Our Kitty Genovese Moment
By Dennis Loo (5/10/14)
Editor's Note: This is a reprint of a December 13, 2007 article. We are posting it because so many comments on this website complain about other people in society being politically passive and choosing to "put on blinders." In addition, see the following articles: "Distinguishing Structures from Individuals and Primary from Secondary Factors Part One," and also these articles, here, here, here, and here. These articles each go at the relevant questions from different angles.
Many people frequently make the mistake of concluding that what the majority of people - the mainstream - are doing is a direct reflection of what they're thinking and what they believe. In comments on this website quite a few people are repeatedly making this error. Social conformity, in contrast to that mistaken view, is overall more important than social consensus. Put another way, people tend to adopt the behavior of those around them not primarily because they agree with the behavior but because as social creatures, we tend to follow what others do. This isn't primarily a sign of personal weakness or a conscious decision to stay ignorant and put on "blinders," but because as social beings most people do what they see others doing. This is always going to be true of the mainstream of any society. You cannot blame the mainstream for the status quo. The mainstream doesn't make the status quo the status quo. They did not create and they are not primarily responsible for perpetuating the system that the mainstream and the rest of us live in. Most people at any given point are going to follow along with the norms that have been set by others. The mainstream never sets the norms. They follow the norms. By definition the mainstream are not the opinion-makers and norm setters. As the following article lays out, to change what people are doing you need to set new norms through what social psychologists call "social proof." People should, in other words, stop blaming others for being conformists and instead become active in helping to set new norms for others to see and adopt. To blame people for being conformists is like criticizing people for being social creatures. Human beings are, for better and for worse, social creatures, but that does not mean that social change is impossible. It means that social change occurs when braver and more insightful individuals break from the norm and set new norms for others to follow.
Part of the reason for this frequent error (aka the Fallacy of False Attribution) is not distinguishing between primary and secondary factors. Another way of putting this is that people generally speaking have been trained to think in black and white (aka dichotomous reasoning) rather than dialectically. See the above links here and here for a more thotough discussion of this vital methodological distinction. Learning how to think in a sophisticated way requires being able to tease out the difference between primary and secondary factors.
You cannot judge social phenomena (or natural physical phenomena for that matter) by primarily or exclusively looking at the surface appearance of things. This would be like trying to determine when and if an earthquake is going to happen based on what is currently happening. If what's currently happening, which is the case the vast majority of the time, is that there are no earthquakes, would you be safe in concluding that therefore since there are no earthquakes happening right now that there will never be and can never be any earthquakes? Of course not. Earthquakes build up under the surface and the fault lines are not generally visible above ground. Yet the tensions below the surface are building and at some point in time those hidden tensions will erupt in spectacular fashion with the whole ground shaking in an earthquake. In systems characterized by domination by a minority over the majority, conflict is ever-present, but the nature of that conflict is usually hidden and subtle. Only on rare occasions does that conflict break out into the open in obvious ways before the whole society. Thus, the surface appearance of people mostly going about their business not visibly challenging the powers that be is deceptive because the endemic oppression is concealed. It is, therefore, a mistake to think that the surface indicators of compliance is a sign of mass acquiescence. To really understand what's going on you have to probe beneath the surface and to do that you need much better tools than conventional thinkng and the ideas of those who now rule society. You need, instead, revolutionary theory. Seismologists similarly need earthquake science in order to study and predict (in probabilistic ways) future earthquakes.
Kitty Genovese was a 29-year old New Yorker stabbed to death in 1964 in front of her neighbors in Queens. The case is famous because dozens of bystanders in their apartments are believed to have watched, listened and done nothing to save her while she was being murderously assaulted over the course of an hour. As it turns out, contrary to common perception, someone did call the police and the widely reported thirty-eight people who watched was in fact a handful who did not see the attack occur in its entirety. The incident has, nonetheless, become important for what it symbolizes about the bystander effect problem: the more people there are who are witness to an emergency, the less likely any one of the people will act in response because of the diffusion of responsibility.
