Sometimes as one reads a newspaper, it becomes a landscape of the urban imagination. The big stories of the day shrink and fade, it is the small anecdotes that survive like precious nuggets haunting and nagging one’s memory. Events like the Punjab election, even demonetisation fade but a little story, a bald report of an accident survives.
A few days ago newspapers reported about a death of a young man in Hubballi who died on the road because people did not take him to the hospital, a stone’s throw from the accident spot. The report adds that Anwar was the sole breadwinner of the family.
Anwar Ali died following a road accident as onlookers clicked pictures.
If the story was reported a decade ago, the standard editorial comment would have been that people were reluctant to help because of the fear of harassment from police. Today, a new layer of reporting adds a different understanding of such an event. Newspaper reports add that people were too busy taking selfies, photos and videos at the site of the accident.
They watched the victim writhe in pain but the lens almost became a mirror of their preoccupations as they shot selfies and videos. The victim became a casual backdrop to their preoccupation with themselves. Death by indifference is acquiring a new layer of meaning.
This incident invokes the mirroring of the Kitty Genovese incident, one of the most reported stories in social psychological literature. A few decades ago Genovese, a young woman working at a bar in New York, was returning home from work near a tenement in Queens when she sensed a man stalking her. The man tried to stab her, Kitty screamed, the tenement lights went on, people hurried to their windows. The attacker sensing help ran away. A few moments later, he realised that not one person had come down to help. He returned and stabbed her incessantly. The New York Times flagged the story in horror and consternation.
Spectatorship becomes a macabre act of self-involvement. The selfie creates an obsessive self.
Social psychologists, who later investigated the story, came up with shocking responses, shocking in their banality. The reports claim that 38 witnesses watched, one even reporting that he felt he was watching TV. The spectator or the bystander becomes the focus of the story. He often demonstrates a passivity which is difficult to understand. He is like a spectator who consumes the event and yet stands alienated from it.
The question was why and the Genovese story lead to one of the most famous psychological explanations, the bystander effect, which argued that people standing diffusely in a crowd are less likely to help a victim. The very logic of the crowd spreads a sense of responsibility and the individual qua individual is less likely to respond in such situations. The bystander effect as a phenomenon is contradictory to the “Good Samaritan” story, of an individual who felt care, responsibility and concern for strangers in distress.
The bystander is a paradigm of indifference. One must admit that later studies of the Genovese incident questioned some of the empirical details but the relevance of the original question about the role and agency of spectators remains even more valid.
The bystander effect was earlier explained in terms of the differences of the crowd or the fact that the spectator as observer is separated, alienated from the victim as an observed is from the observed. The very visual nature of the act objectivises through the ritual of distancing. There is a passivity, an alienation, an objectification of the event which suppresses emotions like care or consternation. People feel as if they are watching an event before their eyes through telescope. Looking becoming gazing and event hardly registers in one’s memory.
The epidemic rise of the selfie catalyses this further. Spectatorship becomes a macabre act of self-involvement. The selfie creates an obsessive self. It is not the crowd around one, present in a bodily sense, that concerns one. One is reporting and responding more to one’s network community, reporting one’s presence at the accident. By becoming a selfie narrator, one has already moved away from the embodied event. The selfie creates a network presence which creates an absence at the site of the accident.
One has to understand while Twitter can create a crowd, the selfie is an individualistic obsession, a self-preoccupation which creates an abstract community often alienated from real world situations. One photographs the event as if to record one’s presence in it and thus erasing any further responsibility for it. It is a piece of gossip to be retailed later, than a demand for responsibility that demands immediate action or intervention.
The selfie is an individualistic obsession, a self-preoccupation which creates an abstract community often alienated from real world situations.
Videos add to the alienation effect of urban life. An accident victim or a murdered women becomes a spectacle, even a specimen to be photographed. Distancing becomes a part of the technological ritual. The selfie is today commanding attention as reports of spectators taking selfies of drowning people or accident victims mount.
I realise that the court and public agencies are popularising the Good Samaritan clause but the selfie and the video complicates the issue in a way lawmakers do not understand. In fact, the Kitty Genovese syndrome spawned a psychological industry, Indian social science hardly responds to questions of violence and indifference.
The banal answers of fear, hurry, seem adequate. But present in this are deep questions. Is the individual standing in a crowd part of the crowd? Should he even be described as part of a group? Is the technological effects of the video, the mobile and selfie creating problems of ethics and civics we do not understand?
Kitty Genovese became a legend in American psychology. Unfortunately, Amir Ali Ekalaspur will die unheralded, an anonymous fragment of an indifferent city and a passive social science.