The Ugly Bystander

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Every man was an island as the recounting of the survivor tells us:

“After throwing us off the bus, they tried to mow us down but I saved my friend by pulling her away in the nick of time. We were without clothes. We tried to stop passersby. Several auto rickshaws, cars and bikes slowed down but none stopped for about 20 to 25 minutes. Then, someone on patrolling, stopped and called the police,” he told Zee News.

He said nobody, including the police, gave them clothes or called an ambulance. “They were just watching us,” he said, adding that after repeated requests, someone gave him a part of a bed sheet to cover his friend.

The victim’s friend said that he carried his badly injured friend to the PCR van on his own as “the policemen didn’t help us because my friend was bleeding profusely and they were probably worried about their clothes”.

“Nobody from the public helped us. People were probably afraid that if they helped us, they would become witnesses to the crime and would be asked to come to the police station and court,” he told the channel.

He said that one cannot change mindsets by lighting candles. “You have to help people on the road when they need help,” he added.

He rued the people’s indifference towards him and his friend when they were lying on the road. “They (the people) had cars, they could have taken us to the hospital. Every minute was important for us. But they didn’t. Who will change this attitude?” he asked.

“If you can help someone, help them. If a single person had helped me that night, things would have been different. There is no need to close Metro stations and stop the public from expressing themselves. People should be allowed to have faith in the system,” he went on to say.

We are getting more involved than ever before. We take out candle light marches. We press the “Like” button on Facebook. We express online, on mobiles, on television. We are no longer afraid to “get involved”.

Or are we?

As the friend of the braveheart so scathingly recounts, none came to their aid. It would be unsurprising if the bloody battle in the bus was noticed by people in cars, buses and two-wheelers running alongside and yet no one did anything. It is equally unsurprising that no one stopped to help and those who stopped, gawked rather than acted.

Is this about Delhi? Or is it human nature? In Mumbai, “lafde mein nahin padne ka” is almost a byword for why people in this teeming city keep to themselves. Pallavi Purakaystha, a lawyer, failed to get her neighbours’ aid when she was being attacked in the wee hours.

In most instances, the manual for survival in the urban landscape is “not to get involved.” Conversely, communities that get involved are often guilty of vigilantism or mob fury. A public thrashing in Kolkata dissuades even the most foolhardy from that strange Indian coinage, “eve teasing”. And yet, Bengal’s reputation of being women friendly is quickly losing its sheen. Most stories of vigilantism are retrograde, regressive and usually steeped in outdated cultural mores. The khaps sit at the opposite end of the bystander, imposing retribution in the name of social and moral good.

It would be quite easy to dismiss the non-involvement of people to a moral flaw of some. It would be easy to pretend that all those who marched with candles would have stepped forward if they had happened to be in the vicinity of the crime. And all those who didn’t were of a different species, cut from a different cloth and brought together on that horrific night.

It would be equally easy to put the full weight of non-involvement of people on the door step of the police for the endless trials that follow involvement in preventing or reporting a crime, an accident or an incident.

On the contrary, there is a deeper psychology at play. One that defines the modern civilization around the world: The presence of the individual as a bystander despite his sense of outrage at a wrong being perpetrated.

An excellent article by Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh from the University of Berkley makes some compelling points about the “bystander”:

“The bystander is a modern archetype, from the Holocaust to the genocide in Rwanda to the current environmental crisis,” says Charles Garfield, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. “Why,” asked Garfield, “do some people respond to these crises while others don’t?”

Every day we serve as bystanders to the world around us—not just to people in need on the street but to larger social, political, and environmental problems that concern us, but which we feel powerless to address on our own. Indeed, the bystander phenomenon pervades the history of the past century.

Being a bystander is neither a developing world thing nor one limited to any social or cultural context. In October 2009, two dozen teenagers watched the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl outside her school homecoming dance in Richmond, California but no one did anything. The attack lasted two-and-a-half hours and the girl was found semiconscious under a bench only someone overheard witnesses discussing the assault notified the police.

The Newsweek blog says that “Experts in the prevention of sexual violence say that although this was an extreme and particularly horrific case, the fact that the witnesses failed to intervene isn’t too surprising. “They’re not anomalies,” says Dorothy Edwards, director of the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center at the University of Kentucky. “Everyone likes to think, ‘If I were there, I would’ve done something.’ But being passive is not atypical.”

Two social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, looked deeper into the question of why 38 people in Queens, New York, did nothing to stop the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 by a serial killer despite having either witnessed the attack or heard Genovese’s screams.