Most of America has been puzzled at the failure of most of America (or enough of America) to speak out effectively against the crimes against humanity and tyranny being carried out by our government. "Why isn't someone doing something?" you hear again and again in social gatherings and in classrooms. "Why don't the Democrats show some spine?" millions of people say. "What's wrong with Americans?" people decry.
The whole world is wondering the same.
The absence of any real and determined opposition from the Democratic Party and the mass media to the Bush regime's tyranny has put most Americans in a state of social proof. The people that the public thinks should have the expertise and greater knowledge and should therefore be acting on that knowledge aren't, so many people have so far concluded that the problem must not be all that bad, even if their own sense of it is that it is.
The situation we confront today - while significantly attributable to complacency among all too many Americans, and significantly attributable to extremely narrow notions of what political action and engagement are (that the people's role is restricted to supporting and voting for candidates and that voting decides public policy and that's it) - is principally due to the abdication of leadership by the existing, customary leadership class and a resultant condition called pluralistic ignorance.
Many years ago my significant other and I were standing on a city sidewalk while a fire was blazing in a storefront, brightening up the night sky. A crowd of several dozen other people was standing next to us. I said to my partner that I was going to move a little closer for a better look since we were all standing behind the unblocked driveway entrance. She said: "No, don't do it. Nobody else is." I said, "Why not?" As soon as I stepped over the invisible barrier everyone else did.
"[S]ocial proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist."
"Honestly it was one of the most frightening things I've done in a long time. I was praying for a familiar face, but I just dove in and started asking students as they walked by if they wanted to pick up a[n orange] ribbon to support our anti-war movement, at first many of them just kept walking and said no thanks (a little discouraging...). However, as more students began to come out of class I was able to grab the attention of a few who came up to the table and wanted to know what the orange and the ribbons were all about "
"I was so pleased to see many people taking the ribbons and putting them on their backpacks and on their shirts. As time passed and more students came out, I begin to get people to pledge to get three other people to wear the orange ribbons. I got about 10 pledges from people who said that they had friends that would wear the ribbon in support. I remember this one guy who came back and asked me if he could have one for his girlfriend :) It was great! "
"Another young woman from the CGU [Claremont Graduate University] mentioned that 'people in this generation haven't had their "1960s" yet and need to' and that she would try to spread this out in Claremont... Another gentlemen " had friends that would wear the ribbons too and that he was interested in how this turned out. My most memorable one was the professor that took a ribbon and thanked me for doing what I was doing :) Another professor said that he wanted to see us in front of the school picketing just like they did in the 60's.
"Overall, even though my palms were clammy and I was nervous each time I spoke to someone it was very rewarding and I think I passed out about 150 ribbons, if not more, out [over the course of an hour and three-quarters], especially to classmates and even to a gentlemen at an Empire conference."
"[S]ocial proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist."
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffective. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material which no man or woman could have dreamed would have come his or her way. Whatever you can do or dream that you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now." - Goethe
"[S]ocial proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist."
When one person in the crowd steps in to help and breaks the spell of inaction, others realize that they are not alone in their sentiments and they will move as well. Social proof has been established. New terms have been set by your actions. The ramifications of the actions of individuals - and organizations - who step forward to create new conditions by their actions cannot be overestimated in times such as these.
Some of us need to be brave and this will help others to be brave as well. Stop wondering why others aren't doing what you yourself need to do and do it. The task ahead of us is historic and extraordinary. It won't be accomplished without courage, boldness, initiative, persistence in the face of difficulty, and sacrifice. No great things have ever been accomplished without these.
As I have written elsewhere, how can reversing the terrible wrongs committed by this government be so easy and so simple as voting for someone to take care of all of this? How could we really expect rectification to result from the presidential elections when the two major party presidential candidates have ruled out impeachment? Moreover, Obama and McCain have both personally colluded in the tyrannies and war crimes of this White House by failing to stand up and condemn and filibuster the bills permitting this government's outrageous behavior.
How can individuals so cowardly as to fail to combat barbarities such as torture - when it has been their moral and legal responsibility to do this as Senators - be expected to be legitimate leaders of our country?
Doesn't a government that is daily committing atrocities - and planning more - need to be taken on by the collective actions of the people, taking the political stage as an independent force? How could it be otherwise?
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)