The Bystander Effect

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Recently a friend told me about an incident that happened at a gas station in our small town. She was at the gas pump finishing filling her tank when she saw an elderly man fall. There were several other customers also pumping gas, but no one made a move except my friend. She ran over, helped the man up, and made sure he got safely home – all this despite the fact that she was in a rush, needing to get her young son to school and husband to the station to catch a train.

My friend and I discussed the fact that she was the only person who sprang into action to help a stranger in distress. Her experience reminded me of the Bystander Effect, a well known psychological phenomenon wherein the likelihood that a person will act in an emergency goes down the more bystanders there are witnessing the event.

The Bystander Effect was studied and explained after the horrifying murder of Kitty Genovese on a street in New York in 1964. Genovese was repeatedly stabbed in a prolonged attack that was witnessed by numerous residents from the windows of their apartments. No one acted, and Genovese died.

Scientists explain that the reason people fail to act in such situations is two-fold:

First, individuals in a crowd reason that someone else will probably step forward to help. This was perhaps the reason my friend was the only one to help the elderly man at the gas station.

The second reason people stand by without assisting the victim is that human behavior is strongly influenced by what others around us do. In studies, for example, two people in a room hear a loud crash and cries of distress coming from another room. If one of the people suggests that it’s nothing, the test subject usually does nothing. If, however, the person says he is going to get help and tells the test subject to go see what happened in the other room, the subject usually complies. (Ervin Staub, “Our Power As Active Bystanders,” Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2012)

I have to wonder whether it was the Bystander Effect that caused deputies at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to refrain from entering the building when they arrived at the scene of the latest horrific mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Sheriff’s deputies are currently under investigation for failing to act in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. Perhaps these officers reasoned that other police officers or authorities would go in. Of course, the Bystander Effect does not explain the school deputy officer’s failure to act, as he was the only law enforcement official on the scene when the shooting began.

The Bystander Effect has contributed not just to isolated failures of people to act in emergencies. It also explains why acts of genocide have been allowed to take place throughout history. It’s a disturbing trait of group dynamics that whole societies, and even the international community, can look the other way while atrocities are being committed.

Psychologist Ervin Staub believes, however, that people can be trained to act during a crisis and lead others to overcome the Bystander Effect. If even one individual steps forward and starts directing people to help, that action tends to mobilize other individuals, shaking them from their shock, fear and inertia. (Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2012)

Fighting the Bystander Effect could have a huge impact in our society. School bullying would become a thing of the past if schoolmates consistently came to the aid of their classmates being bullied. Violent actors, if met with determined resistance, might stop harming others with impunity. And the world would be a much more humane place if everyone stepped forward readily to provide aid to a person in need.

 

 

 

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The Disney Experience

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My husband, daughter, and I just returned from a weekend soccer event at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. It was a warm, sunny weekend, our daughter’s team played well, and a good time was had by all. My only regret was not having time to visit one of the many theme parks that make up the World according to Disney.

Being close to the “happiest place on Earth,” however, reminded me of the many times we have taken our children to visit Disneyland and Disney World over the years. While I am an unabashed fan of all things Disney, my husband has always been a grudging participant in our visits.

On one of our first trips to Disneyland in California, we were in line waiting for a ride when we overheard a child in full meltdown, red-faced and wailing. My husband turned to me and drily quipped, “That’s the Disney experience.” From that time on, we referred to the many tantrums and outbursts that are an inevitable part of dragging young children around a theme park in the sun as “the Disney experience.”

The world created by Walt Disney and his successors is a strange one indeed. There is a certain Stepford Wives quality to the perfection of an imaginary Main Street and the many other fantastical settings created within the parks. Everyone acts as if it’s normal to line up behind a figure in a giant costume and wait to get Mickey Mouse’s autograph. Mind you, these are not just children jostling to get close to the world’s most famous rodent.

Within the world of Disney, unseen voices sweetly, if a bit eerily, encourage guests to “please move to the center of the row” in a given attraction over and over again – to the unthinking and perfect compliance of the guests. And inside these dimly lit fantasy worlds, animatronic figures go about their business in a not-quite-lifelike manner.

There is an entire unseen, underground apparatus that runs the Disney theme parks. When I learned this, I imagined cartoonish jail cells where unruly guests might be confined for, say, throwing their jumbo drink cup on the ground or taking cuts in line. One gets the sense while at Disney that there is no possibility of allowing misbehavior to go unchecked.

