On the street, filming The Witness documentary

Are You Persuaded to Join the Herd?

Over the last several months, we have watched a number of movies that have served as catalysts for discussion on the topic of persuasion. Via Blossoms in the Dust (LeRoy, 1941), we learned about the work of Edna Gladney, and how major and lasting social change can come about through the activism of a passionate person acting alone. Most certainly that person acted within the context of her world at the time, thus one could argue that it was a village that produced the outcome (Clinton, & Feinman, 1996) or that the person didn’t really do it without help (Obama, 2012).

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

One may, of course, proclaim that same message for any positive human achievement since Adam and Eve; and, further, we are intensely aware that many powerful ideas and actions have come from within the ranks of people who have benefited from American citizenship. However, the same “unbelievable American system” has also produced scores of others who were not persuaded to take action to move humanity to a higher level. So, it seems that those achievements of some individuals involved something beyond that village or simply the American system.

To understand why and how people achieve great influence means examining their particular contexts and observing a wide variety of complex circumstances and human characteristics.

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, 2014
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, 2014

In addition, persuasion that leads to social change can take many forms. We wrote about that while investigating Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Stone, 2004), the documentary about arguably the most notorious and captivating domestic terrorist group in American history. In their spree of kidnapping, robbery, and murder, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) influenced Patty Hearst, and undoubtedly millions of others, to consider aspects of the context in which they took their actions, and what their true motivations may have been.

Battleship Potemkin, 1925
Battleship Potemkin, 1925

In Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925), Sergei Eisenstein’s famous creative work, we see how techniques of influence took shape in Russia within the context of the new social system of Communism. To understand how the movie came into prominence, we have to look at the state of film-making as well as the political environment following the murder of the Romanoffs and the demise of the Russian monarchy. The nation required a different understanding of how to work together under the new regime; therefore, Eisenstein and others employed the power of film as the newest communication form for producing propaganda toward that purpose.

Further, Eisenstein studied under Kuleshov in the Moscow Film School, and learned how juxtapositioning can change the meanings of individual images, the study of which we now call “visual rhetoric” (Hill & Helmers, 2004; Andrews, 2008). Thus, he used images in artful ways that conveyed persuasive meanings in the era of silent film.

Gaslight, 1944
Gaslight, 1944

The fear of change and the unknown, among other more nefarious causes, influences people to take what may appear on the surface—or in reality—to be irrational action. Irrational actions by individuals and groups, notably those that are influenced toward extreme political views,  terrorism, and cults of personality, are observable in daily news reports. We especially see this in countries with brutal dictators and where leaders have emerged from militaristic factions.

Last month, the movie Gaslight (Cukor, 1944) allowed us to observe techniques of such manipulation on a one-to-one basis. This movie’s Victorian British context made women especially vulnerable to possible oppression by their husbands. We watched Charles Boyer manipulate his wife and almost succeed in driving her to a sense of unreality, a mental state where she was incapable of normal brain function.

Re-thinking Herd Mentality

The Witness, 2016
The Witness, 2016

In a departure from our focus on individuals, this month’s movie, The Witness (Solomon, 2016), gives us the opportunity to re-consider the behavior of people in groups and the notion of “herd mentality” and “groupthink,” as we did in the film about Patty Hearst. The documentary follows Bill Genovese in his quest to learn what really happened in 1964 on the night his sister Kitty was murdered in Queens, NY.

We see how an entire nation of over 300 million people—through well-known and well-practiced, but perhaps unwitting, techniques of propaganda—can buy into a common, but false, understanding that, in this case, lasted over some 50 years.

The Witness is about how people were persuaded by the New York Times’ article that presented who and how many witnessed Kitty’s death. However, it is not simply about how persuasive Abe Rosenthal, former editor of The New York Times, was in his own writing about it, but it is also about the recently highlighted issue of fake news. Further, it leads one to wonder why Rosenthal was so influenced by the murder that he defied any question about its details many years later.

Sadly, our group and many others now know that what my dad used to say is quite accurate, “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you read.” In fact, I have only recently come to realize that Benjamin Franklin was the originator of that idea; but, nonetheless, that doesn’t make it any more or less true, as we can observe it for ourselves.

