The Bystander Effect: A Modern Day Apathy

A guest post by Steve Lee Naish

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        The bystander effect, in which large numbers of the general public refuse to help, or ignore a person in distress, or someone who is injured in a public space, is a shameful trait of contemporary society. In most cases the general public remain unconcerned for the person’s welfare until eventually one good Samaritan steps forward and intervenes. In some of the most grotesque examples of this apathy, passers-by have used the opportunity of witnessing someone in distress to take selfies with their iphones and upload to social media. This makes for a macabre photo of a grinning idiot in the foreground and a genuine case of distress occupying the background. Recently, a 59-year-old Montréal man, Radil Hebrich, lay sprawled out and bleeding from an open head wound on a platform of the city’s bustling Langelier metro station for sixteen minutes before paramedics arrived.
By this time Hebrich was beyond help, he died at 4:21 a.m. on Jan. 17, 2014. The
whole time Hebrich was in full view of the station’s security cameras, three
metro trains stopped and left the station, and over forty passengers exited
and boarded the trains during this time. All these people ignored the dying
man, disregarding him as just another hopeless drunk who was somebody else’s
problem. In fact, Hebrich’s story is an immigrant tragedy. In his native Algeria,
he established a successful architectural practice. He moved to Canada in the
early 2000’s with his wife and two children. Henrich was unable to find work
within his chosen field. His descent into alcoholism led him to live on the
streets and, despite his education and expertise, become another invisible
entity within the Western world’s homeless population (a topic we have been treating for the last year). One can’t help but conclude
that this bystander effect is a sad condition of capitalism’s drive towards
individual desires, a modern apathy caused by the collective drive for corporate
profit and individual wealth.

        Why do we choose to ignore people in distress? Especially
those people society perceives for many different reasons as being on the scrap
heap of humanity. Research published by the International Ombudsman Association draws conclusions to people’s
unwillingness to help as a fear of the social consequences, or stigmas of being
associated with the person in distress. There are countless videos on Youtube
testing this theory as a social experiment.

 

        One of the more shocking videos features
a man with long unkempt hair, a thick dirty coat, struggling down a busy street
with the aid of crutches, and falling down in front of numerous pedestrians. He
is mostly ignored and left to fight to his feet by himself. The one person who
eventually helps him is a homeless man. In a modern capitalist society we
desire the outward appearance of individual affluence and success, we don’t want
to be seen helping the rabble in case it damages our social standing. Our
empathy towards our fellow humans has been slowly eroded within the last few
decades as gruesome images of war, terrorism, and natural disasters has flooded
our collective consciousness and reduced the loss of human life to a sensationalist
headline in a tabloid newspaper. We have become far removed from the tragic
circumstances that surround death and injury. But it is not just these images
of destruction that have eroded our empathy. 

       This culture of disregard has been exacerbated
by television shows that mock and criticise contestants who are labelled as
talentless. We find a glimmer of cathartic satisfaction in seeing them publicly disposed off, and their hopes dashed by one of a Simon Cowell’s
snarky remarks. In some cases we even partake in their downfall, calling a
premium rate telephone number to cast a vote that will dispose of an
undesirable contestant. Society’s own version of Murder on the Orient Express
in which we all step up to stab the corpse. We are just thankful that it is not
us up for judgment, but some other poor soul. We become immune and
disassociated from the harm caused by these television shows. We laugh at human
misery, but only when it’s other humans, whom we have no relationship to, who
are miserable. What we all need to realise is that we are all in the same
sinking ship. 

        A dying Radil Hebrich, the commuters on the metro who ignored
him, the security staff who watched as nobody did anything, the paramedics who did
finally arrive to help, the contestant of a talent show, and the audience at
home who makes the call to end their dream, are all part of a 99% paying the
price for the blunders of a minority who are content with society’s apathy because
it continues to feed, despite it being an illusion, the individual drive for
upward mobility. Our apathy should not be directed toward each other, but
towards those responsible for a capitalist model that segregates us and continues
to further push our social divisions upon is. We have reached a point where a dying
homeless man on a metro platform is considered a disposable member of the human
race, hardly a proud milestone in human development. There is of course always
hope for humanity. Another recent story concerned a man boarding a rush-hour
train at Stirling station outside of Perth, Australia. As he boarded the train
he slipped through the gap and wedged his leg between the train and platform.
Over fifty commuters jammed themselves against the 90-tonne train and began collectively
rocking the train carriage until the man’s leg became free. This
time the bystander effect did not come into play, and instead collective action
won. Bystander apathy is easy to counter if we allow ourselves the opportunity
to make the right decisions, and see beyond our individual needs. It must
begin with an adjustment to our attitude towards those in distress. Nobody in
our world should be ignored when they are in need of help.

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