Last weekend, I was at a movie with Didier and his kids when a pair of girls seated near us gradually forgot they weren’t there alone. Their initially low giggles evolved to louder whispers before becoming flat out mall-voice talking. I could tell by their commentary they weren’t bad girls, just caught up in the moment, their manners forgotten.
“Hey girls,” Didier said in a low voice. “Shhh. Keep it down.”
They looked appropriately chastened. There was no back talk, no rude gestures. It was the dream response—which, as I’ve learned, is hardly the norm.
Several years back, I took my daughter and a friend to a show. The previews had ended and the movie was about ten minutes in when a family entered–mom, dad, child, and infant. For the next several minutes, they made so much noise we decided to move away, closer to the back.
For the next 45 minutes, the little boy talked loudly, his mom answered at the same level, and the baby fussed, cried and screamed. It wasn’t until it became impossible to hear the movie’s onscreen explosions over the howling baby that Meek Me had enough. I stood and asked if they would please take the baby to the lobby.
The mother turned to face me.
“You better not be talking to me,” she said.
Her attitude didn’t surprise me. Honestly, I’d have been more shocked if she’d acquiesced. What did surprise me was that none of the other moviegoers said a word in support even though many had been complaining about how someone should do something. Once that ball was rolling, they just sat back and watched.
When I didn’t back down, the woman’s husband spoke to her and then took the baby out to the lobby. The rest of the movie was uneventful. She didn’t seek me out afterward. The crowd simply dispersed.
I was lucky. It could’ve gone badly. The news is replete with accounts of people being attacked for far less than shushing someone in a theater.
Recently, it seems there have been more stories than ever about attacks happening in public places where, rather than help, those nearby either hurried away or filmed the events on their phones or pretended to be busy. Anything but assist. This kind of thing happens so frequently it’s referred to as the “Genovese Syndrome,” after Kitty Genovese’s 1964 murder, which was purportedly watched or heard by 38 people, yet none attempted to help.
That this condition exists at all is a nauseating thought; that it exists to such a degree as to be recognized and given a name makes it all the worse. Naming is accepting. It enables people to claim they haven’t failed as humans, but were powerless victims of a syndrome.
But tolerating bad behavior only feeds the monster, encourages it to grow larger and even more bold. Do we believe that by looking away, bad things won’t ever happen to us? Or to those we love?
I wonder if any of these recent violent accounts in the news might’ve ended differently if the bystanders, rather than filming events on their phones, had stepped forward en masse to intervene. And I wonder how I would react if, instead of a few annoying theater goers, it was a genuine crisis I faced. I hope I wouldn’t allow my fears to prevent me from doing what’s right. I don’t think I’d back down, but until a person is in that situation, I guess they really don’t know.
Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
The peace that comes from apathy or tolerance isn’t lasting. It’s the calm before the storm.
It easier to sit back and wait for someone else to take action. It’s easier to claim The Syndrome prevented us from helping.
It’s easier to keep feeding the monster.
And let our children, and their children, clean up its mess.