We live in a na­tion of by­s­tanders

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - PHILIP MARTIN pmartin@arkansason­line.com Read more at www.blood­dirtan­gels.com

If you are chok­ing, you have a bet­ter chance of be­ing helped if one per­son no­tices than if five do. They call this the “by­stander ef­fect.” If you be­lieve you are the only per­son who can help, then you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to try to help. But if you are among a crowd of ob­servers, you might wait to see if some­one else steps up.

And ev­ery­one makes this cal­cu­la­tion. In the 1960s so­cial psy­chol­o­gists John Dar­ley and Bibb Latane—in­spired by the in­fa­mous pub­lic mur­der of Kitty Genovese, a crime wit­nessed by 38 of her neigh­bors—con­ducted a num­ber of ex­per­i­ments. One of the things they dis­cov­ered is that a chok­ing vic­tim is likely to be helped 85 per­cent of the time when there is a sin­gle wit­ness to their dis­tress. When five peo­ple are present, the vic­tim’s chances of be­ing helped drop to 31 per­cent.

This re­luc­tance to step for­ward isn’t nec­es­sar­ily due to ap­a­thy. In a group set­ting, we might as­sume that there’s some­one more qual­i­fied than our­selves who can han­dle the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter than we might. (Maybe there’s a doc­tor in the house.) We might be afraid to put our­selves for­ward. We might look fool­ish. We might do the wrong thing. We might in­cur some li­a­bil­ity if we try to play the hero.

Mostly though it’s prob­a­bly be­cause we don’t feel as re­spon­si­ble as we might were we the only one avail­able to act in a cri­sis. Re­spon­si­bil­ity is dif­fused through­out a group. You don’t feel as though you have to act, and you un­der­stand that there may be neg­a­tive con­se­quences to your act­ing, so you don’t. And maybe some­one chokes to death.

It doesn’t have to be a med­i­cal emer­gency. The same phe­nom­e­non hap­pens in busi­ness meet­ings, where no one wants to say the ob­vi­ous thing about a su­pe­rior’s silly ideal. A few years ago I was in a golf shop where some old fool was telling grotesquely racist jokes that made ev­ery­one un­com­fort­able. No one did any­thing more cen­so­ri­ous than roll their eyes.

If you can make your­self watch C-SPAN, you see the by­stander ef­fect at work all the time.

Most peo­ple want to do the right thing. They want to think of them­selves as eth­i­cal, moral folks who cause as lit­tle trou­ble and harm to oth­ers as they can while pur­su­ing things they think will bring them a good life. And there are peo­ple who (se­cretly or overtly) re­ject the whole ideal of al­tru­ism. They be­lieve that win­ning is what mat­ters and that other peo­ple are not their con­cern. They see the uni­verse as a cold and neu­tral space into which we project our frag­ile no­tions of good and evil and right and wrong. For them, what­ever brings them the most sat­is­fac­tion—the most plea­sure, power, es­teem—is right.

And they’ve erected philoso­phies to val­i­date this preda­tory in­stinct. One of the rea­sons that Ayn Rand ap­peals to a lot of peo­ple is that she makes the ar­gu­ment that self­ish­ness is moral, and that any­one who pleads for mercy on be­half of the less for­tu­nate is de­fi­cient in men­tal rigor and courage. That all we need to achieve a bet­ter world is to re­move all rules, reg­u­la­tions and mea­sures of so­cial op­pro­brium from the pur­suit of self-in­ter­est with­out re­gard to the im­pact of their ac­tions on oth­ers.

As Gor­don Gekko said, “greed is good.”

If you don’t want to care about other peo­ple, there are plenty of ways you can jus­tify your ap­a­thy. It’s not your job to care about them and you can’t make much dif­fer­ence any­way. A lot of peo­ple who find them­selves in dif­fi­culty share some re­spon­si­bil­ity for their prob­lems; maybe they made poor de­ci­sions.

But you can only take re­spon­si­bil­ity for your­self, right? There’s noth­ing you can do about the ways other peo­ple choose to abuse their free­dom. Com­pas­sion is for suck­ers.

But this is still a rel­a­tively rare point of view, though we shouldn’t be sur­prised that what some peo­ple call high achiev­ers ex­hibit this sort of ni­hilis­tic ruth­less­ness. Even a lot of us who are con­strained by our con­sciences might ad­mire the am­bi­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion of bold ac­tors able to set aside qualms to pur­sue their agen­das.

Maybe they are right about us. Maybe we are weak.

Maybe we should be ashamed of our rel­a­tive poverty, our lack of clout and ac­cess. Af­ter all, what do we have to of­fer, other than a sin­gle vote that has been min­i­mized by ger­ry­man­der­ing and the en­fran­chise­ment of cor­po­ra­tions? There is no com­pelling rea­son for our nom­i­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tives to pri­or­i­tize the hum­ble lives of or­di­nary ci­ti­zens over the po­ten­tial prof­its of their cor­po­rate part­ners. In this trans­ac­tional world, you have to have some­thing more to of­fer than a vote.

Your po­ten­tial vote might get you a tour of a con­gres­sional of­fice and a selfie. But in this coun­try, it’s not go­ing to get you the health-care sys­tem the rest of world takes for granted. Be­cause to do so would be to limit the prof­its that bet­ter in­di­vid­u­als can make. And that wouldn’t be fair to them.

You don’t see any­one do­ing any­thing about this be­cause it re­quires real courage not to be a by­stander. There’s no penalty for do­ing noth­ing, while the risks of tak­ing a gen­uine po­si­tion are real. That’s how democ­racy will die—in pub­lic, with the timid mil­lions look­ing on, shak­ing their heads.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.