The Bystander Effect in the Global Economy

The bystander effect is perhaps the most insidious of human faults. From the many Germans who didn’t speak out as those around them were taken to concentration camps to the folks in New York City who closed their windows and turned away as a Kitty Genovese was murdered by a serial rapist on their street, the tendency for people to ignore something happening to others has produced some of the most bone-chilling stories…not so much from the atrocities committed, but from the realization that the vast majority of people are willing to let it happen right under their noses.

We like to believe that we live in a fairly moral society—that the crimes that happen, especially the predatory ones—are committed by the amoral few while the rest of us wring our hands in distress until they are stopped. But the reality is that, when it comes down to it, we’re more likely to ignore violations against others as long as it doesn’t feel likely that those violations will come upon us, even more likely to do so if those violations have the potential to benefit us.

I’m sure I’ve already lost some of you by jumping straight into Godwin’s law. Now I’m going to take this in a direction that will no doubt seem melodramatic, but I ask that you hear me out (or read me out).

One of the largest collective bystander effects that I see continuously unaddressed in the U.S. is with regard to corporations. Naturally, the things that might come to mind the easiest are the seemingly “small” injustices that could fit within capitalism in an arguably “healthy” way (though I wouldn’t argue that position myself)—things like low wages for workers, the bullying of others within the market, and tax evasion. It would be nice if that was all that our bystanding as consumers had been overlooking, but consumer bystanders have been overlooking far more than that. Let’s take a look at a small list of some of some of what corporations have been involved in or linked to over the years.

Even when corporations are caught, as Tyson was with animal cruelty or Amazon with the neo-Nazi security company (linked above), they might get a slap on the wrist, perhaps a fine, maybe even an outcry from customers…

…then sales resume as if nothing happened.

It’s as though consumers are more angry at the fact that they were forced to become aware of an ethical problem than about the actual problem itself, sending the clear message “keep your slave labor, abuses, environmental destruction, and cruelty out of my sight so I can consume the products you acquired through those means with a clear conscience.”

Is paying a MacDonald’s employee less than a livable wage on par with ignoring the murder of someone in front of your eyes? Maybe not (though you might want to ask the low-wage worker how their lives are effected), but we are smart enough as Americans to know that that’s not all that is happening behind the scenes of these corporations. We just don’t care enough to dig to find out what atrocities we are complicitly paying for along with our “cheap” goods.

So in this instance, I think it is neither melodramatic nor unreasonable to remind us of Neimoller’s famous poem about World War II

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

As authors are quickly discovering with Amazon, corporations aren’t just willing to attack the “other.” They’re even willing to turn on the ones they claim to value if it means more money is in it for them. How close to home does it have to get before we finally decide that it’s not okay for corporations to abuse the world anymore?