Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dangers of an Observer Society

What you about to see is shocking, so click on "Read More" at your own risk.

This is a photo from front page of the New York Post on Tuesday of that man on the tracks man right before he was run over and killed by that oncoming subway train. It has been reported that the victim had at least one minute after being pushed onto the tracks by a crazy, homeless person for someone to help him to escape his inevitable death. But, instead of the photographer* (or anyone of those people in the background) dropping his camera and trying to help pull him to safety, the man was killed by the oncoming train.

Yes, it's shocking, and horrible and the crazy homeless guy has been arrested. But there is something much more shocking to me at play here.

Have we become a world of passive observers? Have we always been this way or are we now a product of an "observer" culture? The more we passively watch television, movies, videos, and YouTube videos of people doing funny, stupid, or really dangerous stuff, are we becoming passive observers to what is around us and unable to react in the moment? This is actually something that has been bothering me for many years.

Let me give you an example.

Many, many years ago, a friend and I were crossing 66th Street and Broadway in Manhattan on our way home from work. At the same time we were crossing the street, a man walking toward us pulled what looked lika a knife out of his jacket, and then put the knife immediately back in his pocket. Neither of us reacted at all. We just watched this man's actions unfold without giving it much thought in the moment at all. A few seconds later, my brain click in and I said "Did you just see what I just saw?". And she said "Yeah, wow." No screaming, no trying to stop him, no calling the police. We just kept on walking. Frankly, it has haunted me ever since. Why didn't I react? Why did I just passively watch and keep walking on? [Just for the record, this wasn't a potential mugging and we were never in any danger.]

My conclusion was that I had become so accustomed to watching fake dangerous situations on television and in the movies and the like, that I had become desensitized to react to clear and present danger live and in front of me.

Maybe it is something unique to urban living or a sign of something more insidious. I don't know. Any comments?

*As luck would have it, the person who took the shot is a staff photographer at the New York Post. He said in a statement that he was not taking photos, but trying to use the flash to get the conductor's attention while running to try and help the guy. Unfortunately, the conductor did not see the victim quite possibly because he was blinded by the flash, but that's my opinion.


AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Two thoughts. First, I've seen this before from photographers and journalists who claim they are exempt from helping because their job is to record for mankind. That's crap to me. You are a human first... you have a job second.

On the television issue, I agree entirely. I have long feared that television and films are altering our perception of reality and I think that's the case. People now routinely judge life against what they've seen in films and that's leading to all kinds of negative behavior.

BevfromNYC said...

Oh, and just in case you haven't heard, Sen. DeMint has resigned from the Senate effective Jan. 1. He has been appointed President of Heritage Foundation.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I saw that. I knew he was leaving the Senate at some point anyway. I'm not sure why he couldn't serve out his whole term though? I think we will miss him in the Senate.

T-Rav said...

An entire minute? Wow. I heard about this, but I was under the impression that he'd been pushed only a few seconds before the subway train arrived, which would have been different.

This is pretty bad. This is like that Kitty Genovese story all over again.

BevfromNYC said...

Hey guys, i am out for awhile. Talk amongst yourselves. Like I could stop you!

ellenB said...

This guy had a minute to help and he didn't?!!! That is really shameful.

AndrewPrice said...

There actually is a duty to help people in the law when they are in danger of death and you can help them at no cost to you. I wonder if anyone has considered charging the photog at least.

T-Rav said...

I would like to see people like him charged. Just once in a while, it would be nice to make people pay for their callousness and apathy.

AndrewPrice said...

I do to. This is one of those moments where society needs to send a signal that it's unacceptable to just stand around and watch someone die.

Critch said...

I'm old enough to remember the murder of Kitty Genovese in NYC in the 60s. We lived in Memphis and my parents and uncles were shocked that no one went to her aid...I'm not sure in small town America that you can count on people helping, they're too scared of the law, lawyers, crazy ass victims and crazy ass assailants.

tryanmax said...

I don't think the issue is that we've been conditioned not to react. It's that some folks, like this photographer, have been conditioned or have conditioned themselves to react inappropriately.

Turning for a moment to the knife incident, I would venture that you didn't react b/c you simply weren't prepared to. As you said, you were never in danger, so you weren't mentally geared up for danger. You didn't react b/c the knife was incongruous so you couldn't immediately process it. Transport the whole scenario to a seedy neighborhood where you would already be on guard and I would expect a wholly different and immediate reaction.

As another example, take driving. Unless you're distracting yourself with gadgets, you can swerve and smash the breaks pretty immediately when the situation calls for it. That's b/c you are in "driving mode" so to speak. Even though TV shows and movies are riddled with car wrecks, you just aren't likely to passively allow another driver to plow into you when you see him coming at you the wrong way.

Going back to the photographer now, the issue isn't that he failed to react. He clearly got a shot off in time. The issue is that he reacted inappropriately. Instead of rushing to help, he lifted his camera and popped off a shot.

And for the record, I don't buy his BS story about trying to warn the train with his camera. The shot is too well framed for that to wash with me. I can't speak to the other people in the subway except to say I'm sure you don't go down every day expecting to see someone on the tracks. At least there aren't a hundred other cell-phone pics and vids of the same incident (that I know of). That would be truly disturbing.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, My experience is that people aren't any different in small or big towns... they just gossip more in small towns. The problem is that human instinct is to stay away from trouble, and the easier that is in society the more likely people are to be observers.

Also, I have to say, we are also looking at several generations of "the authorities" telling people, "don't get involved in something that isn't your business." I think it's all part of a the same picture.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I wouldn't buy that story either. I think you are right that the idea is acting inappropriately.

On an interesting aside, I saw a thing about disasters. They said that in most disasters, humans divide into three groups (much like everything else in life) -- 10% do the right things to escape. 80% wait to do what they are told. And 10% actively cause everyone else problems.

For example in a simulated airplane crash, 10% of people did things like climb over the seats to get out when things clogged up. 80% just jammed the aisle and waited for the line. And 10% did things like block the aisle, stop to get their luggage, start fights, drag people down.

This 80/10/10 breakdown seems to be how the human race is designed -- 10% leaders, 80% sheep, 10% mis-leaders.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I've seen that sort of thing before (10/80/10) in other studies. I've noticed it everywhere from emergencies to the mundane, too. I've even suggested in a Bible study that when it talks about "thirds" it's describing that phenomenon. That was apparently a little too controversial. Of course God deals only in literal thirds.

Individualist said...


Way back at Stetson University my Organizational Theory and Behavior teacher was a lefty with a beard who was dating a student at the University. He was I belevie a psych major in college before getting his MBA and Doctorate because he chose a book heavy on psychology.

One of the things I remembered from his videos and what not was what to do if you were in need of medical attention in a public crowd.

Evidently if you yelled I am having a heart attack please help me, people would be inclined not to help you. The reason given was that most people don't consider themselves qualified to handle a heart attack and so will remain silent waiting on someone who is.

If you want help you had to point to someone and say "You there, I am having a heart attack, call 9/11 and help ne" . Evidently when you did this the individual no longer had an option of letting an expert handle it.

Niot sure if any of it is true but your article made me remember it.

BevfromNYC said...

And now the stories are pouring on about how people stopped and helped. I think that just maybe there are many many.more times that people help without any fanfare. Amd maybe the times that people don't help get the publicity is because they are rare. Let's hope.

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