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In the United States, we have a "traditional" urban-legend-like story, if anything in the United States could be called "traditional", which relates the "bystander effect" or "Genovese syndrome". The through line is that some violent crime occurs, such as a murder or rape and usually against a female victim, in close proximity to a private housing facility such as an apartment complex, in plain view, where the residents of the complex fail to give aid in any meaningful way.
This story tradition began with the March 13, 1964 protracted murder, taking approximately 1/2 hour to complete, of Catherine Genovese, ("Kitty"). The story is half apocryphal because, while the basic facts of the murder itself are known to be true, the media got involved and harped incessantly upon the idea that a large number of people knew what was going on and chose not to get involved. As recently as 2004 news articles have continued to appear questioning that there was any evidence that there were 38 witnesses or that anyone actually observed the murder and chose to remain inactive. In short, while the murder itself is undisputed, the circumstances surrounding it are highly questionable. If
Still, at least 2 notable things were the direct result of the murder and the perception, accurate or inaccurate, by the public of the notion of widespread unwillingness to render aid during an observed criminal act. Firstly, the story contributed heavily to the creation of the 9-1-1 emergency phone system. Secondly, the birth of the "urban legend" of criminals acting with impunity in the face of public inaction. Certainly, beginning with an episode of the PERRY MASON television series, this general plot line has appeared in innumerable television shows and movies.
THE WITNESS, the title of which is shared across many movies of exactly the same name, tells the same fundamental story but with a South Korean social/psychological perspective. The basic through line has the same, typical, notion that people are morally reprehensible for not getting "involved" and leaving some innocent, defenseless female alone to face her terrible fate at the hands of a reprehensible attacker. What makes THE WITNESS's version uniquely interesting (to my Western viewer's eyes) is the collection of South Korean sensibilities that contribute heavily to the content of the story.
To be sure, some of the "usual" thematic motivations that act as a barrier against witness involvement are present: instinctive fear, desire to protect one's family against the repercussions of involvement and so on. But interestingly there are some South Korean social and even legal issues depicted that a potentially altruistic witness would have to overcome in order to be willing to "get involved". Bizarrely, and even unbelievably to us in the West, engaging in any behavior that could be considered defamatory, ACTUAL TRUTH NOTWITHSTANDING, is heavily proscribed and,... wait for it... "South Korea is the only country in the world where an individual can be found criminally liable and imprisoned for damaging another's reputation by publicly revealing true facts."
In other words, in South Korea, just because the things you say or write are actually TRUE, they are not protected against civil and criminal liabilities if those things you say or write damage another's reputation or "face". So publicly proclaiming something like, "I saw Bob kill Alice" or "Sam raped me" can wind up costing witnesses (AND EVEN VICTIMS) tens of thousands of dollars in fines, prison time, and exposing the witness to additional civil liabilities to the actual criminal.
As noted in the legal literature, simply reporting the criminal to the police authorities is not grounds for witness liability in and of itself. But should the criminal manage to beat the charge, then the witness is back to being liable again.
So, unbelievably, in South Korea, the notion of getting involved when someone is being victimized not only has a moral/ethical calculation that has to be made by the potentially altruistic witness, but there is the practical calculation of the potential criminal and civil liabilities that you may likely face for simply doing the right thing.
A wonderful illustration of the downstream practical effects of this sort of legal system are wonderfully illustrated in some scenes from THE WITNESS. Because talking to the press or the police with any information by potential witnesses living in the apartment complex closest to the crime scene could lead to the damage of the positive reputation of the owner-occupied apartment complex (and concomitant loss of property values), the tenants of the apartment complex get together and create a document for all of the tenants to sign agreeing not to talk to the press or the police about the crime.
Do something like that in America and y'all gonna end up in jail and being forced to testify to boot. In South Korea, that's normal, reasonable and customary behavior. Watching the police get frustrated by it, AND NOTHING ELSE, is surrealistic to watch. You also get a sense that the police are more irritated by the fact that it makes their job more difficult than they are by any possible moral/ethical implications.
What these defamation laws illustrate is the astonishing regard many Asiatic countries have regarding reputation and face. It's not that crimes like murder are unimportant; it's just that crimes like murder are apparently culturally less important than maintaining reputation and face. So important is reputation and face in South Korea that these cultural notions have been codified into civil and criminal law. Philosophizing about the right and wrong of this in this context of cultural imperatives is a meaningless activity since right and wrong are cultural constructs. Watching such behavior unfold from an observation point of a culture where such behavior would be considered appalling and into a culture where it's considered perfectly reasonable is definitely a new experience. If you're one of those people who obsessively values multiculturalism then you can't sit in judgment of this kind of cultural value. Valuing multiculturalism means valuing cultural perspectives like this, too. You have no moral justification for picking and choosing.
While the South Korean "Genovese syndrome" representation presented in THE WITNESS may have the same underlying moral message (you should value a victim's life and you should just eat the potential consequences to you personally), it's a bit more strained that it would be here in the West.
THE WITNESS is a good movie, well-made and well-acted with good production values. Additionally, it offers a unique perspective on the whole Genovese syndrome issue that Western viewers might never have considered. An interesting watch. I recommend it.
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