China’s Cultural Crisis – Bystander Apathy and Empathy
Friday, October 28, 2011 - 10:46
Last Friday, YueYue, the toddler that was run over twice in China and ignored by 18 passersby, died from her injuries. The incident was caught on closed circuit camera, and the online video of YueYue lying bleeding in a gutter while pedestrians and bikers swerved to avoid her went viral and garnered over 1.5 million views on Youku video, a popular video sharing site.
Nationwide, newspapers and online communities have continued to discuss how such horrifying inaction might reflect a deeper cultural problem in China. While many Internet commentators have pointed to the possibility that in China, ethics have been left behind in the wake of economic development and urbanization, I think there’s more to the issue.
First, it’s important to remember that bystander apathy is a well-documented phenomenon in modern society. It’s not unique to China (although there are certainly culturally-specific factors surrounding YueYue’s death). The United States experienced its own wake-up call to bystander apathy in 1964 with the murder of Catherine Genovese.
Genovese, 28, was arriving at her home in Queens, New York when Winston Moseley attacked her with a knife. At least two people heard her scream for help, and 38 individuals witnessed or heard portions of the attack, but none did anything to help her.
Moseley fled at first, but then returned to where Catherine, injured, had crawled to a locked door. He then stabbed and raped her while she lay dying. Thirty minutes after the fatal attack, one witness finally called the police.
The psychological studies prompted by Genovese’s murder revealed that we are all at an astonishing risk of bystander apathy. We simply tend to do nothing if others around us are doing nothing.
As psychology blogger Mark Tyrell put it, “statistically, it's safer for you to collapse in front of one or two people than in a crowd of onlookers,” because an individual that is alone is more likely to act than a group.
The good news, however, is that studies have shown that just knowing about why we are susceptible to bystander apathy makes us more likely to act.
Good governance can also help reduce bystander apathy by ensuring that good deeds aren’t punished. Implementing Good Samaritan laws in China is one concrete way to ensure that YueYue’s tragedy isn’t repeated. In recent years, there have been many cases in China of victims extorting Good Samaritans; as a result, many people are afraid to help those in need.
Two years ago, on a trip to Shenzen, China I recall locals telling me not to help anyone that appeared to be in distress. (In fact, we had just driven by a man’s body lying in the road — sirens indicated that the police were on their way.)
Unfortunately, they said, it was a common practice for victims to accuse their rescuers in court, in order to obtain financial compensation. And recently in another incident, a friend of mine visiting China was robbed of her purse and cell phone. Because no one would stop to help her, she had to walk four miles to the nearest police station.
Thus bystander apathy is amplified by fear and a failure of the justice system. Perhaps it’s this fatal combination that has placed empathy on the back burner in the culture.
While millions have expressed outrage and grief at YueYue’s death, and called for national soul searching, a significant number of commentators have also accused the only person who attempted to help YueYue — a 57-year-old woman, a trash collector and one of the most marginalized people in Chinese society — of being motivated by a desire for fame and compensation rather than goodwill.
With this type of cynicism overshadowing the lessons that should be learned from YueYue’s tragic death, I can’t help but think about the concept of empathy. If just learning about bystander apathy actually prevents its occurrence and leads to action, perhaps one key to creating a better global society is the conscious examination of our own responses and attitudes, and the experiences of others.
Recently, Ashoka asked 21 Ashoka conference participants to talk about empathy, what it takes to nurture it, and how it can change the world. Check out the Empathy 101 playlist for some food for thought.