Thursday 13 March 2014

Hello again Kitty

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
” Mark Twain
I quote this Twain-ism a lot because it exposes our foolish complacency and reluctance to change our minds.  I am not now going to talk about cute pink things marketed at pre-adolescent girls (ハローキティ Harō Kiti will be dealt with later) but about a savage attack on a grown woman fifty years ago today.  Kitty Genovese's death in 1964 was packaged into a neat story that made us feel ashamed to be human.  In that tale, which I've mentioned in passing twice before, Genovese was brutally stabbed to death in the middle of an apartment complex in NYC in the middle of the night.  Although her screams woke up some dozens of people, they all turned over and went back to sleep.  This was all codified in the psychological literature as The Bystander Effect and numerous experimental psychology investigations have shown that the phenomenon is widespread.  If we believe that someone else will pick up that drunk homeless person, then we don't bother.

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America by Kevin Cook has looked carefully at this received wisdom and shows that a lot of what we 'know' about Kitty, her murder and her neighbours' reaction to the events is just not true. The book has just been reviewed by the Christian Science Monitor. Cook's book is not to be confused with "Fifty Years After Kitty Genovese, Inside the Case That Rocked Our Faith in Each Other." by Albert Seedman & Peter Hellman or a handful of similar books published on the half-century bandwagon.  It's like what we all know about Rosa Parks starting the the civil rights movement in 1955.  That may be true but she she wasn't the first black woman to refuse to give up her bus-seat to a white man.  That honour goes to a much younger fitter woman called Claudette Colvin. But when CC fell pregnant (shock) possibly by a white man (horror) between her crime and her trial she was dropped by the desperate to be respectable NAACP.  Similarly Cook makes the point that Kitty Genovese was a lesbian and, if this was known at the time, her case would have made mere ripples rather than waves. See how easy it is to reduce a complex human soul to a one-dimensional label like "immoral", to make it easier for us to snap a judgment without either jury or evidence. "She was a daughter and a sister and a lover and a colleague, She wasn't just a victim".  James Solomon.

The scale of the Bystander Effect was much less than was reported.  As the murder started happening at 0315hrs, rather than at tea-time it was hard to find any witnesses, let alone 38 of them cooking, watching television and ignoring.  The 38 witnesses, which have come down through history were actually 38 entries in the relevant pages of the polite blotter, but came to vivid life through a misunderstanding at the briefing of a New York Times journalist.  But 'tis an ill wind that blows no good.  Perhaps these errors of fact and errors of emphasis served a good purpose, including setting up a 911 in NYC which spread across the country as an easy to remember, short, universally applicable number to call for immediate help . . . if, for example, you hear your neighbour getting brutally attacked in the middle of the night.

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