In fact, that’s one of the things I love about the Disney experience. It’s unreal, true. But we all get enough reality in our day to day lives. It’s nice to go somewhere where everything is shiny and perfect and have some good old fashioned fun. The jokes are corny and the songs sometimes a bit saccharine. But there’s no denying the sense of magic in the Magic Kingdom.

And notwithstanding the toddler meltdowns that are part of “the Disney experience,” it may just be the happiest place on Earth.

 

My Brother’s Keeper

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The other day I was waiting for the elevator in a hospital when a woman walked up and stood next to me. She had no coat on, so I assumed she was either a hospital employee or volunteer. But what struck me about the woman was her t-shirt. It was black and had white lettering that stated, “I am my brother’s keeper.”

The statement refers to a scene in Genesis when God questions Cain after Cain has murdered his brother Abel in a fit of anger and jealousy. When God asks where Abel is, Cain famously replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That question has echoed throughout the ages as human beings grapple with their own self-centeredness vs. their responsibility for others.

I’ve been thinking about this statement since last Wednesday’s school shooting, which was perpetrated by a 19-year-old former student. TV news reports showed him appearing in court for his arraignment, a skinny, bowed, pathetic figure, no doubt hated by the vast majority of Americans for the horrific act he had apparently committed a mere day before. And I wondered, who was looking out for him in his lonely life?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe the man who opened fire on high school students and staff in Parkland, Florida, killing at least 17, needs to answer for his crime. He and he alone is responsible for his actions.

But I couldn’t help feeling a sense of pity for his miserable existence, which included having been adopted as a child, who knows under what circumstances. He and his biological brother had lost their adoptive father 13 years ago and their mother mere months ago. Throughout the shooter’s young life, he had demonstrated troubling behavior, such as torturing animals, and had eventually been expelled from school.

Was there any attempt to diagnose a possible mental illness? Did anyone from the school or community reach out to try to help him and his brother, now virtually alone in the world? True, they had been taken in by a family in the community. But that family had allowed a disturbed young man access to a semiautomatic weapon.

Our American culture has many virtues: democratic values, social mobility, belief in hard work, and a vigorous defense of individual rights.  There is a sense of “I am my own person” in our society that allows people great freedom but can also leave them unmoored from social networks and a sense of belonging. The phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” is not an American one. But maybe it should be.

I don’t know all the facts of this young man’s life. I don’t know whether or how people may have tried to get through to him, to help him. But he seems a lonely figure, and there are so many like him in our society.

The Biblical figure of Cain was cast out from his people. He had failed to recognize his duty to his own brother: to protect him and not to harm him. We are our brother’s keepers. But in our very individualistic culture, I’m not so sure we are doing a good enough job shouldering that responsibility.

 

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

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28058365_883296441852265_4748931391964434677_nYesterday, which happened to be both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, a 19-year-old walked into his former high school and shot and killed 17 people, wounding numerous others, with an AR-15 assault rifle.

As I sit here calmly sipping coffee, dozens of family members are grappling with the unthinkable. Because a troubled teenager was able to get his hands on a semi-automatic version of a military style weapon, residents of Parkland, Florida, must face the reality of burying their children and other loved ones.

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings. The Florida incident marks the 18th school shooting in less than two months in 2018. If the cause of all this death were anything but guns, legislators would already have passed numerous laws to safeguard the lives of the American people. Meanwhile, lawmakers in New York are considering a ban on Tide Pods because they look too much like candy, despite the fact that there were no fatalities reported last year from the ridiculous “Tide Pod Challenge” idiotic teens were participating in.

Suffice it to say, we have our priorities screwed up in this country.

Yesterday evening, it was standing room only at my church for the annual Ash Wednesday Mass and distribution of ashes. For some reason, Ash Wednesday services seem to be more well attended than any other events in the Catholic Church. The ashes are meant to represent both our mortality and our sinfulness – and to encourage repentance.

As a nation, we need to repent our inactivity in the face of evil. We need to atone for the countless preventable deaths due to gun violence.

The only way to effect common sense gun legislation is to elect local, state, and federal officials who are not beholden to the gun lobby. Decades ago, Mothers Against Drunk Driving began an effective campaign to strengthen drunk driving laws and save lives. We need to join the Moms Demand[ing] Action for Gun Sense in America and fight for legislation that will protect us from this uniquely American scourge.

