Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Bystander Effect - by Ronji Tanielu

On 13 March 1964, in Queens, New York City, a 28-year old young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home by Winston Moseley. This murder did not gain much public attention at all until 2-weeks later when a New York Times reporter published an article about this tragic case. The article focussed on the allegations that dozens of Ms Genovese’s neighbours ignored her cries for help and chose not to intervene or even call the Police.

Bystander effect: Kitty Genovese, right, was stabbed to death near her home by Winston Moseley
Ms Genovese’s case has now gained legendary status in the United States. It led to research on the ‘bystander effect’ which studies why people choose not to help others in desperate need. It also prompted debate and change around Police phone lines, community togetherness and responsibility, and Neighbourhood Watch. It also influenced pop culture and the arts world with numerous songs, books, TV shows and movies inspired by this case. Moreover, budding lawyers and justice professionals around the world are taught this story at Universities and Colleges. In recent years, the legitimacy and accuracy of this story has been challenged by some.

Yet at the heart of this tragic case, in my opinion at least, lies three simple yet critical irrefutable elements. Firstly, Ms Genovese was murdered. Secondly, her cries of help were ignored by those around her: her community: her neighbours. Finally, Mr Moseley was rightfully convicted of the murder. But he is still in prison as of November 2013 and major questions arise around his rehabilitation and the appropriateness of his sentence.

A few days ago, our New Zealand national media ran stories about the vicious assault on Ms Praveet Singh
[1] in Papatoetoe, South Auckland. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, in a nutshell, Ms Singh was randomly beaten and assaulted while walking near her home by a man who punched and threw a bottle at her. Ms Singh was left with a broken nose and two fractured eye sockets. What really caught my attention were the reports of people who gathered and actually witnessed this assault and yet did not intervene at all. The echoes of Kitty Genovese’s story abound here. 

One of the witnesses told the reporters that they chose not intervene because he thought it was a domestic dispute and it was their business. Obviously the It’s Not OK campaign hasn’t reached him yet. Another witness continued to wash his car during the beating and didn’t want to intervene.


Wow!

Ms Singh’s sad case made me wonder about my second point above – how her neighbours in her own community watched the beating yet chose not to help. I’ve done my own un-scientific research about this on the bus, with family and wherever I can, asking what they might do in a similar situation. Answers ranged from attacking the attacker, yelling out loudly, calling the police or gathering neighbours and intervening. Not one person said they would not intervene in some way. In theory, this all sounds good. I think we’d all like to believe we would at least do something to help in a similar situation. But in real life, with the adrenalin flowing, the fight or flight desires emerging, and with danger facing you, the theoretical responses are a little bit harder to put into practice.

So this brings me to me the big questions I’m asking myself…as well as those I sit near to on the bus: How should neighbours or communities truly interact with one another? How is this ‘bystander effect’, which manifests itself in our New Zealand societies in the form of kids going without food at school, or injustices happening in courtrooms, or loan sharks preying on vulnerable people, stopped so that we don’t just sit idly by while people suffer unnecessarily.

And for the Christian out there, what then do Yeshua’s words in Matthew 12 about loving neighbours actually mean? Does loving equate to being the hands and feet of Yeshua and providing service and support to others? Or does it also equate to being the mouthpiece of Yeshua and declaring a saving gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) that involves words like salvation, hell, repentance, sin and surrender that have become unpopular in modern theology and church circles?

Or is it all of the above? I think it is. Whether it is sad cases like those of Ms Genovese or Ms Singh or other similar situations, I submit that a true believer’s response should be to act as the hands, feet and mouthpiece of Yeshua. The bystander effect should have no place in our communities, particularly if we claim to be believers. So, what do you think?
 
[1] http://www.nzherald.co.nz/crime/news/article.cfm?c_id=30&objectid=11188763

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