Psychology of a Riot: Part Two

Just watched a bit of footage of some lads smashing up a young woman’s car during the violence in Vancouver yesterday. She bravely tried to fend them off, even though they all towered over her. A huge crowd stood around watching and videoing what was happening and not one of them did anything to help. (I’m not going to link to it because it’s disturbing and because the person who shot it was one of those passive bystanders, who didn’t come to her rescue.)

The casual violence is disconcerting enough. But, I’m really freaked out by the weird spectating thing where people just stand by filming horrors as if they’re totally divorced from them, showing no sign of empathy or concern or any sense that they might intervene. I read about it, but actually seeing it, really brings home just how disturbing all those blank, staring people are.

In the footage I saw, this dynamic was played out all over town – small groups of people smashing things and strutting around afterwards as if they’ve done something clever and worthwhile, and huge numbers of other people wandering around filming the mayhem and doing nothing to stop it. In fact, they’re condoning and encouraging it both by bearing witness, (people play up to the camera, so filming them encourages violence,) and by their failure to act.

What’s with that voyeuristic response to the world? Since when does holding up a cell phone to take pictures confer immunity from engagement in what’s going on? Is it a nasty side-effect of the brave new world of social media? Or was it always like this, and am I just showing my middle-aged biases when I think that this detached, leering stance is a new one?

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5 Responses to Psychology of a Riot: Part Two

  1. Sad commentary. It is not new. The gawkers are almost as much to blame as the rioters and the media that has encouraged this kind of stuff. Studies show that if just one person protests and tries to stop violence it often works.

    I am told the same applies to getting comments. When one person comments, it increases the odds more will follow. Hope that happens for you. Stay strong.

    • Janettes says:

      Yes, you’re right, it’s not new, it’s just more visible now because the audience can film what’s happening more easily than in pre-cellphone days. It’s daunting to go against a crowd so people mostly don’t. But, I think in this case all it would have taken was a couple of people to let the car crushers know that people were disapproving of their actions to make them go away. They were performing for an audience they assumed was positive. If they’d found out that it wasn’t, I don’t think trashing the car would have been quite so much fun!

      • iamroewan says:

        As a species we’re socially wired to go along with the crowd. It’s really difficult to step out and do something different from what everyone else is doing.

        When I worked downtown and walked between the office and the train stn everyday I occasionally saw things happening that made me struggle between intervention and just walking on. Once I stopped to help a homeless person who fell after he was thrown off a bus by the bus driver. Another time I tried to comfort a very sick-looking drug addict (I assume) who was crouched against a wall quietly sobbing. Both times it felt very strange – it was like there was a compulsion not to look and to keep on walking. But as soon as I really decided to help and made the first move it definitely felt like the right thing to do.

  2. Janettes says:

    I had a similar experience when I first got to Vancouver, and I wasn’t as brave as you. I was leaving a basketball game (free tickets through work!) with a friend and we saw a man lying motionless on the side of the road. Everyone else walked by him like he wasn’t there. We tiptoed up to him and stared at him in case he was dead or something (we’d never encountered drunks passed out on the street before, so we were worried!). But we weren’t game to disturb him, so we walked away not being sure if he was okay or not. It was really difficult even to walk over to him in the face of the monumental indifference of everyone around us.

    • Janettes says:

      For some reason it’s much easier to intervene in Dunedin. Because It’s a smaller and safer town perhaps. Travis and I were driving home with a friend and a man fell into the gutter beside the car. We stopped and picked him up. He had a bottle of red wine in his front pocket which had spilled everywhere as he fell – I thought he’d been stabbed or something for a second or two. But he was just incapably drunk. Probably a Russian sailor on shore leave. Someone else stopped as well and phoned an ambulance, so he was well-taken-care-of.

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