I couldn't sleep Friday night after watching the video of Chrissy Lee Polis being beaten by two teenage girls at a Baltimore McDonald's. As I lay awake at 3 am, cartoonishly wide-eyed in the dark, I couldn't stop picturing Polis curled fetal-position on the restaurant floor, as her attackers kicked her in the head and at least four bystanders looked on. These bystanders include Vernon Hackett, the McDonald's employee who documented the beating on his cell phone, and who has since, rightfully, been fired.
But I was impressed by the two people in the video who did get involved: the manager, who put himself between Polis and her attackers more than once; and the older woman customer who also tried to intervene. What makes one person become involved and another just stand by? Some answers can be found in the intriguingly parallel story of Kitty Genovese.
The name of Kitty Genovese has become synonymous with public apathy. In 1964, the 28-year-old woman was raped and murdered outside her own Queens, NY, apartment building as 37 neighbors saw or heard the attack and did nothing. But did you know that Genovese was a lesbian, and that her sexuality may have been a factor in her famous death?
Forty years after Genovese's murder, her partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, with whom Genovese shared a home, told the story to NPR.
Kitty was the most wonderful person I've ever met.... We were together for a year.... One year exactly, to the day. Being a gay woman in that society was very hard, so we were in the closet a lot.
Yet an acquaintance of the two women says that despite being in the closet, Zielonko feels that neighbors may have figured out their relationship and wonders if anti-gay bias played a role in the incident.
Until now we've never had the opportunity to ask whether the neighbors' indifference might have had an element of homophobia (not that the word existed then).... Mary Ann [Zielonko] says some of the neighbors suspected they were lesbians, because they were always together.
Might the neighbors' suspicion that the women were lesbians have affected their decision not to intervene? Had Genovese and Zielonko been a straight couple, perhaps with young children, would the neighbors have seen them as more familiar, more comfortable? Would they then have been more likely to come to Genovese's aid?
Similarly, was Polis left to be beaten in McDonalds because she was read as a trans woman? As Vernon Hackett wrote on his Facebook page (the all-caps are his, not mine): "HE WAS A MALE IN THA BATHROOM WITH THOSE TWO GIRLS." Had Polis been a cisgender woman in "tha bathroom," would Hackett have put down the camera and intervened, instead of filming for over three full minutes, including thirty interminable seconds as Polis writhed on the floor in a seizure?
Sadly, social psychology findings - discovered largely due to the Genovese case - confirm these implications.
Research has shown that people are more likely to help those they perceive to be similar to them, including others from their own racial or ethnic groups. In general, women tend to receive more help than men. But this varies according to appearance: More attractive and femininely dressed women tend to receive more help from passersby, perhaps because they fit the gender stereotype of the vulnerable female.
The straight bias in the last sentence - I would put scare quotes around "attractive" and "feminine" - is both irritating and revealing. Yet it does seem that bystanders did not intervene in both cases because the victims were perceived as "unconventional" women. To me this is more evidence that cis dykes and trans women are natural allies. (But perhaps that is another post.)
The Genovese incident spawned the field of prosocial behavior, as psychologists investigated what factors make people more likely to intervene in these sorts of situations. Perversely, had Hackett been the sole bystander, he might have been more likely to jump in. Psychologists discovered a "diffusion of responsibility": the more people who witness an event, the less likely any of them are to get involved.
Another factor blamed in both incidents is our increasing preoccupation with technology. Rather than today's ubiquitous mobile devices, such as the cell phone with which Hackett filmed the attack, in the early '60s the bogeyman was television.
In 1964, psychiatrist Ralph S. Banay said television was at least partly to blame. "We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images do to the brain," he said... The witnesses became confused, and paralyzed by the violence they witnessed outside their window. "They were fascinated by the drama, by the action, and yet not entirely sure that what was taking place was actually happening."
If anything, this drugged-by-technology state is only worse today. Most teenagers, for example - such as Hackett and the two teenage attackers - spend 30 hours a week on "screen time," practically a full-time job. Reality shows have replaced reality. We forget that we can actually enter the story and rewrite it.
As Leone Kraus asked yesterday, what are the ethics of social media? How should we handle our unprecedented ability to turn private moments into very public ones? When is our duty not to document, but to intervene?
And yet, largely through this technology, we have all become able to be involved. Though Hackett took the video presumably to mock and sensationalize the attack - he can be heard laughing throughout the recording - the widespread attention his video received has enabled people to bear witness to the event, however belatedly; to support Polis; and to come together to condemn this inexcusable bias and brutality. As Zielonko said:
I still have a lot of anger toward people because they could have saved her life.... I mean, you look out the window and you see this happening and you don't help. How do you live with yourself, knowing you didn't do anything? That's the biggest lesson to be learned from this: really love each other. We have to on this planet.
We can learn from both of these incidents. We can bear witness, and we can be more quick to intervene in the future. We can also use this as an opportunity to remember our shared humanity, to remind ourselves and each other of the need for empathy and elementary kindness, to say the least.
After all, as writer and peace activist Barbara Deming wrote, "We are all part of one another." Let's act like it.