I Thought You Had It

I Thought You Had It

In times of crisis, individuals have been known to fail to act when they are part of a group, because they assume someone else will do it.

By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, August 20, 2020

If you’ve ever watched a perfectly catchable fly ball fall to the ground between two baseball players, each thinking the other had it, you’re familiar with the bystander effect. The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological theory that predicts that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present; the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help.

In the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, a 28-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was coming home from working in a bar, when she stabbed outside the Queens, NY apartment building where she lived. The New York Times published an article a few weeks later, claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, but none of them called the police or came to her aid. The country was horrified. How could all those people do nothing? Critics surmised that their inaction was due to the indifference or apathy of urban life, where people felt socially and physically isolated. The assumption was that no one came to Kitty’s aid, because they were simply too afraid to call the police or get otherwise involved. But reality was more complicated.

Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley did a study in the aftermath of the uproar over the case and concluded the witnesses that had heard or seen the attack, assumed someone else would do something, that someone else had already called the police. Witnesses surmised since they had heard the cries for help, so had many others, and someone else would do something.

In studies they did, they found that if people felt they were the only ones to witness someone in distress, they came to their aid in far greater numbers, than if they felt they were part of a group. Individuals responded to personal emergencies over 80% of the time, while those who were part of a group only responded 30% of the time.

Kitty Genovese in 1956

In 2016, the prevailing wisdom was that Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag. The polls and experts all gave Donald Trump little to no chance to pull off a victory against a candidate who had been practically anointed to what many believed to be her rightful place in history. While more than 3 million Americans voted for her than her opponent, a significant enough number of voters failed to vote for her in key districts. They stayed home. They voted for protest candidates. They voted for the other guy as a different kind of protest vote. 

The world woke up on November 9, stunned to learn that Donald Trump would be our next President. By all accounts, no one was more shocked than Donald Trump himself.

The country had essentially sat on their hands and watched as social etiquette, human decency and democratic ideals were brutally assaulted, again and again, and we did nothing because we thought someone else would do something about it.

We literally dropped the ball.

It’s 2020 now. We’re in the middle of pandemic. The economy is on the brink of disaster, even as the stock market continues to inexplicably rise. Our democratic institutions have been decimated by corporate raiders. Our civil rights are being trampled, as our environment is being polluted and sold off. We are being stabbed over and over again, and we’re all waiting for someone will come to our aid.

In the days since Trump was elected, Democrats have looked for heroes in the unlikeliest of places. From Robert Mueller to James Comey, Michael Cohen to Michael Avenatti, Mitt Romney to Jeff Flake. We hoped that Republicans would finally stand up and stay, “stop the madness.” But they all went along. The few who did stand up were ineffective or caved to pressure from the Right. The left was toothless and powerless.

It’s finally time to realize that no one is coming to save us. We have to save ourselves. This is not a movie. There is no hero in this story. We have to rally our neighbors. We have to leave our houses. We have to fight the attacker off ourselves. You can’t call the police. You can’t call the FBI. You can’t call your Congressman or Senator. You can’t call your newspaper or television station. You’re on your own. It’s time to be your own hero.

Vote like your life depends on it, or at least the life of your neighbor.

Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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