When I was a Junior in high school, my passion for competitive debate started to wane and a new obsession started taking hold of my life: original oratory. This category of speech competition was particularly suited to kids who (1) had strong opinions and (2) like to share those opinions with others without being interrupted. It fit me perfectly and I did really well. At the end of my Junior year, I won my state competition and went to nationals in San Antonio, Texas.
In Original Oratory, it helps to speak with great conviction, and I was able to generate a real sense of moral outrage in myself every time I delivered my speech. My topic back in 1984 was by-stander intervention. I began by describing the story of Kitty Genovese in graphic detail. Her story was old news by the time I told it, but it has become the classic tale of by-stander apathy. According to news reports, on March 13, 1964, 38 people heard or saw her being stabbed to death outside her apartment but none of them took action to help her. The publicity around the case led to a number of studies on the "bystander effect", demonstrating how groups can inhibit people from reaching out to help someone in need.
The story of Kitty Genovese has always stayed with me, as did the lesson that many people derived from the story: being a part of a group can be morally hazardous.
So a Facebook friend's link to this New York Post story from this past Sunday caught my eye immediately: "Debunking the Myth of Kitty Genovese". The article summarizes the argument made in a new book published this year on the fiftieth anniversary of Kitty Genovese's death. The author is Kevin Cook, and the title of the book is “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America”.
After carefully researching the original police records of the crime, Cook concludes that the version of the crime that was publicized was significantly different from what actually happened. While it is true that two different men (including a close friend of Genovese) witnessed the attack and did not respond to help, others did help. In fact, one man yelled out his window and scared the attacker away and another called the police (who did not respond to his call). Genovese died in the arms of another neighbor who had rushed to help but arrived too late. The story of 38 bystanders seems to have been the construction of a police department looking to deflect criticism for their own delayed response.
The "bystander effect" is clearly a factor in human behavior, one that has been replicated in experiments and, unfortunately, in other situations that have made the news. But those same studies also showed that as soon as one person acts to help, many others jump in and add their support. What the world needs, in other words, is not a superhero who will fly in and fix everything while we all watch. The world needs people who will go first, people who in sight of the rest of us, reach out to someone in need.
The image that has stayed with me from the bombings at the Boston Marathon last year was of dozens of ordinary people running over to help those who were injured, including some who spontaneously and cooperatively disassembled the temporary fences that separated spectators from the race course. I thought then, as I often do, of the words I had taped inside the door of my locker in high school from Max Ehrmann's "Desiderata": "..the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism."