John Whitehead's Commentary
Don’t Just Give Thanks. Pay It Forward One Act of Kindness at a Time
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”—John F. Kennedy
It’s been a hard, heart-wrenching, stomach-churning kind of year filled with violence and ill will.
It’s been a year of hotheads and blowhards and killing sprees and bloodshed and takedowns.
It’s been a year in which tyranny took a step forward and freedom got knocked down a few notches.
It’s been a year with an abundance of bad news and a shortage of good news.
It’s been a year of too much hate and too little kindness.
Now we find ourselves approaching that time of year when, as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, we’re supposed to give thanks as a nation and as individuals for our safety and our freedoms.
It’s not an easy undertaking.
How do you give thanks for freedoms that are constantly being eroded? How do you express gratitude for one’s safety when the perils posed by the American police state grow more treacherous by the day? How do you come together as a nation in thanksgiving when the powers-that-be continue to polarize and divide us into warring factions?
It’s not going to happen overnight. Or with one turkey dinner. Or with one day of thanksgiving.
Thinking good thoughts, being grateful, counting your blessings and adopting a glass-half-full mindset are fine and good, but don’t stop there.
This world requires doers, men and women (and children) who will put those good thoughts into action.
It says a lot (and nothing good) about the state of our world and the meanness that seems to have taken center stage that we now have a day (World Kindness Day) devoted to making the world more collectively human in thoughts and actions. The idea for the day started after a college president in Japan was mugged in a public place and nobody helped him.
Unfortunately, you hear about these kinds of incidents too often.
A 15-year-old girl was gang raped in a schoolyard during a homecoming dance. As many as 20 people witnessed the assault over the course of two and a half hours. No one intervened to stop it.
A 28-year-old woman was stabbed, raped and murdered outside her apartment early in the morning. Thirty-eight bystanders witnessed the attack and failed to intervene. The woman, Kitty Genovese, died from her wounds at the locked doorway to her apartment building.
A 58-year-old man waded into chest-deep water in the San Francisco Bay in an apparent suicide attempt. For an hour, Raymond Zack stood in the shallow water while 75 onlookers watched. Police and firefighters were called in but failed to intervene, citing budget cuts, a lack of training in water rescue, fear for their safety and a lack of proper equipment. The man eventually passed out and later died of hypothermia. Eventually, an onlooker volunteered to bring the body back to the beach.
A homeless man intervened to save a woman from a knife-wielding attacker. He saved the woman but was stabbed repeatedly in the process. As The Guardian reports, “For more than an hour he lay dying in a pool of his own blood as dozens walked by. Some paused to stare, others leaned in close. One even shook his body and then left, while someone else recorded a video of the entire proceeding.”
This is how evil prevails: when good men and women do nothing.
By doing nothing, the onlookers become as guilty as the perpetrator.
“If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity,” declared Albert Einstein.
It works the same whether you’re talking about kids watching bullies torment a fellow student on a playground, bystanders watching someone dying on a sidewalk, or citizens remaining silent in the face of government atrocities.
There’s a term for this phenomenon where people stand by, watch and do nothing—even when there is no risk to their safety—while some horrific act takes place (someone is mugged or raped or bullied or left to die): it’s called the bystander effect.
Psychological researchers John Darley and Bibb Latane mounted a series of experiments to discover why people respond with apathy or indifference instead of intervening.
Their findings speak volumes about the state of our nation and why “we the people” continue to suffer such blatant abuses by the police state.
According to Darley and Latane, there are two critical factors that contribute to this moral lassitude.
First, there’s the problem of pluralistic ignorance in which individuals in a group look to others to determine how to respond. As Melissa Burkley explains in Psychology Today, “Pluralistic ignorance describes a situation where a majority of group members privately believe one thing, but assume (incorrectly) that most others believe the opposite.”
Second, there’s the problem of “diffusion of responsibility,” which is compounded by pluralistic ignorance. Basically, this means that the more people who witness a catastrophic event, the less likely any one person will do anything because each thinks someone else will take responsibility. In other words, no one acts to intervene or help because each person is waiting for someone else to do so.
Now the temptation is to label the bystanders as terrible people, monsters even.
Yet as Mahzarin Banaji, professor of psychology at Harvard University points out, “These are not monsters. These are us. This is all of us. This is not about a few monsters. This is about everybody. It says something very difficult to us. It says that perhaps had we been standing there, we ourselves, if we were not better educated about this particular effect and what it does to us, we may fall prey to it ourselves.”
