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Karen Kaun

Co Founder - President, Knowledge iTrust

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The desensitization of human empathy

This weekend my car broke down and caught fire on Interstate 78 in Pennsylvania. I had just managed to get it over to a short, narrow strip of shoulder on the highway when it went up in flames. While I was pinned against a wall, with no where to run, adding to my shock, I noticed that people had pulled over on the other side of the highway to take photographs of my flaming car with their mobile phones. Yet, no one came to my aid! It was a really, strange phenomena and I’ve been pondering its significance. A university friend of mine has told me that he recently read an article about the ill effect of social networks on people’s empathy for others. Is it more important to be the first to post that photograph of the flaming car to Facebook, then to check out if the actual human is ok? Or are we so virtual that we don’t recognize reality? I'm not judging, just wondering what you all think. Signed, Crispy in CT

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    Oct 2 2011: Wow. That's terrible, but imagine what situation drove them to it. Isn't it insane how much some have and how little others have? I don't know what your situation is, but I feel lucky (despite my car situation) to have my life and all its blessings.
  • Oct 1 2011: Sorry about your experience Karen. It's incredible how one can feel alone in a huge crowd in our individualistic society... but cheer up, I think that you were unlucky that day, a majority of people would have helped in such a situation. (or maybe I'm delusional, and there's no hope for humanity.)

    It's totally unrelated, but your story reminded me this one. I went in Beijing this summer, and my friends there dis-advised me to help old people if I saw that they were in need in the streets. Because some of them would begin to scream if you touch them and pretend like you're trying to rob them. Then they ask you for money, otherwise they call the cops. It's like the new trendy way to extort money out of tourists.
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    Sep 30 2011: If it makes you feel any better (which I don't actually expect) I just saw a sign that read, "In case of fire, exit building before tweeting about it."

    I think you may simply have encountered the same people who (in the past) would have slowed down to gawk, but never actually get out of the car. I don't know that there's more of them, just that their behaviour has changed.
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    Sep 30 2011: @ Karen- I have never really thought of it that way. But you are right. I remember once when I face-planted off my bike on a busy road here and I knocked my self out for a few seconds. When I woke up cars were just flying by on their merry way while my bike and I lay prostrate in the bike lane.:) I dont get people sometimes.
  • Sep 30 2011: Is it possible that people did not stop because, given this is a highway, they hardly noticed your car and it is hard to stop at such a narrow place?

    I hope someone with mobile phone taking picture at least called fire truck?
  • Sep 30 2011: Glad to hear you are OK. Our lives are different, so our observations should be different, no problem! We are all people, no argument and not sure how we got there. Were I to hypothesize about causes for my observation, I would be arguing that those that take physical action routinely during the course of a day are more prone to do so out of reflex. Same is probably true for people that work in teams, groups, or units, where the success of the group depends upon the continued focus of the group on team safety and well-being. Yuppies might be more frozen in fear over questions of "what to do" or "can I do it" than people who have the experience of having done similar things in the past. The path of least resistance for those frozen by one of these concerns is to justify it away as "not my problem". The more cynical and cold hearted crowd would just see it as less competition and may never had the compassion to be concerned over the problems of others, focused exclusively on their own problems. So that is more the basis for my distinction between blue and white collar folks.

    However, disagreement is healthy and welcomed in a forum such as this. Perhaps a difference of opinion will inspire others to post.

    Glad to hear you are OK.
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    Sep 30 2011: But you could also be grateful. Someone might just have taken advantage of your distress to mug you, were it not for the multiple witnesses.
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      Sep 30 2011: Well. That's an interesting way of looking at it, Gerald! LOL!
  • Sep 30 2011: Interesting experience, I hope you are OK. I think you are on to something. There is a generation that has played games or watched movies and television where randomly killing people is the goal or at least part of the plot. The fear of being sued for helping and having something go wrong has turned many a good Samaritan into a person not wanting to get involved, independent of YOUR situation. There is a generation that lives in front of a tube or a box, works in a cube, and is constantly barraged by sensational stories to the point where they feel powerless, and perhaps assume powerlessness and desensitized to the pain of others. I think this is more a white collar thing than a blue collar thing.

    It has been my experience that blue collar workers, military men, parents, and scouts seem to take action while others are content to spectate, even when they can prevent a crime, injury or death of another person. There is some kind of disassociation with the reality before them. I noticed this in particular with yuppy white males. Females are much more willing to get involved and help someone, often with no idea how and at risk of their own life, particularly if it is a child.

    So while I am sadden by your experience with the "do nothing" generation, at least now you know that helping is job one. Perhaps there should be some prosecution of those posting videos, ignoring the good Samaritan laws if there is an injury.

    Parents and older folks tend to have their priorities a bit more focused on survival of everyone, including a stranger.
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      Sep 30 2011: Hello Robert. I'm fine. Thank you. I don't agree with your white collar, blue collar observation. We're all people at the end of the day. Did you know that Wangari Maathi passed away on Sunday? I was so wrapped up in my own stuff that I just heard about it. She was a great woman whose Green Belt Movement made a difference in Kenya and around the world. Her story of the hummingbird has words to live by. When the odds seem insurmountable, "I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can." The clip is here http://youtu.be/-btl654R_pY
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        Sep 30 2011: " I will be a Hummingbird. I will do the best I can. " - Wangari Maathi

        What a fabulous and fantastic contribution to all humanity. God rest her soul.

        Awesome video http://youtu.be/-btl654R_pY

        I won't bore you with my similar tale , which got me pondering all the same thoughts.

        Your point is one of valid urgency.
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          Oct 1 2011: Hello Juliette. Thanks. You might be interested in my Peace Diaries www.peacediaries.org. Stories and art from children. Take care. Karen

          P.S. I posted to your interesting conversation. If you'd like to keep up with my current work I'm posting on http://stemgarden.net. It's my ecoinvention program for Bronx youth. We just presented at Maker Faire. What a blast.