Through multiple simulations, they deduced that presence of other people results in diffusion of responsibility: The belief that someone else will do something. According to Darley and Latane, “When study participants thought there were other witnesses to the emergency, they felt less personal responsibility to intervene.”

Other researchers have pointed to the “confusion of responsibility” where bystanders fail to help someone in distress because they don’t want to be mistaken for the cause of that distress. In the Indian instance, the “lafde mein nahin padne ka” is the collective consciousness that contends that going to the police or getting involved will result in a prolonged and possibly life changing brush with the law and the process of the law.

Darley and Latane also found that bystanders tended to mimic each other. If there was no obvious response to an outrage or an accident, others would also tend to follow the pattern.

While that explains the gawkers and the bystanders, what it doesn’t do is explain those people who do intervene, who do go out on the limb and who are driven to act rather than choose to turn away. From the horrors of the Holocaust emerged stories that went against the grain of people looking the other way. Those who chose to protect, at great risk to themselves, were ordinary folk with a strong sense of moral responsibility for others.

Samuel and Peral Oliner in their study of 400 people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust say that rescuers shared some deep personality traits, which they described as their “capacity for extensive relationships—their stronger sense of attachment to others and their feelings of responsibility for the welfare of others.”

They also found that these tendencies had been instilled in many rescuers from the time they were young children, often stemming from parents who displayed more tolerance, care, and empathy toward their children and toward people different from themselves.

Much of India is in transition. The current generation of parents possibly grew up a milieu where the sole motivation was to be educated or adventurous enough to “get out” of their street, village, and country. Going abroad was the sign of success not simply because it was an economic opportunity but it also rested on the belief that any place outside India was cleaner, safer, more welcoming and more law abiding.

The obverse side of this “go out and make a life abroad” was the constant admonishment to children not to “get involved” with things happening outside your doorstep: not to get involved with slum kids or children not in your school or social background, not to get involved in fights on the street, political rallies or demonstrations.

“Good families” inculcated the value of “non-involvement”.

Around the world, a lot of effort is going into anti-bystander education. A key principle of the education is to get students in schools to resist bullying directed at peers or those in the vicinity. One of the most critical progress paths in the process of changing bystander behaviour is to get people to express their concerns. The marchers at India Gate had no agenda that would keep a panel discussion going as they failed initially to articulate a view point beyond “We want Justice” to roving television cameras even as they threw themselves in front of tear gas and water cannons.

In a fashion, these marchers were making a far more seminal point: We want to get involved. We will not hide or shut our doors. We are willing to come in the line of fire.

At the same time it is important to note the point that Darley made in his research: That bystander behaviour is often an outcome of group behaviour and that most people behave the way they do with the same mindset that often is at the crux of mob violence or rioting: The belief of social acceptance because everyone around is a participant to same pattern.

Therefore, among the first steps hereon is the formulation of a Good Samaritan law that obliges people to offer assistance and provides them protection from subsequent legal action. In Argentina, the penal code provides that “a person who endangers the life or health of another, either by putting a person in jeopardy or abandoning to their fate a person unable to cope alone who must be cared for … will be imprisoned for between 2 and 6 years”. The jury is still out on whether stringent bystander laws are needed to stop people from walking away from the scene of sexual violence or a crime without even calling in the police.

However, the real change will need to start in schools and colleges where the curricula needs to include anti-bystander education. In the United States, a number of programs are being implemented to teach students to stop violence. The MVP (Mentors in Violence Prevention) program, which was developed in 1993 at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sports in Society, tries to teach students how to stop violence when they see it. The Green Dot program, launched at the University of Kentucky has “spread like wildfire” to more than 20 states.

Victoria Banyard, co-director of Bringing In the Bystander, a bystander-intervention program at the University of New Hampshire, says that parents and teachers should remember that “good” kids can become bystanders, too. So how can you prevent your kid from becoming a bystander? Banyard says that bystander awareness, in many cases, really needs to be taught. “We need to help people develop and practice the specific skills so that when they’re in the moment, they’re doing something positive to help,” she says.

That, in itself, may not be sufficient. It is important to involve companies with large work forces to compulsorily train their employees in anti-bystander programs. The adult must play a role today in preventing crime or in at least providing assistance. Involving employees, rewarding them and getting companies to take pride in the acts of courage of their workforce will go a long way in putting on the roads a group of people ready to stop being bystanders.

Supriyo wrote this piece in January, 2013.

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