The Responsibility of Public Intellectuals in Holding Governments to Account | The Diffusion of Responsibility in Bureaucracy

The murder of Kitty Genovese is one of the most commonly used case studies for introducing the concept of the bystander effect in social psychology. It’s the story of how a young woman was sexually assaulted and murdered in front of numerous witnesses who failed to assist her, or even call the police. The story is usually exaggerated in order to make it a dramatic example that keeps new students more interested, nevertheless it is a real brutal example of the perceived diffusion of responsibility in action.

The diffusion of responsibility is the phenomena whereby one considers that one is less responsible for some action when others are present- they absorb some of the responsibility or another might even be perceived to take it all, for example in cases where an authority is present. The example of Miss Genovese’s death is complicated by how in such situations, people defer responsibility under the assumption that others will have already taken the moral action of becoming involved, they relegate their own status to that of a bystander, not one who is obligated to act, while nonetheless agreeing about what someone is obligated to do.

Another example of perceived diffusion of responsibility commonly introduced to students early in their study of social psychology is the infamous Milgram experiment. In that study, participants willingly commit actions they would normally consider to conflict with their personal morals because they are obeying an authority. The responsibility is not just diffused, it is completely deferred. Some, including Milgram, claimed that this psychosocial process of deferring responsibility contributed to the holocaust but such an argument implicitly agrees that responsibility really is deferred. Unlike the situations in which the bystander effect occurs, participants in Milgram’s experiment and the holocaust alike justified their actions not by becoming bystanders agreeing about an obligation of what to do but disagreeing about who is to do it; rather they feel obligated to simply follow the orders of the authority to which they believe responsibility for the action falls upon.

The perpetrators of the holocaust were not bystanders, but many indirectly participated and arguably condoned it through their inaction. And this is without mentioning the additional complexity of how many citizens of Nazi Germany knew of the brutality which was so shocking that when soldiers of the Soviet Union advancing into Poland reported it to the Western Allies, they could not believe it- extra complexity which is beyond the scope of the current essay.

The Holocaust remains paramount to sociological investigations of our modern world and cannot be thought of as some unprecedented historical exception. This would be a similar mistake to those committed by “Great Man” theorists whom attributing impossible amounts of history to human agency, disregard the determining forces of structure. Nevertheless, we cannot downplay the role of those tyrants who use their power to change structure in such a way as to make atrocities possible nor deny that we may inadvertently set up the conditions for tragedy when trying to do good.

Zygmunt Bauman, writing in the late ‘80s, argued that just as the holocaust should not be considered a historical exception, we should also avoid the temptation to lump it into other historical categories like genocide. The holocaust was not exceptional, but it was new. It was a product and failure of modern civilisation borne of social conditions that may still be ubiquitous again- the holocaust, industrial society turned to producing death instead of the cheap crap it does currently, is a sleeping monster in the garden of liberal democratic civilisation.

The main condition characterising this world of economies of scale potentially ready to pump out death at unimaginable levels is alienation. We are alienated from nature, from the products of our labour, but most importantly for this discussion, we are alienated from each other. One of the biggest enabling factors of the holocaust is the social distance between producers and products. It is this distance, which varies somewhat dependently without mirroring actual physical distance, that allows the modern human to relegate themselves to the role of bystander, or more often today, the role of spectator, in all spheres of modern life.

Returning to the problem of responsibility, we can begin to understand how the modern world seems so full of tragedies to which no one seems to be held accountable for. It seems that no one believes they are responsible and whenever tragedy occurs, we are relegated to the status of spectator viewing the clash of authorities deemed responsible trying to avoid accountability.

Healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses, are legally obligated to act in emergency situations by virtue of their having the knowledge and ability of what is needed to be done in them. Not acting in such situations calls their fitness to practice into question and in terms of responsibility and accountability, we are saying that they cannot be a bystander in emergency situations- their knowledge makes them responsible, the law means they are held accountable.

Today in Britain, there is mounting evidence that changes to the welfare state, mainly its being dismantled, have directly led to the deaths of thousands of sick, elderly, and disabled people. Yet, no one is being held accountable. If we apply the logic of responsibility as a result of knowledge and capacity, it becomes clear that either state actors need to be held to account for these deaths or the state has given up its role as ultimate guarantor of life in the advanced industrial societies.

For people with all sorts of political leanings, this problem is paradigmatic of the state of contemporary politics. No one can be held to account because no one can accept responsibility but by considering that responsibility is the result of knowledge about a problem and the power to solve it. The government is not only not the bystander it wants us to think it is, but it has the knowledge and power to act so is responsible nevertheless. Public intellectuals, including social scientists, need to reinforce this idea or things will never change and we similarly act as irresponsible deferrers of responsibility.

And, as Bauman and Milgram show, this isn’t just about pointing the finger to authorities, but calling out individual actors. Those individuals responsible for disability assessments that label dying people fit for work, cut their benefits, and might as well just kill those they assess, should be vilified until held to account. As an extreme example, but using the same logic, if we don’t hold these people to account, then the Nazis who “just drove the trains” are not culpable for their role in the holocaust.

 

 

In this article, I had hoped to include much more references to the work of Hannah Arendt, who has recently had a book post-humously published: “Thinking Without A Bannister: Essays in Understanding“. I have been unwell for a few weeks and quit my last job at the factory so have also been pre-occupied with looking for new paid employment (among some personal things) but here are some less well written notes I was going to include before I move on as stopping and starting on this article is giving me horrific writer’s block.

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew that escaped Nazi-occupied Germany and eventually became a world-renowned philosopher and political theorist. Writing for The New Yorker, she reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who inspired the phrase “the banality of evil”. She saw that Eichmann was not the monster that the media and Jewish leaders wanted to make him out to be. He was banal, relatively ordinary, seemingly normal, and this made the horrors of the Holocaust he contributed to all the more terrifying. I think Eichmann, although I would call him evil because he knew what his actions resulted in, was enabled by the psychology of deferral of responsibility. And stretching, hopefully not too far to make the example seem fanciful, this logic to today’s world, I think this is how those dismantling the modern welfare state justify their actions- they defer responsibility. Ultimately, the Israeli justice system, in part making Eichmann an example, correctly found him guilty of war crimes. If those judges were correct, then politicians pushing policies that there is evidence kill innocent people, should be similarly judged as guilty, and the assessors share some of their guilt.

One of the main struggles in writing this article has been making it clear that I am not comparing what is happening in Britain to the Holocaust. My main point is to say that the logic of responsibility and accountability developed in the trials after it are applicable, and so should be used here.


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