Fat Steve's Blatherings

Friday, June 10, 2005

Myths of the Modern World

      In the mythical world we like to believe in, mass murder is a bad thing.  In the real world, mass death is an accepted means of attaining some policies.

  • Kitty Genovese died because her neighbors wanted her out of the neighborhood.

  • The Yugoslave War dragged on because Europe wanted to discourage seperatism.

  • Mass death is coming in Zimbabwe, because European leaders want Mugabe in power.

In Depth:
      Over at The Adventures of Chester, Chester notes that things will probably go into the toilet pretty fast and pretty soon in Zimbabwe, and he hopes for foreign intervention to save lives (Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds).  Considering this desired outcome, he recalls Kitty Genovese, murdered while people stood at their windows and listened to her scream for help.

      In my arrogant opinion, intervention in Zimbabwe won't happen, and Kitty Genovese is a good illustration of why.  After Genovese's body had been collected, lots of people tried to explain why no one helped her, to the simple extent of picking up the phone and calling the cops.

      Chester cites Phillip Bobbitt's book, The Shield of Achilles, which discussed the incident and theories about it at some length.  Bobbitt came down in favor of the theory formulated by John Darley and Bibb Latane, that there was a "diffusion of responsibility."  People didn't act because in such situations, say Darley and Latane, they must go through five stages:
      (1) Notice: he must become aware that some unusual occurrence is taking place; (2) Recognition: he must be able to assess the event and define it as an emergency; (3) Decision: he must then decide that something must be done, that is, he must find a convincing reason for action to be taken; (4) Assignment: the bystander must then assign some person, himself or another, or some institution to be responsible for action; he must answer the question, "who should act in these circumstances?" (5) Implementation: having decided what action should be taken, he must then see that it is actually done.  If at any stage in this sequence, a crucial ambiguity is introduced, then the whole process must begin again. The presence of ambiguity in urban life, not the callousness of urban dwellers, is precisely what makes emergency intervention in cities so problematic . . .

      The problem with this is that it assumes what it seeks to explain.  People noticed Kitty Genovese screaming, and recognized she was being assualted by someone trying to kill her.  It was quite plain that if she was to live, something had to be done.  The responsible persons were the police and emergency medical services, as all the bystanders recognized.  And seeing that the cops came was as simple as dialing zero and asking the operator for them.  Where was the ambiguity?

      Here, one needs to consult Bobbitt's data.  He makes it clear that the people in the neighborhood hated Kitty Genovese, and didn't want her living there.  All the attempts to explain why people didn't call the cops assumed that the people of the neighborhood wanted Genovese to live, while all the evidence Bobbitt presents indicated that what they wanted Genovese to go.  In fact, if I recall correctly, one of the listeners started to call the cops, but was stopped by his/her spouse.  However, the idea that the neighbors preferred Genovese dead was so emotionally unacceptable, no one could face it.

      Bobbitt applied the Darley/Latane theory to the Yugoslavian breakdown.  Bobbitt suggested the European nations didn't do anything to stop the slaughter because they couldn't decide who was responsible.  This overlooks the way the Europeans delibately hindered the U.S. when Clinton tried to do something to stop the killing.

      Once you drop the assumption that Europeans saw the Yugoslav War as bad, everything makes sense.  The breakup of Yugoslavia was opposed by Europe, a continent full of historically disputed borders and fragmented ethnic groups that in many cases want their own states.  Better to let the Serbs slaughter breakaways than to face political chaos at home.

      Why does anyone assume that the world wants to save the people of Zimbabwe?  Especially when Europe's been doing what it can to save Mugabe for years?

      Hard old world.

      Update: Austin Bay is suitably pessimistic here.



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