Diffused responsibility or diluted courage?

I learned there is this story, a story we have all heard at one time or another, about a man lying alongside a road, robbed, severely wounded and in need of help. But those who pass by this dying man do nothing to help…except one…the perceived enemy of the wounded man.

The most sad thing about this story is that even though it was first told as a teaching tool, a parable, it is no fairy tale. It is a realistic and recurring illustration of the history and nature of humankind.

Back in 2008 a disturbing video was released of a women dying on a hospital waiting room floor. The woman had been admitted to the hospital for what the hospital’s records indicate was “agitation and psychosis.” She was left sitting in the waiting room for almost 24 hours before she collapsed and died. For almost 24 hours she and others in the waiting room were video tapped by security cameras. We know for almost 24 hours she sat there quiet and still … quite unlike a person who is agitated and psychotic. Then she slumped out of her chair face down on the floor.

This is what happened over the next hour. At first, her body convulsed a bit. A man sitting next to her moves away. Later, another man comes into the waiting room, sits down facing her, studies her for a moment, then also moves away. By this time there is no more movement or convulsions made by the woman. A nurse happens to walk by and nudges her with the toe of her shoe, and then she walks away. A security guard, who was stationed at a desk just around the corner, sitting in an office chair on wheels, pushes himself from his desk so he can see around the corner, studies her for a moment, then wheels himself back to his desk, never getting out of his chair.

The woman’s name was Esmin Green, She was 49 years old, a Jamaican immigrant who neighbors say lived quietly and spent a great deal of time in her church … presumably learning of the “Good Samaritan.”

In 1964 Kitty Genovese got out of her car, in front of her home, and was attacked by a man with a knife. Kitty was stabbed twice in the back. One neighbor yelled at the assailant causing him to flee but did nothing more to help the bleeding woman who was crawling toward her apartment. Thirty-eight people witnessed what happened next. Kitty could crawl no further and lay on the sidewalk. Ten minutes later, the man, Winston Moseley, returned and stabbed her several times more. He took her money. He raped her right there on the sidewalk while 38 people watched. Kitty died.

This incident was studied by psychologist and sociologist who came up with the notion of the ‘bystander effect’ or ‘bystander apathy’. The idea is that the more public the situation, the more people present when a person is in dire need of help, the less help will be given. It has been attributed to the concept of ‘diffused responsibility’. In other words, each of the thirty-eight people witnessing this had only a 2.63 % of a responsibility to act. If there had been, say, three-hundred witnesses then each would have had only a 0.03 percent responsibility to act. Conversely, if there had been only one witness, that person would have a 100 percent responsibility to act.

Now, with all due respect, and I have much, given to academia and those who study such things and come up with ideas such as ‘diffused responsibility’… I say … thummphhhh! I see something different at work here. Rather than ‘diffused responsibility’, I see diluted cowardice, diluted immorality and diluted inhumanness. It is not the positive attribute of personal responsibility, spread out among many because each of the thirty-eight witnesses indeed had an innate personal responsibility and the net result should be the aggregate of all the witnesses’ personal responsibility, creating a positive force 38 times the force of any one individual. On the other hand, if we attribute the inaction to innate personal cowardice, then the presence of thirty-seven other witnesses gives us permission to feel only 2.63 percent of a coward. We are now able to turn our heads because after all, we are not all that cowardly just 2.63 percent cowardly. Not diffused responsibility but diluted cowardice.

I cannot imagine any of us sitting in a pew, hearing the story of the man lying wounded on the side of the road and willfully identifying with those who walked past the man. We like to think more highly of ourselves, that we are more noble, more compassionate and more courageous than that. I believe, almost universally, we all like to think of ourselves as the one who did, who would, who will render help…even to the ‘others’, even to our enemies.

Back in the 1980s I heard a wise man repeat the words a wise woman had said to him, “Truth is where the word and the deed meet.” What is the truth about ourselves? Where do the things we believe and the things we do intersect? Courageousness is not a thing we inherit. It’s not in our genes. Fear is. Self-preservation is. Because of this, courage, compassion for those beyond our circle, are things that need to be cultivated …practiced … learned…and then taught…long before the situation arises that we find ourselves in need of reflexive courage.

There are today so many things that need us to be more than mere bystanders. But what can one person do? The same one who first told us the story of the robbed and beaten man lying alongside the road also told us to pray for our enemies … a pretty courageous sort of thing to do. He also told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and to tend to the sick … doing something rather than doing nothing. We were not put on this earth to be bystanders. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at whatjimhaslearnedtoday@yahoo.com