a Queens, NY woman who was assaulted and killed in her neighborhood as she returned from work late at night. Her neighbors supposedly heard and were aware of the attack , but did not come to her aid or call the police. The phrase, ” I didn’t want to get involved.” began to circulate as code for making the choice to turn away from responding to an incident (or emergency) in a social setting.
This provoked social scientists to study why individuals in groups would behave this way, and they came up with a theory involving the diffusion of responsibility in a group, or social setting. The researchers boiled down five cognitive and behavioral responses that bystanders go through during an “emergency.”
- They notice that something is occurring.
- Then they make an interpretation: Is what I’m seeing an “emergency?”
- Third, they assess their degree of responsibility. A single person viewing an emergency is more likely to take action — i.e. the Good Samaritan.
- Fourth, they consider their forms, or options, to render assistance — should they get directly involved or indirectly involved (like calling 911)?
- And fifth, they implement the action.
When there is a large group of people viewing an emergency there is a tendency for an individual to think that somebody else has already performed some action, or there is somebody else more qualified to assist, like a first responder or a healthcare professional. We all know the story of the Good Samaritan who helps a stranger in need, but there is a tendency in large groups of bystanders for any one individual to think that somebody else either has responded or will respond to a person in distress. They “diffuse” the emergency over the group and will not offer aid, thinking that somebody else has, or will, get involved.
For a long time I have had the feeling that we are a country of bystanders. Please do not take offense. Everyone is so busy with his/her/their own day-to-day life full of obligations that assessing what we’re watching unfold nationally takes a lot of energy. But in the last six months I sense a shift in the collective American consciousness. It is an emergency when Black men and women are being killed by police. It is an emergency when a global pandemic is killing people of all ages (POC at an even greater rate) and showing the economic fault lines of hunger, poverty and access to care and education. These events are in front of us daily even if you don’t watch the news or spend time on social media.
But who am I, you say? I’m a random blogger among millions. I’m just a woman who was born at the start of a volatile decade of U.S. history. A women who heard a lot of rhetoric about equality from an early age, but is still confronted by the sorry match of reality to that rhetoric. Things haven’t changed that much and it has been a long, slow slog for many, many marginalized groups. But somebody with more resources will get involved, right? Somebody more qualified, somebody at another level. Or have we, as voters, just been watching and waiting: “Is it REALLY an emergency? Somebody else more qualified than me will fix it. I’m only one vote — it doesn’t really matter. I live in a Blue/Red state so my vote won’t mean much.”
But now there’s a lot of talk about your vote — about the integrity of voting. Elections aren’t luxuries or expendable. There was a reason why the men who get the credit for founding this nation put qualifications on the right to vote — they took it very, very seriously so only men who owned property could vote. So seriously that we had to fight for laws to protect our franchise, because American elections have consequences. As hard as it is, ignore the static designed to diminish your desire or will to vote. Carefully vet the information you read about voting (including this tiny, voice-in-the-wilderness blog)
If you are reading this and you are an American citizen, I implore you — exercise your right to vote. Check your registration and your state’s plan for casting your vote either in-person this November 3, 2020 or by mail by October 27, 2020 (the deadline to post your ballot to ensure a November 3 postmark). We are NOT bystanders. We are in a state of emergency and we have the capacity to act, to render aid to this democracy. And you know what that guy, W. Churchill, says….
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… ‘
This post is longer than my usual length — I try to keep it tight so you’ll read to the end. If you’re still with me, thank you very much. I’m trying very hard not to be cynical (which is my default, I’m afraid), but we have come too far to go back and there is still such a long way to go. I wish us all well.