Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Ohio Kidnapings: The Roots of Anomie

Shirley Baker, Salford (1964)
By Madeleine Kando and Tom Kando

It seems scarcely believable that Ariel Castro, the man charged with kidnaping, raping and torturing three Cleveland women for over a decade, could have gotten away with such atrocities without anyone being aware of what he was doing.

The neighborhood where Ariel Castro lived is described as ‘close-knit’, with mostly Spanish speaking residents of Puerto Rican descent. How can a neighborhood be “close knit” when the sight of three naked women with chains around their necks, crawling on their hands and knees in someone's backyard only causes a mild reaction, enough to make a call to the local police, but not much more? Shouldn't the neighborhood be all up in arms about something like that? Are we living in a jungle or a civilized society?

It is clear that this monster Castro was the ultimate con artist. He fooled everyone, including the people closest to him, into thinking that he was a regular Jo. ‘Ariel Castro was always happy, nice, respectful’ says a neighbor-friend. But what does that mean, exactly? Does that mean that there was nothing seemingly wrong with the abuser, or is it possible that it's an indication of what's wrong with the concept of 'neighbor' in America? How much neighborly interaction is there in a 'close-knit' neighborhood?

We come from a small country. We have always criticized the Dutch for meddling in each others’ affairs too much. When we came to America, we felt like we could breathe again. But now we feel that maybe it’s better to have conflicts and be in each other’s hair. At least it prevents this kind of atrocity from happening, right there, in the dark, under our very noses.

The Dutch word for neighbor is 'buurman'. 'Buur' or 'boer' means 'farmer', so a neighbor is the farmer who lives next door. In the olden days, if you were smart you would make sure that you were on good terms with your farmer neighbor, because he was feeding your family. Hence the expression 'love thy neighbor'. How far have we come from the original concept of a neighbor? Especially in poor urban neighborhoods, where ‘trouble’ is more the norm than the exception, a neighbor's instinctive attitude is to ‘let things be’, to not 'meddle' in other people's affairs, to 'let sleeping dogs lie’. What these neighborhoods cherish is 'stability', even if it means shutting one's eyes to something obviously suspicious. Is this what happened here?

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the word ANOMIE. By that, he meant normlessness, anarchy, excessive individualism. The opposite of anomie is community – Gemeinschaft in German. The question is, what causes societies to become anomic and to lose a sense of community?

Durkheim (and many other sociologists) have said a lot about this. For one thing, modern societies are far more anomic than tribal and pre-industrial societies. Since America has been the most “modern” society, at least in the 20th century, it also suffers from a relatively high level of anomie. Urbanization is another cause of anomie. We are all familiar with the stereotypical callousness and meanness of big city dwellers, who don’t seem to give a damn about you. New Yorkers epitomize this, but so do Parisians and big city dwellers everywhere. Then there is poverty, social class, etc.

The study of bystander apathy and its opposite, Good Samaritanism, is rich in the social sciences. Social Psychologists speak of the Kitty Genovese syndrome: the young woman who was stabbed to death in Brooklyn in 1969, while dozens of neighbors and bystanders heard her screams, witnessed her murder, and yet never even called 911.

So the problem is complex. Some American neighborhoods are disintegrating, due to some of the factors just mentioned. But the problem is generic. It is tied in with modernity, with poverty, with strife. It happens in many different parts of the world.

Castro lived in a neighborhood that is especially vulnerable because of poverty and a lack of police presence. That's where the fabric of human connectedness wears thin. That's where we need to rush to, put sandbags in place and prevent the erosion from causing irreparable damage and turn America into a jungle. leave comment here