Let’s do a quick exercise.
If you drive a luxury car, imagine you don’t anymore. If you live in a gated society, imagine the walls vanish today. If cooks and gardeners ensure your upkeep, imagine you are now in their position.
Fair warning, things are about to take a nasty turn here. Imagine that one day your world comes crashing down, you salvage a little part of it and walk away; walk a hundred kilometres and more.
Tough to imagine, but this is not fiction.
When you and I would not accept arbitrary pay cuts, be told when to eat or tolerate being doused in chemical sprays on the road, why is it that we settle for less for the vulnerable? We are easily convinced by the arguments around a lack of resources, hail half-hearted attempts to ‘do the best’ and fail to acknowledge that every citizen is entitled to a functional social safety net? Would we treat a friend this way? How about our families?
The COVID-19 crisis has been devastating in many ways, and public apathy is not the least of them. Such apathy is not entirely new; whenever we have chosen to look away from the apparent disregard of human dignity, our ignorance has led us to a punishing finale. Like the Holocaust, it did not begin at concentration camps. The horrific incidents were the culmination of a long-drawn systematic elimination of Jews from mainstream society. It sanctioned such abuse by failing to question irrational segregation.
That is them, not us, you say? Think again.
Public support can empower the state’s responses and shift the narrative just as much as acquiescence empowers impunity. For instance, migrant workers in Kerala, who are referred to as ‘Adhithitozhilalikal’ (guest workers), stranded in government shelters during the lockdown were provided with a revamped menu based on their cultural preferences and carrom boards for entertainment. In return for the love and respect they received in Kerala, a group of coconut pluckers from Chattisgarh donated to the CM’s relief fund, setting aside their own financial constraints.
Where nativist rhetoric paints migrant workers as stealing local jobs or engaging in petty crime, the administration would probably have more qualms in displaying support to the workers. In this case, they mostly knew they would receive public appreciation. It is this same reason we find that a controversial religious temple could be inaugurated in the middle of a pandemic by the head of a secular state.
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In my early teens, I would presume that catcalling on streets was a perfectly normal disruption to my day. Not just my sisters from Uttar Pradesh, women everywhere know precisely what I mean. A friend once stood up to the perpetrator on a public bus, much to the surprise of the older men and women around who were ignoring her discomfort until then. No one interfered initially, but when she questioned them about whether they would act the same way if it were their daughter in her place, there was an immediate intervention. People often respond to this call to recognise shared experiences, whether this means participating in peaceful protests or joining a lynch mob.
The world is flocking towards fascist leaders, and bystander engagement is crucial at this time. Disinterest defined by choices normalises extraordinary evil, but bystanders have no incentive to do things differently, they are never held accountable, and most won’t care for the moral deprivation in their actions or inactions. How can this be reversed?
But before that, what makes a bystander tick? I wouldn’t pretend to know human psychology. Still, I indeed wonder if for some societies it is the influence of 300 years of colonisation, slavery and the more deeply rooted history of casteism and racism. Popular culture, novels and movies are no help either, they always rely on the hero to swoop down and save the world, the crowd only applauds, so maybe we are all waiting for that hero to do the right thing.
Beyond making rights-based discourse and accountability the new orange, empathy is also crucial in establishing inclusive socio-economic frameworks that survive crises. In Kerala, public perception is often very different from the rest of the country on several controversial issues.
While right-wing groups might attribute it to a deficiency caused by indulging in too much beef, it is really just the high human development index, strong service sector and a cultural milieu of tolerance. There is a better system of education, health and labour protection because to begin with these essentials capture the public imagination. Admittedly bystander sentiments and social welfare system in Kerala present a chicken and egg conundrum. We can’t say which came first, but people’s will and votes kept it alive.
Suppose we aspire for governance that will make consistent investments to strengthen socio-political institutions, form strategic economic policies and above all uphold human dignity. In that case, we need to make those values appealing.
Each of us is tested every day, that is the nature of today’s propaganda based politics, it is not enough that we take a side and fortify it, we need to question what it means to be on the other side. For that, I may do well to take my own advice and put myself in every shoe possible, and I suggest you do the same. In the words of Primo Levi,
“We all confront power and our relation to it under a regime of terror leaves us all, to varying degrees morally compromised.”
Meenakshi Menon is a lawyer working on access to justice issues across South Asia.