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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"The Shadow of Kitty Genovese" by Stephen Provizer (reprised)

This is a re-written version of a piece 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.


Brian George said...

Hi Steve,

I touched on this idea of people acting against their own interest in a piece that I posted about a month ago on Reality Sandwich. This is an excerpt from section 6 of "Cosmogenesis; In a Small Boat, Drifting on the Ocean":

When I was a senior in high school, I discovered a poem by Cesar Vallejo that in part reads, "You people are dead, but what a strange manner of being dead. Anyone might say that you were not." "Aha," I thought, "my sentiments exactly!" Since then, my attitude towards human ignorance has changed, more on some days than others, but I still have immediate access to the emotions that I felt. And should I, by some lessening of testosterone, be somehow tempted forget my sense of adolescent outrage, updated access is guaranteed by such groups as the Tea Party, who spare no expense in providing me with fresh targets for my disgust.

For example: Wolf Blitzer, in a CNN debate, asks Ron Paul about a 30 year-old male who has "chosen" not to purchase health insurance. He goes into a coma, and requires six months of intensive care. Should society just let him die? Paul answers, "That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody..." The crowd then erupts in shouts of "Yeah! Yeah! Let him die!" This is not the response of a group of conscious beings. Even now, I could not help but feel: We are watching a live broadcast from one of the cities of the dead. They are no doubt starved for biomorphs, and are making every effort to increase their population.

The answer to any and all of life's dilemmas seems to be: to eliminate the tax burden placed on the top one percent of billionaires.

Over the past few years, I have been stunned and fascinated by this phenomenon of what would appear to be self-inflicted blindness. To me, the anti-gravitational flight of UFOs or the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza are far less mysterious than a phenomenon of this type. If we were talking about a DMT induced vision, then we might expect any and all descriptions of an object to diverge, but we are talking about the realm of shared three-dimensional space. I often feel, quite literally, that I am living inside of a dream. Not only do people not seem to see the gigantic object that is right in front of them, hidden -- by Plutonic as well as other archetypal forces -- plain sight, but the Powers That Be have not gone to any lengths to disguise it! As any child can see, in the middle of the room there is a creature that looks just like an elephant.

About 20 years ago, I heard a Russian folk tale has stuck with me, although I don't remember how the tale begins. At some point, however, a magical being offers to grant one with to a peasant. The peasant can have anything he wants. The only catch is that his neighbor will be given twice as much of it. The peasant thinks and thinks, and then smiles as he says, "I would like you to blind me in one eye!" At the time, I regarded this as an exotic tale. Now, it seems like a description of our day to day psychology. Strange forces are at work.

Steve Provizer said...

Brian-Thanks for your comment and I hope interested readers will follow up your entries at Reality Sandwich.

I cling to thr idea that the body leads and the mind follows. However, evidence strongly suggests that even the body's wisdom can be quashed by brains run amok.

Anonymous said...

Damn, we are on the same wavelength here as I recently have been re-visiting Ochs as well ("Tape From California" is still my fave) and had no clue that CIRCLE was inspired by Kitty. So thank you. Don't know how old you are, but the Genovese incident was impressed upon my youthful mind ca. 1970 like it happened the day before, in near-mythic proportions. Thinking back to that time, it is on a par with the Manson murders as far as total fascination, repulsion, fear goes amongst grade school boys. For years I can recall keeping an ear out for screams (which always turned out to be playful screams/laughter) wondering if it was someone in danger. Spooky. I think I am still effected by this to the presnt day. Best, brainpang

Steve Provizer said...

brainpang-They were 2 powerful events.

I was about 20 when the Kitty thing happened. I think my feeling at the time was that it was yet another symptom of how sick US culture was. Of course, it begat self-questioning:"Would I have taken a risk myself or am I just climbing on my high moral horse?"

The Manson stuff was very creepy, but for me, in a narrower, more distant way. FIrst, because he was a charismatic lunatic-and we never outgrow our need for those. Second, a bizarre compote of drugs was involved. Third, it happened in an intrinsically weird place-California.