Red Hands

Saturday, July 26, 2014 Of Minds And Mixtapes 0 Comments

Bystander Effect - Illustration by Elizabeth Hope Thompson

The Bystander Effect.
“The bystander effect [...] is a psychological phenomenon in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present … the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.” --Wikipedia
It works like this: Imagine you're in a busy restaurant when you see a fellow diner choke on his food. You know you need to help him by calling for help or performing a Heimlich. Perhaps you think the other onlookers will take the initiative; since your order just arrived and the best way to devour a Murg Malai Kabab is hot; plus, it's the job of the wait staff to attend to the diners. Many reasons (excuses) why you shouldn't / couldn't rush to help. The other diners silently share your sentiment while the wait staff are busy being busy. This means the choking guy doesn't get help as quickly. And no one thinks they're doing anything wrong. Since there is a crowd of other people present the chances of any individual taking responsibility significantly decreases, because people assume the rest of the crowd will deal with the problem.

This happens more often than you imagine. Sexual violence against women is proof of that. For all the hue and cry after the savage gang-rape of a 23-year old medical student on a moving bus in Delhi on December 16, 2012, a social experiment by YesNoMaybe revealed that as a nation we learned very little. The experiment revealed that apathy towards women (which stems from sexist attitudes) were still intact. Everybody knows that a woman living in India is no stranger to name-calling, derogatory joke-telling, rumours, property damage or physical / sexual violence, and a considerable number in our midst behave as though these acts don't require their intervention. If a woman complains of these, another considerable number will go check her social media profile to see if she's hot.

Many examples of the bystander phenomenon exist. How many times have you noticed a physical hazard –-a slippery patch on the floor, an exposed wiring, etc.-– and walked right past it without reporting it? How many times have you noticed someone you know doing something unsafe and said nothing? How many times have you rushed to help the victim knocked down by a speeding vehicle? Most of us feel a strong compulsion to not get involved. It's not just that we may be stone-hearted mortals, we may have fallen victim to what is called the Bystander Effect.

Notorious incidences include:
- Thomas Edison electrocuting animals that had shown themselves to be menaces to society, particularly the electrocution of Topsy, a circus elephant who was deemed a threat to people by her owners because she killed one trainer (who burned her trunk with a lit cigar), and became aggressive towards two other keepers who had struck her with a pitchfork. 1,500 people and 100 journalists watched as the elephant was exposed to 6,600 volts (this was after he fed her carrots that had been soaked in cyanide, just to be sure) and no one complained. Edison filmed it. Check it out if you feel like being outraged.

Kevin Carter
Pulitzer prize - Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture- South African photojournalist Kevin Carter took this infamous photo to depict the horror and disregard for human suffering in sub-Saharan Africa. The photo shows a female Sudanese toddler, alone and severely emaciated, attempting to crawl; and a vulture standing on the ground behind her (waiting for her to die, apparently). Carter claimed that he waited 20 minutes for the vulture to spread its wings (it would make a better picture), but it didn’t, so he took the picture as is and left. He did nothing to help the kid for fear of catching disease. The photograph won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and Kevin Carter committed suicide three months after winning it. His suicide note read: "... I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children..."

The bystander effect is also used to discuss systemic political tragedies. The most repugnant of these has been the Holocaust, but it has also been applied to the murder of Indigenous peoples around the world and the Rwandan genocide: a state-sponsored massacre in which some 8,000 Rwandans were methodically hunted down and hacked to death every day for 100 days by Hutu extremists as the U.S. and international community refused to intervene. We have the Syria crisis of our times, Russia's occupation of Crimea, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria etc. These issues test the international system and its values. They bring to fore a clash between the principles of humanitarianism and the cold logic of realism and national interest.

The bystander phenomenon can also help explain the ongoing collective indifference of the Indian public to the discrimination meted out to women, LBGTQ, Dalits, Maoist/Naxals, people from the North East etc. as well as the indifference on issues like gender violence, caste violence, racism, epidemic of mental illness, child abuse, marital rape, capital punishment, the draconian and unjustifiable AFSPA and so on.

In more ways than one we have established ourselves as a nation of bystanders, though our national apathy is in one sense an understandable consequence of universal psychological processes. It is also something more sinister. Home to more than a sixth of the world's population, this indifference and complacency is crippling.

P.S. We're not destined to be passive observers. The Bystander Effect doesn’t just keep you —an otherwise kind and caring person— from doing the right thing, it keeps others from helping you when you’re in need.

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Jukebox Selection:

"Red Hands" by Walk off the Earth
Walk off the Earth is a Canadian rock band that was formed in 2006 and made itself entirely on YouTube covering famous songs with their own twist, and the ukulele of course. "Red Hands" takes on the Bystander Effect and also portrays the main character as feeling guilty for something he has done, at the same time being dismissive and shifting blame onto someone else.