Online Journal
Jerry Mazza

The “diffusion of reaction,” part of the “bystander effect (also known as bystander apathy, Genovese syndrome, diffused responsibility or bystander intervention) is a psychological phenomenon in which someone is less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when other people are present and able to help than when he or she is alone,” says Wikipedia.

It defines a psychological tenet that the more people you have witnessing a natural tragedy, crime or accident, the less anyone is likely to do a damn thing about it, even shuffle their feet. Witness the famous Kitty Genovese story that took place in Kew Gardens, Queens, on March 13, 1964. The 28-year old Genovese was seen by some 38 of her neighbors as her murderer methodically stabbed her to death.

Last week in Kings County Hospital psychiatric emergency room in Brooklyn, a 49-year-old woman sitting in a chair, waiting for care, fell to the floor and died, while several seated persons got up and simply walked away. This while another woman slept through it all. It’s all caught by a video camera.

When finally, after a long while, a security guard sees her lying there, he goes for help. It takes some time before the guard returns with an orderly and a gurney. As the dead woman is being put on the gurney, the sleeping woman wakes and is angered that she is not put on the gurney and cared for, instead of the dead woman.

Of course the deceased’s family is shocked by the indifference of their fellow beings, and are now suing the hospital, which has began investigating the actions of its security and medical staff.

Wikepedia also described the diffusions of reactions in “hierarchical organizations as when, for example, underlings claim that they were following orders and supervisors claim that they were just issuing directives and not doing anything per se.” Duh, I don’t know, nobody told me what to do? Duh, what was I supposed to tell them? Duh, we’re just ducks in a row. It seems to echo the Kings County Hospital tragedy.

The concepts of the “diffusion of reaction” and “bystander effect,” taken a step further, criss-cross with the brilliant psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment on disobedience. Milgram contended and proved that given a Voice of Authority commanding even conscionable, decent people could do awful things to their fellow human beings when they blindly listened to The Voice, even when they heard victims scream and plead for mercy they continued, just so long as The Voice of Authority kept asserting, do it, do it, do it.

Milgram, deeply moved by the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, devised his experiment with college students to question whether “Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders.”

As Milgrim wrote, “If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

“Please continue.

“The experiment requires that you continue.

“It is absolutely essential that you continue.

“You have no other choice, you must go on.”

The Wikipedia entry adds, “If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession. This experiment itself raised some ethical issues as Stanley Milgram deceived his study’s subjects, and put them under more pressure than many believe was necessary . . .” (You may read the experiment’s full details by clicking on the Milgram link.)

That said, 65 percent of the experiment participants administered the full final 450-volt shock, though many felt uneasy doing so. In fact, at some point every participant stopped and questioned the experiment. Some claimed they would give back the money paid for taking part in it. Yet no participant really steadfastly turned down administering shocks before the 300-volt level. So how much infliction of pain does it take for one being to realize his/her humanity?

The experiment was repeated and performed by other psychologists, with variations, throughout the world with similar results: 60 to 66 percent of participants were ready to inflict fatal voltages, regardless of time or place. What’s more, no participants refused to administer the final shock or demanded that the experiment be ended. Nor did they leave their isolated room to check on the health of the victim, that is, without asking for permission to leave.

Milgram made a documentary film called Obedience which showed the experiment and its eerie results. Now, do we tie these conclusions solely to Germans acting robotically during the holocaust or our own confessed “torture performers” in the CIA, FBI, or US Army, who say they were all acting on approved orders from The Voice of Authority from the Top? And this is the point.

Combined with the average TV viewers’ willingness to turn from the news of Iraq, where bodies are being blown into smithereens, to the sports news or a cooking or “reality” show, we have a magnificent portrait of “diffusion reactions,” “bystander effects,” all under the compelling Voice of Authority, whether it is Bush himself, Cheney, Condi, or the Aryan anchormen and women, blond, well-coiffed, uniformly suited, high-heeled, the male counterparts in pinstriped suits, tailored shirts, and silk ties, the paradigms of authority, class, cash, and command.

The question is, how do we stimulate the conscience, the will to do right, the ethical ego, the conscious knowledge of right from wrong from the manipulation of the lower impulses of folk at all levels of society? I think this is the key to taking back this society from “The War on Terror,” whose terrorist originators keep the population in fear, angst, and mechanical obeisance.

How else to explain our own people lied into the Iraq war, armies attacking Afghanistan and Iraq, armies of young people being asked to kill and maim, to commit blinding atrocities. And they obey. And they pay, with wounds of the body and wounds of the mind, haunted, until they are blotto with antidepressants and other drugs. They are shocked bystanders, their reactions diffused by the thousands who fight with them, thinking someone will speak up, someone will put a halt to the carnage. Yet no one does. It goes on and on and on . . .

“Please continue.

“The experiment requires that you continue.

“It is absolutely essential that you continue.

“You have no other choice, you must go on.”

And those who were meant to go home, do not. They are told they must stay and fight more. And we surge into more bloodshed, only to reveal that last month we had the highest death toll in Afghanistan since the war began. Again, how do we defeat The Voice of Authority, not just Bush, but the concept, the herd instinct to follow some deadhead lemming into the sea? What training does it take to teach people to think, act, speak for themselves?

Was the search for democracy and its institutions (many of which are now summarily dismissed) . . . was that search not to climb from under the thumb of an insane King George III. Were the nobles who gathered round an earlier king to sign the Magna Carta striving, too, to silence The Voice of Authority? Has our time here on this planet, the evolution of our consciousness, been to free us from apathy, indifference, random violence, to see our humanity in the looking glass? Can we find that original responsive self or are we doomed to be robots?

Think about it. You don’t need to continue with the experiment. It is not absolutely essential that you continue. You have another choice. You don’t have to go on, soldier, politician, policeman, priest. You can always find freedom, original choice, in the space of your imagination, in your heart’s compassion, in the willingness, the courage to disagree. One might say your life depends on it, not to mention your soul.