Alternate Reality

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MadHatterSignpostDHThe other day I overheard Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson getting indignant over a New York Times story revealing that U.S. intelligence officers had paid $100,000 to a Russian operative for dirt on Donald Trump. Curious, I pulled up the actual Times article and read that the intelligence community paid the money to retrieve stolen NSA cyber weapons, not intel on Trump. The article specifically stated, in fact, that the officers did not want any “dirt” on Trump during a presidential election. This is the alternative reality that Trump apologists like Carlson have created – aided and abetted by a behemoth of an organization called Fox News.

The whole so-called political scandal inside the FBI is a creation of the right wing establishment and Fox News, who have been desperate to deflect attention from the very serious Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Instead of welcoming the truth, conservatives want to taint any findings that might come out of that investigation by claiming that the investigators themselves are all politically motivated.

The problem is that millions of Americans get their news from Fox, including the president himself. This leaves us in an Orwellian world where truth is a function of what one believes, not of what can be factually demonstrated. We should have been more frightened back in 2016 when Kellyanne Conway blathered about “alternative facts.” So between a steady diet of Fox News and an algorithm on Facebook that presents them with only pro-Trump, anti-Hillary/Obama/Democrats information, Trump supporters can live in their own alternate reality.

I’m not claiming that the editors of other news organizations are always free from bias. But I have never seen the deliberate omission and/or twisting of facts to fit the right wing, pro-Republican narrative as I have witnessed on Fox News. Even when something negative happens, such as the drastic drop in the stock market last week, Fox News calls it a “correction,” whereas in the Obama era, it would have been considered a sign of the president’s unfitness.

And when I hear people I know murmuring about “the Deep State” or referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” I realize the extent to which Trump and his own special news network have infected the American consciousness. Conservatives mocked Hillary Clinton back in the day when she referred to a vast right-wing conspiracy against her and her husband. But after a brutal presidential election that featured relentless attacks against Hillary and investigations prompted by conservative groups like Judicial Watch, I have to say I find her theory much more plausible.

Liberals and conservatives will never see eye to eye on all the issues. That’s what makes the political system interesting and vital. But if we can’t even agree on what constitutes reality, we are in danger of becoming a society in which the loudest and most well-financed voices are the only ones we hear.

 

 

Ice Queens*

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The Winter Olympics have started, and that has turned my attention to the only event I actually follow during the weeks-long spectacle: women’s figure skating.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and I were captivated by the likes of Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and the adorable Sasha Cohen, all of them American figure skaters chasing a gold medal. Following in the tradition of American Olympic gold medalists such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi, only Sarah Hughes managed to grasp that gold ring. Still, their graceful performances on the ice were magical, and we even bought tickets to see them skate on their post-Olympic tour.

Beyond the beauty, elegance, and athleticism of these masterful skaters, their personal stories are part of the magic. This year’s crop of American Olympic hopefuls all come from ordinary, even humble, origins, and their fierce drive to succeed can be seen as against the odds.

Bradie Tennell is from my own home state of Illinois. The daughter of a single mom, she started begging to be taken ice skating at the age of 2. Unlike Tiger Woods’ father, Bradie’s mother only reluctantly allowed her daughter to enter the world of competitive ice skating. And as opposed to many Olympic hopefuls, Bradie has had the same coach for the past 10 years. That coach, Denise Meyers, refers to Bradie as “a scrapper.” Bradie Tennell stunned the competitive figure skating world by becoming the gold medalist at the U.S. Championships this past January.  Her climb to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is considered a Cinderella story. Another heart-warming part of that story is the fact that United Airlines plans to fly Bradie’s mother and brothers free of charge to South Korea so that they can see her compete.

Mirai Nagasu is another U.S. ice skater who is more than familiar with hardship. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work long hours running a restaurant in Arcadia, California. Mirai credits her parents’ hard work and sacrifice for her successes as a figure skater and her dream spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Mirai is best known for executing the difficult triple axel, a feat that she will try to accomplish in the PyeongChang Olympics this month – and a feat no other American figure skater has accomplished in the Olympics. And while her parents have seldom been able to attend her skating competitions due to the demands of running their restaurant, they will be on hand to watch her potentially make history in South Korea.

