This is a photograph of Kitty Genovese. If you do not know who she was, or why she died, you will by the end of this post. It should leave you troubled, if for no other reason than it could easily happen to any of us.
Recently the panic over Ebola hemorrhagic fever has galvanized attention to the mainstream media like few other topics of recent years. “Ebola” has even replaced “Kardashian” as the most popular search term, at least for now. And in all this melee of information, disinformation, ignorance and stupidity, many look to their elected leaders for guidance and find little. And this is not surprising. Leadership is an odd quality, one that must be shaped and created depending upon the need. It is also one that is rarely appreciated unless things get appalling. To be an effective leader, one must possess leadership qualities, right?
Disease and ignorance: A bad combination.
Where do we assign a cause for the rampant ignorance concerning health and so many other issues critical to our daily lives? While that may seem like a complicated question, there are some rather glaring indicators within American society that we might consider. The horrible state of science and mathematics education so many students obtain from public education in the United States, and combined with the error-riddled Internet with its plethora of manufactured truth, we must reasonably conclude that better educated citizens are far less likely to believe the hype that governs “news” today; better educated citizens will disregard the many armchair experts who make sweeping pronouncements on Ebola (or anything else they feel “expert” on despite a lack of education). As a society, at least we are very ignorant about health. But then, if it does not impact us immediately and personally, we are likely to ignore it simply.
In 2008, Rick Shenkman, the editor-in-chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter. In his book, Shenkman found that most Americans were unaware of largely ignorant of most international events or how foreign governments work, and in fact understood very little about how their own government works or who runs it, yet as a society we seem very willing to accept government positions and policies even though they were bad for the country, and most damning, that we Americans are very easily swayed by the media when it comes to stereotyping, simple solutions, irrational fears, and listening to celebrities as if they were experts in all areas, rather than, well just celebrities. And this leads us to the inevitable conclusion: the majority of us pay little attention to information, government actions, military actions, or social upheaval if it does not directly impact us.
This reality has not been wasted on corporations, who use celebrities to market their goods and services. While the rational parts of our brain realize that we have very little in common with the celebrity spokesperson, we still listen to them. Because we believe, we want to be like them. What is important to them should be important to us, even when it is harmful to us. Ebola has been somewhat of a health problem for over a decade in parts of Africa, however if you’re the average American, there are far more deadly infections you should be concerned with. And why aren’t you? That’s where the media comes in. Through sensationalism, innuendo, and substituting opinion for science, the idea of a hemorrhagic infection in the United States suddenly captures everyone’s attention. Why? Because it affects us directly, at least we are led to believe so. And the politicians, taking a page from Shenkman’s book, have led most to believe that this does impact them.
The politicians have rightly concluded that, if an issue impacts us directly, we will pay attention. If not, I have better things to do.. Like Facebook. While some people will take the responsibility to attempt to change the world for the better, or at least their version of it, most will simply see it as, not their responsibility. But how did we move from a society where everyone felt obligated to “do their part for the whole of society” (except of course the wealthy who have hardly felt a need to participate) to the present hedonistic, self-serving consumerist society of disenfranchised individuals? It is pretty easy to grasp and begins with a basic understanding of social psychology, particularly a topic known as “Diffusion of responsibility.” Diffusion of responsibility refers to the actions, or rather inactions we are willing to take when part of a group. Two researchers, Darley and Latané hypothesized that what was observed as bystander apathy was caused by a dilution of the individual’s sense of responsibility due to their being in a larger group of people. This theory has been tested in a number of laboratory experiments and shown to be highly accurate in predicting social behavior. The participants thought they were overhearing another student having a seizure.
Students in groups of two felt motivated to answer the call for help 85% of the time. In groups of six, only 31% of the participants responded to calls for help. Ok, you are thinking, this is a lab test, and people will naturally act different if they know they are being tested. Ok. Fair enough. Here’s another example that was not conducted in a lab. It is one I have always used with my psychology students, and one that perfectly illustrates this diffusion of responsibility. Most readers will have never heard of Kitty Genovese, or of her violent death in front of an entire neighborhood of onlookers.
Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was a 28-year-old bar manager. She was a well liked, but fairly recent member of this close-knit middle-class Queens’s neighborhood, having moved to the city from Connecticut the previous year ago. After parking her car, she began to walk the 100 feet to the entrance of her apartment. It was 3:20 AM, and the neighborhood was quiet and shrouded in the slumbering darkness. She noticed a man standing at the far end of the street. She stopped and nervously walked toward the police call box on the corner. Less than halfway to the corner the man grabbed her. She screamed, and lights went on in the 10-story apartment houses; windows slid open, and voices punctuated the early-morning stillness. Miss Genovese screamed, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!” A man called down “Let that girl alone!” after which, the assailant looked up, shrugged, and walked toward a white sedan parked a short distance away. Miss Genovese, now bloody and bleeding, struggled to her feet, and as the lights went out, the man returned as she tried to reach her apartment building. The man stabbed her again, and she fell shrieking, “I’m dying! I’m dying!”
Again the lights went on in several apartments, and a few windows opened up. The man got into his car and drove away. Again Miss Genovese staggered to her feet, trying desperately to find help or to reach her apartment building. Upon entering the hallway, she slumped on the floor, calling for help. The man returned again. After trying the first door and finding it locked, he tried the second door, and when he opened it, he saw her slumped on the floor at the foot of the stairs. He stabbed her a third time, this time fatally. The police received a call at 3:50AM from Miss Genovese’s neighbor. In two minutes, they were at the scene. The neighbor, a 70-year-old woman, and another female neighbor were the only people who had come out to the street. One man who was questioned by detectives said, “I didn’t want to get involved.” Six days later, the police arrested Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old business machine operator, and charged him with the murder of Kitty Genovese. He was committed him to Kings County Hospital for psychiatric observation. It turned out that Miss Genovese was not his first victim. He had also murdered Annie May Johnson, 24 and Barbara Kralik, 17.
It was 4:25 A.M. when the ambulance arrived to take the body of Miss Genovese. It drove off. When the ambulance arrived, along with the police cars, people came out. After taking statements, the police investigators scratched their heads. How could every day normal people have done nothing to prevent this heinous act?
Witnesses who have been subsequently interviewed, even decades later, find it difficult to explain why they didn’t call the police or intervene. One woman said, “We thought it was a lovers’ quarrel,” while an older couple said, “Frankly, we were afraid.” They seemed aware of the fact that events might have been different. A distraught woman simply said, “I didn’t want my husband to get involved.” Another couple said they heard the first screams and went to their window. When asked why they hadn’t called the police, the wife shrugged and replied, “I don’t know.” A man peeked out from a slight opening in the doorway to his apartment and rattled off an account of the killer’s second attack. Why hadn’t he called the police at the time? “I was tired,” he said without emotion. “I went back to bed.”
What does this diffusion of responsibility have to do with Ebola virus? We happily defer the responsibility to the experts and to the politicians. Despite the fact that the politicians have routinely and consistently failed our society, for some reason, we are willing to place trust in them yet again. Of course, not all of this is the fault of the person in our society, but instead can be easily traced back to the general failure of education in the United States over the past 30 years. Science, mathematics, Philosophy, and abstract thinking have been pushed to the wayside so that the system can create better consumers. This is evident when one surveys social media and begins to realize the amount of misinformation and disinformation that can’t be found pertaining to Ebola. We acknowledge the failures of the Centers for Disease Control and prevention in Atlanta, yet we are unwilling to investigate further. The CDC is understaffed and must fight tooth and claw for every dollar of funding. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has spent trillions on a failed attempt to convert foreign populations to “Americanism.”
A wise man wrote the measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members. Perhaps, but I think a far more telling analysis of a society is in whom it chooses to follow. We can blame the diffusion of responsibility, but in the end, the individual must choose what to believe and what to question, whom to follow and whom to trust.