By now, this video has made the rounds. Don’t watch if you don’t have a strong stomach. What is in there is a 2-year-old getting run over by a truck. The driver stops, then starts again and drives away, running her over a second time with the rear wheels. Then, a whole bunch of people just walk by (18 as filmed by surveillance cameras), swerving to avoid her body but nobody stops until a garbage worker does and the girl’s mother shows up, picks her up and walks away.
The scene took place in Foshan, one of these growing industrial cities in the Guangdong province. Of course, as reminiscent as this is of the Kitty Genovese case, that is often related to bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility (the lower probability of individuals offering assistance as the number of bystanders grows), this particular case is more shocking due to the fact that it’s a 2-year old.
Most explanations for this have actually centered on the fact that this area is populated with a lot of workers uprooted from rural areas and recently urbanized. So, we are getting an updated version of Ferdinand Tönnies’s idea of different modes of social integration: Gemeinschaft (the community mode of integration where ties are based on personal knowledge and similarities and where community needs might take precedence over individual preferences) as opposed to Gesellschaft (the association mode of integration, based on impersonal ties and where individualism is more likely to prevail).
The argument is that as people are uprooted from their rural communities and move on to the development zones of China, their Gemeinschaft ties disappear, to be replaced with more impersonal Gesellschaft ties where individuals are more likely to pursue their self-interest. This includes the relative indifference with which the different bystanders treat the dying / dead girl even as they acknowledge her presence, by swerving to avoid her body.
This phenomenon is not culturally specific. This bystander effect is constantly at work in many place, from the unconscious homeless people we step over, not stopping to check if he’s asleep, passed out, or dead in European cities, to the mentally ill woman, left to grovel on the ground in the middle of a busy market I witnessed in Livingstone, Zambia.