Spectators?

Is it possible we are becoming a society of spectators? Is it the case that we are so removed from the world that we have become passive observers of the scene around us as though we are watching a movie? I do wonder sometimes. I have gone on (and on) about the danger of the electronic toys we all seem to be addicted to and the damage they are doing to our collective brains. There is hard evidence that this is the case, but it doesn’t seem to deter anyone. We walk through life with our eyes down, fixed on the toys in our hands and checking social media to see if we have new friends — or if the old ones still “like” us. Meanwhile the real world around us becomes less and less real as the pictures we are fascinated by become true reality. This detachment from the real (REAL) world is a sign of mental imbalance, folks. Just ask Freud who talked a good bit about the “reality principle” that governs the gradual maturing of the young child as he or she grows and becomes an adult. The make-believe world of the child is supposed to be replaced by the (at times painful) world of things and people that the child slowly realizes is the real world. Things seem to have become turned upside-down. The real world is now for so many the world of make-believe: the world in our hands that we can control, not the world “out there.”  Worse yet, we have become emotionally detached, many of us, and see tragic events as simply another episode in a drama we are not really a part for. We have become a nation of spectators, it would appear.

A story in Yahoo news recently brought this possibility home in a rather graphic way:

Shocking surveillance video shows the moment a Pittsburgh woman was knocked out cold by a man on a busy sidewalk — but that’s not the worst of it. The footage also shows the woman being beaten and robbed by bystanders — who proceed to take pictures of her, including selfies — as she lay unconscious on the ground. “They don’t treat animals like that. They wouldn’t treat a dog that way,” the victim’s mother told KDKA on Thursday. “It’s disgusting. My daughter needs help.”

I suppose the woman being knocked down and robbed shows us a side of ourselves we have always known was there. Recall the Kew Garden incident in 1964 when thirty-seven or thirty-eight people ignored the cries of a Kitty Genovese being stabbed to death outside their bedroom windows. In a crowded world we tend to become a bit more callous and robbing and beating a helpless woman seems like yesterday’s news to a people who have become jaded and over-exposed to violence and mayhem. What is unique about the Yahoo story is the observation that people were taking photos, including “selfies,” as the woman lay there beaten and suffering on the sidewalk.

We need to keep our perspective here (speaking of the reality principle). This is not about all of us and it is only an anecdote. There are good people out there doing good things every day. But there are growing numbers of people who seem to have become inured to the suffering of others, as though it’s not real but something to watch and get their own emotional high from. We don’t experience the woman’s pain, only our own emotional reaction to the incident, “getting a rush.” This seems to be what it’s all about for many, indeed for an increasing number of people, in a world of detached spectators who “get off” by watching  rather than becoming truly emotionally and intellectually connected with the events taking place. Taking a photograph freezes the event and allows us to see it as something happening in our own little world where we are in control and sympathy and empathy are no longer part of the equation.

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12 thoughts on “Spectators?

  1. Hugh, very relevant post. More broadly, we are often spectators (or passengers) in our own lives. We do so much by habit, as you have written about before. We need to break the chain to regain control. Keith

  2. A good, thoughtful blog, Hugh.

    Many of us are, indeed, spectators, detached from the real world but spectators also can imply that we watch the real world without engaging it — as in the Pittsburgh incident. And, if we are watching the real world then, of course, it means that many are also living in that real world. But how are they living? That’s the real conundrum, perhaps: America’s real world, more and more, is becoming one of dire poverty complicated by unaffordable housing, huge numbers of uninsured, a ridiculously high incarceration rate (far, far above any other western country) that disrupts if not destroys families, and low-wage jobs. The real world is further suffering from urban schools with minimal resources and decaying facilities, drug use including the opioid crisis, etc., small towns stripped of businesses and schools by an ag industry that’s become every bit the monolith big steel or big oil are.

    In other words, the real world is the hard world around us that many of us are almost too incompetent to face or too rigid in our ideological trenches, not just detached. But face it we must.

    Although it seems worse today, and probably is, this is not the first time in our history that such detachment put the country and world on the brink of awful crisis, if not into it. America’s self-protective, almost selfish isolationist attitude — choosing to be detached from the growing threat of war in Europe, despite a lot of concrete evidence that war was coming and then that atrocities were occurring — made us more than complicit in the deaths of millions. More than half this nation was so detached as to allow for the dehumanization of black slaves for almost 200 years. In the Gilded Age, as long as people got “theirs” very few were bothered by the ugly exploitation of children and new immigrants forced to work in hideous conditions — much like the making of tennis shoes, T-shirts today, by children in far off places. As long as the clothes are cheap for us to buy, it’s easy not to think about the pain of others, just like taking selfies while a woman is beaten.

    But I think we can look to our past to find some ways to begin to address it. There have been successful reform and progressive movements that slowed, if not broke, the economic crisis many felt, that have changed workplace environments; social movements and programs, more active church and community lives — people actually caring about their neighbors — that did not start organically but were intentionally led by men and women determined to improve conditions where people lived and worked; the civil rights movement.

    Are we too far gone, too lazy, too self-absorbed to find the energy to do these things again? Some days it sure seems like it. But as you wrote, there are still good people doing good things. We must continue to encourage those people and, if we do, we must hope that leaders actually motivated by care for others — not self-enrichment — will emerge. And if they emerge, those of us not in the real world have to step into it with them. As JFK said, talking about the moon race but applicable to many other goals of his, “let it be said about us that we do this, that and the other thing, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Real leaders do what is hard, because it leads to good. The rest of us should do no less.


    Sorry to be on a soap box here, but like you, Hugh, I get so aggravated by this. I’m probably less worried about the electronic gadgets than by the self-absorbed, “I’ve got mine” segments of society who have, in their oblivious or deliberate neglect of what’s around them, have aided in the decay and suffering of so many other lives. But either kind is hurting us.

    • No problem! Great comment. But I do think you underestimate the effects of the electronic toys. They add considerably to the “Me only” (“I’ve got mine”) mentality you refer to and which disturbs us both. They make it increasingly hard for those addicted to focus attention on the real world, painful as that is at times. We are awfully good at taking the path of least resistance and ignoring that which is distasteful or painful. Getting better all the time….

  3. First off, I had to laugh at the first part of this post, because not 5 minutes before reading it, I had left Keith a comment telling him how I almost got run over in the Kroger parking lot because I was reading a text message on my phone while crossing the parking lot! And then I read the first paragraph of this post and thought … Déjà vu!!!

    To the larger point, though … yes, we mostly seem to live in our own little bubbles, focused more on ourselves, our needs and wants, than on the bigger world around us. A recent phone call from a friend:

    He: Hi, what are you doing?
    Me: Well, I’ve been …
    He: Let me tell you about my day …

    However, I am actually shocked by the people in Pittsburgh who were robbing the woman and taking selfies, for though I am a somewhat hardened cynic, that goes well beyond what I could ever have believed possible. I repeat the question I ask so many times on my own blog: have we lost our humanity?

    Good post, Hugh.

  4. Dear Hugh,

    There are good people who risk their lives to help others and then there are leeches who prey on a helpless person. These peoples could have at least called police and an ambulance.

    The divisiveness in today’s world doesn’t help matters. The tech toys don’t help.

    Hugs, Gronda

  5. I agree that tech toys rule! How often do you see people sitting around a table in a restaurant busy with their devices instead of talking to each other. Good grief – I’ve done that too!

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