Karen Chen rounds out the list of U.S. Olympic hopefuls in women’s figure skating. Her championship medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the bronze she won in this year’s competition make her a definite contender. Like Mirai Nagasu, Karen’s parents are immigrants, in their case from Taiwan. But unlike the other two skaters on Team USA, Karen has an Olympic gold medalist in her corner: Kristi Yamaguchi, who hails from the same hometown of Fremont, California, and has become a mentor to Karen. According to Karen, Kristi routinely signs one of Karen’s ice skates before a competition for good luck. And at a mere 5 feet tall, Karen’s favorite quote is from Shakespeare: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Although none of these three skaters is expected to medal in this year’s Winter Olympics, it will be enjoyable to watch them skate and to cheer for them, knowing their back stories and their hard work to achieve excellence. Two Russian figure skaters, Yevgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, are apparently the ones to watch this year in PyeongChang. Having been exempted from the ban on Russian athletes enacted after the doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, they are sure to have something to prove as they compete with other young women from around the world.

As snow blankets my world here in Chicago, I’ll be happy to curl up in front of the TV and see the grace and skill of these young figure skaters. May the best women win!

*Postscript: Alina Zagitova edged out her Russian teammate Yevgenia Medvedeva to win the gold in the figure skating finals yesterday. The 15-year-old Zagitova bested her “elder” and the reigning champ in Russia. She will be one to watch in 2022.

 

 

 

 

A Woman Scorned

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When convicted sexual abuser Larry Nasser used the quotation, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” in reference to his victims, there was widespread incredulity and revulsion. Nasser’s implication that somehow young gymnasts were complicit in his manipulative and abusive behavior was horrifying – but nothing new.

For centuries and in cultures the world over, women have often been blamed for their own victimization at the hands of men. At the extreme are the traditions of many African and Middle Eastern cultures, wherein if a woman or girl is raped, the only way she and her family can avoid shame is to have her marry her rapist. Victims of human trafficking are likewise deemed damaged goods and whores regardless of the fact that they gave no consent to the sexual abuse.

As women come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, molestation and outright rape by political figures, college athletes, media figures, and Hollywood moguls, it seems hard to believe that there are so many predatory men in the world. And yet our culture permits and even condones such behavior.

One of the problems is simply that young girls and women are not believed. As far back as 1990, Nasser’s victims had complained to school officials at Michigan State University about his inappropriate touching. Administrators simply could not believe that a man of Dr. Nasser’s stature could perpetrate such acts. Disbelieving victims goes a long way toward enabling predators to continue their despicable behavior. When the perpetrator of the violence is a person of standing in the community, that standing takes precedence over the safety of the victims. One need look no further than the massive sexual abuse that took place for decades in the Catholic Church to see how difficult it is for victims to come forward and be believed.

The other problem in our culture is perpetuating the myth that men are natural sexual predators, and women are their prey. Long before the Harvey Weinstein revelations, casting couch sexual shenanigans was a common trope. It was widely believed that starlets and young women in many occupations used their sexuality in order to get ahead. Instead of maligning the men who used their power to intimidate and coerce these women, cultural scorn was heaped on the women themselves. This tendency to blame the victim explains why so many women went for years without disclosing the terrible things that had happened to them at the hands of men like Weinstein.

As proof of my point, there is already a backlash developing against the #MeToo movement. Men (and no doubt some women as well) are complaining that demanding a greater accounting of their sexual behavior is a buzz kill in the bedroom. Many point to the story of Aziz Ansari and his unsavory but not necessarily criminal behavior with women he dated as an example that the #MeToo movement has gone too far. After all, Ansari is considered a “nice guy.” How could such a nice guy be held culpable for disrespecting women?

But that is precisely the point. If the “nice” ones cause that much discomfort in a romantic encounter, imagine how scary the truly predatory and sociopathic ones are. We need a sea change in our attitudes about men, women, and sexuality. Clearly, the sexual revolution has done nothing to erase outdated stereotypes.

But there is hope. Women and men who are victims of sexual abuse are demanding an accounting. They are speaking out and expecting to be heard and believed. Certainly compared to a few decades ago, awareness of sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behavior has made many employment situations better for both men and women. Even Disney reconfigured their Pirates of the Caribbean ride to get rid of the pirate chasing a “wench” around and around, ostensibly to catch and rape her.

Laws are important, and law enforcement needs to improve to recognize and prosecute sexual misconduct. Similarly, organizations such as schools and universities need to recognize the problem and prioritize human rights over reputation. But the real change will come when we start to believe sex should be a mutually desirable and consensual act and not a conquest.