Historically, this bystander syndrome in which people remain silent and disengaged—mere onlookers—in the face of abject horrors and injustice has resulted in whole populations being conditioned to tolerate unspoken cruelty toward their fellow human beings: the crucifixion and slaughter of innocents by the Romans, the torture of the Inquisition, the atrocities of the Nazis, the butchery of the Fascists, the bloodshed by the Communists, and the cold-blooded war machines run by the military industrial complex.
So what can you do about this bystander effect?
Be a hero, suggests psychologist Philip Zimbardo.
“Each of us has an inner hero we can draw upon in an emergency,” Zimbardo concluded. “If you think there is even a possibility that someone needs help, act on it. You may save a life. You are the modern version of the Good Samaritan that makes the world a better place for all of us.”
Zimbardo is the psychologist who carried out the Stanford Prison Experiment which studied the impact of perceived power and authority on middleclass students who were assigned to act as prisoners and prison guards. The experiment revealed that power does indeed corrupt (the appointed guards became increasingly abusive), and those who were relegated to being prisoners acted increasingly “submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest.”
What is the antidote to group think and the bystander effect?
Be an individual. Listen to your inner voice. Take responsibility.
“If you find yourself in an ambiguous situation, resist the urge to look to others and go with your gut instinct,” says Burkley. “If you think there is even a possibility that someone is in need, act on it. At worst, you will embarrass yourself for a few minutes, but at best, you will save a life.”
“Even if people recognize that they are witnessing a crime, they may still fail to intervene if they do not take personal responsibility for helping the victim,” writes Burkley. “The problem is that the more bystanders there are, the less responsible each individual feels.”
In other words, recognize injustice. Don’t turn away from suffering.
Refuse to remain silent. Take a stand. Speak up. Speak out.
This is what Zimbardo refers to as “the power of one.” All it takes is one person breaking away from the fold to change the dynamics of a situation. “Once any one helps, then in seconds others will join in because a new social norm emerges: Do Something Helpful.”
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” stated Holocaust Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986. “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
Unfortunately, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, too many Americans have opted to remain silent when it really matters while instead taking a stand over politics rather than human suffering.
That needs to change.
I don’t believe we’re inherently monsters. We just need to be more conscientious and engaged and helpful.
The Good Samaritans of this world don’t always get recognized, but they’re doing their part to push back against the darkness.
For instance, earlier this year in Florida, a family of six—four adults and two young boys—were swept out to sea by a powerful rip current in Panama City Beach. There was no lifeguard on duty. The police were standing by, waiting for a rescue boat. And the few people who had tried to help ended up stranded, as well.
Those on shore grouped together and formed a human chain. What started with five volunteers grew to 15, then 80 people, some of whom couldn’t swim.
One by one, they linked hands and stretched as far as their chain would go. The strongest of the volunteers swam out beyond the chain and began passing the stranded victims of the rip current down the chain.
One by one, they rescued those in trouble and pulled each other in.
There’s a moral here for what needs to happen in this country if we only can band together and prevail against the riptides that threaten to overwhelm us.
Here’s what I suggest.
Instead of just giving thanks this holiday season with words that are too soon forgotten, why not put your gratitude into action with deeds that spread a little kindness, lighten someone’s burden, and brighten some dark corner?
I’m not just talking about volunteering at a soup kitchen or making a donation to a charity that does good work, although those are fine things, too.
What I’m suggesting is something that everyone can do no matter how tight our budgets or how crowded our schedules.
Pay your blessings forward.
Engage in acts of kindness. Smile more. Fight less.
Focus on the things that unite instead of that which divides. Be a hero, whether or not anyone ever notices.
Do your part to push back against the meanness of our culture with conscious compassion and humanity. Moods are contagious, the good and the bad. They can be passed from person to person. So can the actions associated with those moods, the good and the bad.
Even holding the door for someone or giving up your seat on a crowded train are acts of benevolence that, magnified by other such acts, can spark a movement.
Imagine a world in which we all lived in peace.
John Lennon tried to imagine such a world in which there was nothing to kill or die for, no greed or hunger. He was a beautiful dreamer whose life ended with an assassin’s bullet on December 8, 1980.
Still, that doesn’t mean the dream has to die, too.
There’s something to be said for working to make that dream a reality. As Lennon reminded his listeners, “War is over, if you want it.”
The choice is ours, if we want it.