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Thursday, April 14, 2011

"The Shadow of Kitty Genovese" by Stephen Provizer

This is a re-written version of a post from last April, which I'm reprising as a pre-quel to a post later this week about the Occupy movement. I think it's timely.

I recently re-discovered the unusual Phil Ochs LP "Pleasures of the Harbor."  A song from that album, "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," and another song from 1967-"All's Quiet on West 23rd," by a group called "Jetstream"-were inspired by a 1964 incident in Queens where the murder and rape of a woman named Kitty Genovese went unreported by neighbors.

The degree of passivity and non-involvement on the part of Genovese's neighbors is not clear (Good explanation here), but the incident inspired a flurry of research, which in turn generated a sociological premise called The Bystander Effect. The gist of this is that the larger the size of a group of people witnessing a "reportable" activity, the less likely any one person is to take action.

No doubt the Bystander Effect is second cousin to what's been called Charity or Compassion Fatigue, a more diffused phenomenon-about an accumulation of events than a specific one.

What has yet to be found is an explanation for a phenomenon I've been puzzling over for a long time: that people are willing to de-prioritize their own well-being in order to make sure that some one or some other group of people does not make out better than they do. The key example is believing that unions don't represent a way for lots of people to get a fair deal from employers, but a threat to one's own well-being.

I despise but at least understand why we humans are willing to ignore the physical harming of someone else-it's a self-protective reaction. Ditto that stressed financial resources can explain a person's ignoring the plight of someone else with a disease or handicap.

But how to explain the widespread belief that the decent wages and job security of a fellow working person are more of a threat to your well-being than the massive accumulation of wealth at the top, or the enormous military expenditures used to support a decaying American empire around the world? This is sheer masochism, rooted in a massive disinformation campaign, combined with a bizarre belief that people born on third base deserve help getting to home plate.

It may be time to let go of the "I'm not poor, I'm just not wealthy-yet" mythology, to recognize that we have been divided and are well down the road to being conquered-and that your local teacher or pipe-fitter are not your enemies. Kitty Genovese, collector for Clean Water Action, the Hyatt 100, what's become known as the 99%-we're all in it together.


I Witness said...

Amen, Brother Pro! Interesting connections leading your argument, Genovese to Fatigue to... what, Stupidity maybe? Political masochism? Well, we know who the Sadists are, and who the saddest soon will be--"divided and well down the road to being conquered" indeed. Oh, and the pie chart is a hoot... er... the cat's meow.

I do have a separate observation (not a complaint or criticism!): your Monk review embraces straightforward, conversational language, while your posts that get sociological or philosophical acquire a different "sound" more in keeping with academic argument. Does this reflect your training? career? a conscious stylistic choice? Almost seems there are two distinct Steves writing your blog--which is fine, gives us more for the money (even if you're not collecting any).

Steve Provizer said...

Thank you, my friend-also, for your apt observation about my schizophrenic styles. I have little training of the academic sort, and tend to be attracted to the low (Runyon, Hammett, etc) and the high (at least the faux high of Perelman).

The higher style probably emerges when I get up on my high horse about something (as in this piece). The lower, and perhaps more readable style, emerges when I just breeze along.