By the time of Rosenthal’s death in 2006, the American public had already learned about the exaggerated and false claims of The New York Times‘ original article, but he had held fast to the truth of its reporting. According to Shaidle (2016, Apr 12),

[Y]ou could almost say the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ and ‘Guardian of Zion’ recipient ‘didn’t want to get involved.’ In fact, he doubled down.

Lucy’s article told about the 40th Anniversary Conference held at Fordham University in 2004, at which Rosenthal said that his sister Bess had died many years earlier following a similar incident. Bess had been walking home when a flasher exposed himself to her. She was terrified and ran all the way home; then, she caught a cold and never recovered.

I feel Bess was murdered by the man as Kitty was murdered by the monster who murdered her. The incident and illness were one.

In the next year, at a 2005 symposium on the case, Rosenthal stated in a speech (Ibid.),

‘I never said, nor did anybody on The New York Times, or any reporter with a brain, say there were thirty-eight peering out of a window.’
Presumably Rosenthal was hoping nobody in the room remembered or even knew that he’d eagerly penned a quickie book about the Genovese murder a few months after it happened, one that was titled … Thirty-Eight Witnesses.

Should we be skeptical of everything we don’t see for ourselves?

We have seen and heard about so many incidents of coverup and fake news over the years that logically we would all be skeptical of everything.

Sybil, 1976
Sybil, 1976

Recently, two “true” stories—so powerful as to have remained with me for my adult life—have been questioned as to their accuracy. This possible invalidation of a lingering memory is especially jarring for me, since filmnesia (relaxfrancis, 2009, Oct 13) occurs fairly often.

First, the movie Sybil (Petrie, 1976) and the book on which it was based (Schreiber, 1973) has been reported to contain absolute falsehood. The woman who is the subject has said she made up the multiple personalities she enacted. From NPR, Lynn Neary writes  (2011, Oct 20),

When Sybil first came out in 1973, not only did it shoot to the top of the best-seller lists — it manufactured a psychiatric phenomenon.  . . .  But in a new book, Sybil Exposed, writer Debbie Nathan argues that most of the story is based on a lie.

Next, reported in the Wall Street Journal (Helliker, 2013), the movie Capote and the book on which it was based, In Cold Blood,  contains false information:

Truman Capote’s masterwork of murder, In Cold Blood, cemented two reputations when first published almost five decades ago: his own, as a literary innovator, and detective Alvin Dewey Jr.’s as the most famous Kansas lawman since Wyatt Earp.

But new evidence undermines Mr. Capote’s claim that his best seller was an ‘immaculately factual’ recounting of the bloody slaughter of the Clutter family in their Kansas farmhouse.

Another recent earth-shaker for me is the debunking of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), now found flawed in its racist/classist viewpoint and its sources, e.g., anthropologist Margaret Mead’s findings (Fetters, 2013).

Doctor, take your own medicine!

However, in the midst of writing this article I must confess that I jumped to the conclusion that these new findings were factual and negated what had been written before. Had I fully examined the new evidence, maybe I would not have simply taken the media news at face value. Is this not what my article is all about?

It took a colleague to point this out to me, one who is a recognized expert in the field of psychology and has experience with patients who exhibit multiple personalities, or what is now called dissociative identity disorder (DID). She explains that Nathan’s book must be considered in light of facts that the syndrome is controversial and difficult for experts to diagnose, and that Nathan didn’t actually interview Dr. Wilbur or her patient Sybil.

GLOSSARY TERMS

Filmnesia

The inability to remember within the first 10 minutes of a movie whether or not you have seen it before (relaxfrancis, 2009, Oct 13).

Groupthink

A term derived from George Orwell’s 1984, groupthink causes individual members of a group to unquestioningly follow the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus. This occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation.

Herd mentality

Also known as “mass psychology” and “group-” or “crowd psychology,” “humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals” (“Sheep in human clothing – scientists reveal our flock mentality,” 2008, Feb 14). First put forward by 19th-century French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon, herd behavior in humans was also studied by Freud and Trotter, whose book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1921) is a classic in the field of social psychology.

