Friday, March 13, 2009

Catherine "Kitty" Genovese Did Not Die in Vain

"March 13, 1964: No One Helps as Kitty Is Slain"
Wired (March 13, 2009)

"1964: Kitty Genovese is stabbed to death near her apartment in New York City, while neighbors ignore her cries for help during three separate attacks lasting 35 minutes.

"According to police, no fewer than 38 people heard — and possibly saw — at least one of the attacks by Genovese's knife-wielding assailant. Nobody came to her aid, and only one bothered calling the police — and only after the third attack had killed her.

"This appalling display of collective indifference sparked sensationalized press coverage, horrified the nation, and prompted numerous psychological studies into what would become known as Genovese syndrome, or more generically, the bystander effect...."

If you're an American, you probably know at least the outline of this story: helpless victim; apathetic neighbors; cruel indifference to human suffering.

This Wired article does a good job of memorializing the legend of West 23rd, and discussing what some psychologists have had to say about the "pluralistic ignorance" and "diffusion of responsibility" exhibited by all those witnesses.

"All's Quiet of West 23," Moral Culpability, and All That

The Wired article ends with "...Subsequent studies have reached different conclusions, however, and over the years, the moral culpability of the do-nothing witnesses has also been disputed. Apologists argue, among other things, that no one was present for all three attacks and therefore no single person had a clear, overall picture of what was actually happening.

"Twenty years after the fact, though, at least one witness remained unremorseful. Interviewed in 1984 by Newsday, Madeleine Hartmann, a native of France, said that she had become accustomed to hearing screams in the night in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens."
Reality Check, Please
I'm forbidden to judge the guilt or innocence of people, at least in a big-picture sense.1 On the other hand, I am free to write about whether acts are morally right or wrong. And, seeing a potentially lethal attack take place, and doing nothing, is wrong. Not wanting to get involved is not an excuse.

That said, the legend of West 23rd2 depends on a few facts being left on the cutting room floor.

For example, three people actually saw the stabbings. The rest didn't. The police were called: right after the first attack.

Kitty Genovese died, anyway. And that's a tragedy.

A key point explains, I think, quite a lot of the 'unfeeling, uncaring' New Yorkers' behavior. As an article in The New York Times put it, "...At night, the quiet neighborhood is shrouded in the slumbering darkness that marks most residential areas...."

The attacks happened at night. on the 13th of March. New York City is in the northern hemisphere. March is a winter month up here. Anybody who lives in New York City, has a choice, and is sane, is inside with the windows closed on winter nights. Sounds outside are muffled, at best.

Kitty Genovese Did Not Die in Vain

The facts in this case don't matter.

What does matter is what happened as the legend of West 23rd spread across the land. If the death of Kitty Genovese didn't put "apathy" and "I don't want to get involved" on the map, the story of uncaring New Yorkers certainly helped.3

The mid-sixties was the dawning of an age when people were expected to care - deeply, passionately, irrationally - about issues. Some issues, anyway. And, to shrink back in righteous disgust at any hint of apathy.

There was some reason for this sea-change in attitude. For one thing, those were the days when a concerned citizen could pull a driver from a burning car - and get sued for inflicting an injury. The injury didn't even have to be real: ever hear of "emotional suffering and mental anguish?" Some Americans were learning to leave well enough alone.

I think that the deplorable death of Kitty Genovese helped turn that around. "Good Samaritan" laws were passed: and I think that the rush of emotion fueled by "All's Quiet on West 23rd" helped.

That song, recorded by The Jades (1967), Julie Budd (1968), The Jades (again, in 1970), and probably others I didn't dig up, was on the air a lot, back in those particular Good Old Days. I can still sing the refrain.

I wrote about Kitty Genovese, pop culture, and the psycho-social gestalt of politico-legal developments of the late sixties, last year.

Related post:
It's no coincidence, that "apathy" was abhorred in the sixties, and that this blog is "Apathetic Lemming of the North." I explain the connection in "Why 'Apathetic Lemming of the North?' " (September 9, 2007). As for being apathetic, although I do care, and respond to, issues which I think are serious, I remain "apathetic" in the sixties sense of the word.

As the bumper sticker said, "Apathy is Rampant - But Who Cares?"

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