The dangers of apathy

In my Psychology of Sexual Orientation class this week, I asked my students to identify some of the events that LGBTQ people over the age of 65 have lived through. And there are many:

The end of World War II – and the subsequent Red Scare.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot – and, later, the Stonewall Riots.

The removal of the “homosexuality” diagnosis from the DSM.

The AIDS crisis.

During this conversation, one student made an interesting comment: “We have it so easy compared to them. They must feel so frustrated with the apathy of our generation. We click ‘like’ on Facebook and call it activism.”

Is the younger generation – known to many as “millennials” – truly in a state of apathy? If you ask Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, her answer would be an unequivocal yes. Her 2007 book Generation Me, which draws upon 14 years of intergenerational research, paints a picture of a cohort characterized by inaction, hiding behind a computer and an iPhone, expecting things to come easily – and when they don’t, for others to do it for them. Not a pretty characterization, I must say.

There’s considerable debate as to whether millennials – also known as Generation Y – truly fit this profile. However, I know that, without the pioneers of the LGBTQ movement, fighting on the front lines for our rights, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Compared to the activism of the 1960s and 70s gay liberation movement, and the AIDS activism of the 1980s, I think we are, in fact, living in an era of apathy today – particularly when it comes to LGBTQ grassroots activism. And, I’ll admit, I get incredibly frustrated about this. Personally, I feel empowered and energized by activism, and I can’t for the life of me understand why others might choose to sit back and do nothing.

But I don’t think it’s just the millennials who are to blame. Rather, I think it’s the time period in which we all live. Frankly, I think we’re suffering from what I’ll call a cultural diffusion of responsibility. To explain what I mean, I have a story to tell.

* * * * * * * *

One early morning in 1964, at about 3:15 A.M., a young woman got home from her shift working as a bar manager. She parked her car and started walking towards her apartment building. A man approached her. Frightened, she started to run away, but he caught her, stabbing her twice in the back.

“Oh my God!” she yelled. “He stabbed me. Help me!” An onlooker yelled, “Let that girl alone!” The attacker ran away.

And then he came back. The attacker found the young woman lying in a hallway at the back of her building. He stabbed her several more times, raped her, and stole $49 before leaving her to die. The entire scene, from start to finish, spanned about 30 minutes. And during that time, no one came to her aid – even though numerous people heard or observed parts of the attack.

The woman who was murdered was named Kitty Genovese. While some of the facts of the case are in dispute, this tragic incident brought the phrase “bystander apathy” into our cultural conversation – and raised questions about what causes it to occur. A few years after this tragic incident, two researchers at Columbia University, John Darley and Bibb Latane, conducted a series of studies to try to better understand this phenomenon, two of which are relevant, I think, to our modern-day culture of inaction.

In one study, often referred to as the “smoke-filled room” experiment, Darley and Latane randomly assigned their participants to one of three conditions: either (A) the person was in a classroom alone, (B) with two other participants, or (C) with two “confederates.” Within several minutes of the study, smoke began to fill the room – and Darley and Latane wanted to see how likely they were to report it. While 75% of the participants in group A reported the smoke, only 38% in group B and 10% (!) in group C made any report.

In a second study, better known as the “seizure” study, participants were told that they would be engaging in a communication task via intercom with an individual in a separate classroom. Like in the “smoke-filled room” study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:  either (A) the participant was in a classroom alone, (B) with one other person, or (C) with five other people. During the communication task, the person they’re communicating with in the other room starts having a seizure – and Darley and Latane wanted to see how many people would respond. As it turns out, 85% of those in group A left the room to provide help. However, when other people were present in the room, helping behavior decreased substantially: 62% in group B and 31% in group C left the room to help the victim. Different study, but essentially the same findings as the “smoke-filled room” experiment: The more people that are around, the less likely people are to spring to action.

And why is that? Diffusion of responsibility. People are less likely to take action when there are other people around – because they assume that others will. I didn’t do anything because I thought someone else would step up.

People over the age of 65 didn’t have an LGBTQ community. Hell, I didn’t have much of an LGBTQ community – not until later, anyway. In 1966, when the police tried to arrest a transwoman at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, there wasn’t any “gay community” to immediately help her – in fact, she was at Compton’s Cafeteria because, at the time, transwomen were unwelcome in gay bars. During the 1980s, when thousands of people were dying of AIDS, it took a long time for those in power to step up to the plate. These are people who had to fight on their own behalf – because nobody else was going to do it for them. Now, we not only have a collection of LGBTQ communities, we have numerous advocacy and activist groups who, many think, will do the work for us – hence the “cultural diffusion of responsibility.” The reality is that, when everyone thinks that someone else will take action, the end result is that no one takes action.

* * * * * * * *

Winston Moseley was the man who murdered Kitty Genovese. He was given the death penalty, which was reduced to life plus two 15-year sentences. His parole hearing is slated to take place this month. And the woman who was Kitty Genovese’s partner at the time of her death, Mary Ann Zielonko, will probably be there.


Filed under activism, human rights, psychological research, San Francisco, transgender, violence

2 responses to “The dangers of apathy

  1. Gary Hollander

    You ABSOLUTELY do not disappoint, Gayle. Thank you, once again, for your contribution to my life and the lives of so many others with your thoughtful posts.

    Unlike you, I AM 65. I did witness and march and speak up and challenge and organize. Like you, I still am.

    Each semester I teach a course in the Psychology of Sexual Orientation (We DO need to talk — I want a new course book). And each semester, I am struck by the situation you describe as apathy. I too have called it thus, but I am less sure that is precisely it. I don’t know that apathy quite captures the failure to initiate that I find so abundant in the past decade. While the FB-Like issue is real, I don’t think it completely captures this situation. I am wondering, too, if we might learn from the experiences of the middle class in 1910 in Europe or of the Beat Generation. I think, for example, of the boulevardiers and of Kandinsky. Were they expressing the restless and directionless angst associated with profound defeat? Of resignation?

    While I must confess that I want to reach into a Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein ad and force the models to express some affect besides profound boredom or ennui, is there behind those facial vacant signs a message of terror? Or — and with this I bring it back to LGBT — do we have a generation that understands that everything IS being taken care of by someone else. Our whole marriage equality parade (and please know that I am not opposed to having our rights) is not the result of a groundswell of LGBT activism, but of the cooperative behaviors of LGBT people with an agenda and an approach that was developed by people we don’t know and never will.

    As often as I have heard and related the two studies on bystanders that you cite, and as often as I have heard and pondered the horrible story of Ms. Genovese, I confess I never heard that she had a female partner. Seriously. I am shocked by that oasis in the myriad details I have heard. Wow.

    • Thanks, Gary, for your comment. The more I think about it, the more I like the phrase “cultural diffusion of responsibility.” It’s different from “apathy” – when I hear the term “apathy,” I think of people who don’t care. In contrast, when we experience a cultural diffusion of responsibility, we may care, but we think someone else is going to do something about the issue. I’m keenly aware of the fact that “millennials” were young children or teenagers when 9/11 happened, and I think about how that might have affected their development, too.
      I only recently learned that Kitty Genovese was in a same-sex relationship. It makes me think about a parallel narrative of her life – that she died because of a senseless act of violence, and that’s what she’s best known for, but she also lived in stealth because of her sexuality – which is a different form of violence altogether.

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