Visual rhetoric

According to Aristoteles [sic], rhetoric is concerned with ‘discovering all the available means of persuasion in any given situation’ either to instruct an audience (logos rational appeal), to please an audience and win it over (ethos ethical appeal), or to move it (pathos emotional appeal). –Andrews, 2008

REFERENCES

Andrews, M. (2008). Social campaigns: Art of visual persuasion its psychology, its semiotics, its rhetoric (Master of Art in Editorial Design). MaHKU, Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design.

Clinton, H., & Feinman, B. (1996). It takes a village: And other lessons children teach us (1st ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Costello, M., Hawdon, J., & Cross, A. (2017). Virtually standing up or standing by? Correlates of enacting social control online. International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, 6, 16-28.

Cukor, G. (Director). (1944). Gaslight [Motion Picture]. USA: MGM.

Cunningham, S. (1984). Genovese: 20 years later, few heed a stranger’s cries. Social Action & the Law, Vol 10(1), pp. 24-25.

Eisenstein, S. (Director). (1925). Battleship Potemkin[Motion Picture]. Soviet Union: Goskino.

Fetters, A. (2013). 4 Big problems with The Feminine Mystique. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/4-big-problems-with-the-feminine-mystique/273069/.

Friedan, B. (1963). The Feminine mystique. New York: W. W. Norton.

Gansberg, M. (1964). 37 Who saw murder didn’t call the police; Apathy at stabbing of Queens woman shocks inspector 37 SAW MURDER BUT DIDN’T CALL Path of victim: Stabber’s third attack was fatal. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9E01E7DA1138E13ABC4F51DFB566838F679EDE&src=DigitizedArticle&legacy=true

Griggs, R. (2015). The Kitty Genovese story in introductory psychology textbooks. Teaching of Psychology, 42(2), 149-152. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0098628315573138″>http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0098628315573138

Haberman, C. (2017, June 4). What the Kitty Genovese killing can teach today’s digital bystanders. Retrieved from https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/04/us/retro-report-bystander-effect.html

Helliker, K. (2013). Capote classic In Cold Blood tainted by long-lost files. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323951904578290341604113984

Hill, C., & Helmers, M. (Eds.). (2004). Defining visual rhetorics. (1st ed.). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

LeRoy, M. (Director).  (1941). Blossoms in the dust.[Motion Picture]. USA: MGM.

Miller, B. (Director) (2005). Capote [Motion Picture]. USA: MGM.

Nathan, D. (2012). Sybil exposed. New York: Free Press.

Neary, L. (2011, Oct 20). Real ’Sybil’ admits multiple personalities were fake. Retrieved from American University Radio, http://wamu.org/story/11/10/20/real_sybil_admits_multiple_personalities_were_fake/

Petrie, D. (Director). (1976). Sybil [TV Mini-Series] USA: NBC.

relaxfrancis (2009, Oct 13). Filmnesia. In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=filmnesia

Righetti, J. (2017, Jan 5). The Witness exposes the dangers of sensationalized news. Retrieved from https://nonfics.com/the-witness-exposes-the-dangers-of-sensationalized-news-7f56b432cafd

Samuel, A. (2016, Nov 29). To fix fake news, look to yellow journalism. JSTOR Weekly Digest. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/to-fix-fake-news-look-to-yellow-journalism/

Schreiber, F. (1973). Sybil (1st ed.). Chicago: Regnery.

Shaidle, K. (2011, Nov 21). Kitty Genovese expert wants pundits to get their facts straight.  5 Feet of Fury. Retrieved from https://www.fivefeetoffury.com/2011/11/21/kitty-genovese-expert-wants-pundits-to-get-their-facts-straight/

Shaidle, K. (2016, Apr 12). Kitty Genovese: The Global warming of crime. Taki’s Magazine. Retrieved from http://takimag.com/article/kitty_genovese_the_global_warming_of_crime_kathy_shaidle/page_2

Solomon, J. D. (Director). (2015). The Witness [Motion Picture]. USA: FilmRise.

Stone, R. (Director). (2004). Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst [Motion Picture]. USA: Magnolia Pictures.

Trotter, W. (1921), Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. London: T. F. Unwin, ltd. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/instinctsofherdi00trot

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