>On March 13, 1964 29 year old Catherine (Kitty) Genovese was raped and stabbed to death in the parking lot of her New York City apartment. Details are sketchy but it is widely believed that up to 38 people saw or heard at least part of the attack, which occurred over the course of half an hour, and did nothing. One neighbour is reported to have turned up his radio so he couldn’t hear her screams; another was later quoted in the New York Times as saying “I just didn’t want to get involved.” All 38 witnesses expected someone else to do something and by the time someone finally did, Kitty Genovese was dead.
This event was one of the first of its kind, at least the first to be widely documented, and the public outcry prompted a lot of research into was has been called “diffusion of responsibility” or “the Genovese bystander effect”. Simply put, contrary to popular expectation, the more people that witness an event the less likely anyone is to step forward and intervene.
It’s been almost 47 years since the murder of Kitty Genovese. Our world is more interconnected than ever before. Events that occur on the other side of the world are beamed into our homes in real-time. We are bystanders to literally everything that is happening at every minute of every day. And yet when tragedy strikes many of us still do nothing.
Whenever I talk to people about investing in the lives of our less fortunate neighbours whether through planned financial giving, donation of surplus goods or simply giving of your time, I often receive the same kind of response.
– Isn’t organization a, b, or c already doing that? Why duplicate efforts?
– How do I know that I’m not supporting corruption?
– What makes you think this is going to make any difference at all?
– I’ve got enough problems of my own. I have to take care of myself and my own family first.
I must admit, at one time or another, I’ve used all of these arguments myself. But the fact of the matter is, if you see suffering and convince yourself to do nothing you have contributed to the diffusion of responsibility and people will die.
It is a sad reality that much of the donor funds given to worthy causes are wasted but that is not a reason to stop giving. Demand accountability, do your homework but please for the Love of God, do not allow suffering to continue when it is in your power to stop.
I can hear some of you already; “But it is not in my power.” Yes it most certainly is!
Helping people is almost always uncomfortable. It requires sacrifice. Perhaps going without a luxury item that you feel you deserve or taking time away from a favourite leisure activity. But when it comes to human beings, isn’t it worth it?
My friend Rick Tobias is the director of the Yonge Street Mission in downtown Toronto. He puts it this way, “The greatest lie ever told is that some people are worth more than others, not that it places certain people on a pedestal but that if some people are worth more it stands to reason that others are worth less. When you give yourself permission to think of others as worthless it opens up all manner of abuse and neglect.”
The next time you’re confronted with the suffering of a fellow human being remember Kitty Genovese and ask yourself; “how much is a life worth?”