Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bystanding: The Illness of the Century

The term 'genocide' was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, a combination of the greek word genos (race) and the Latin word -cide (to kill). Nonetheless, genocides have been occurring for longer than most people believe- historian Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress, even attributes the disappearance of the Neanderthals to a genocidal attempt. Still, it is undeniable that the scope, frequency and intensity of these massive killings has intensified ever since the French Revolution in the late 18th century.

Commonly, people associate such an emotionally charged word as genocide with what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust- perhaps, because this is the one event that the majority of history departments across the globe cover when studying the two World Wars. In the same sense, students tend to associate these massacres with something of the past, belonging to "history". Sadly, this is not true. Genocides occur to this day, and there is not nearly as much attention given to them as there should be- no media coverage, no outside interventions, no external manifestations to attempt to stop them. According to genocidewatch.org, nine countries are currently experiencing genocide's at  stage seven risk: Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Myanmar and Ethiopia. This is according to the classification of genocide under eight stages, where stage seven represents the real extermination of races, minorities or ethnicities. The majority of people go unaware of these facts throughout their entire lives- and the few fortunate ones who do have access to this type of information choose to ignore it; why spend time reading an article about some tragedy in Darfur if you can stalk you crush on Facebook while playing Candy Crush Saga?

We live in a society dominated by the bystander effect where, according to this social psychological phenomenon, individuals are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. We all have become accommodated with the idea that, if we do not act in a certain situation, that someone else will do it. Personally, I believe the group most susceptible to this type of behavior are teenagers, who always assume that adults will act upon certain events, that we are too young to take any significant actions that will result in change. As proven by this video, people are so comfortable in their oblivious lives that they will not go out of their way to help another person- that is, unless they feel they are somewhat directly involved with that person. In the video, for instance, the two cases where people received help were when a) it was a female in distress, receiving help from a male, and b) when it was a well-dressed man lying down in the front of a commercial train station, and other business workers stopped by to check on him. The same happens to us, privileged teenagers: unless we are on the country or part of an ethnic group being directly under attack, we do nothing to fight for the causes of others.

I too classify as a bystander and, embarrassingly, a well informed one. I am well aware of the situations of hardships millions of people are going through, and still I choose to take no direct action. I always assume that, for instance, if I do not go to Africa and build houses for the poor population or stop the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, that someone else will. After all, I am nothing but a student living far away from these sights of aggression, why should I get myself involve, risk my life for people I do not know? If genocide was to occur in Brazil and my family and friends were directly involved with it then yes, I would take direct action, but otherwise I feel inclined into stating that I would just be another bystander. However,I do feel like I have an obligation to help those less fortunate that me, and it feels extremely selfish and shameful to recognize that you completely judge the bystanders on the video (we all do), but that you are no different than them.    

With this in mind, I admit that, for the moment, I am a bystander, but this will change in the future. Even though I am not sure about what I want exactly for my career, my one dream for the past year or so has been to work for Amnesty International. Is it somewhat optimistic and surreal? Sure. But we all have dreams, and the notion that, while I sit in my comfortable U$40 chair and type my school assignment into my laptop, a child is dying of hunger because he does not have the few cents that would buy him something to eat. Helping those who have been through difficulties overcome obstacles and have hope for a brighter future as well as advocating for human rights are ideas that really fascinates me, hence the interest in working with Amnesty International rather than any other NGO. Will I be able to stop genocides right away? Perhaps not, but at least I will not be sitting down in my comfort zone waiting for others to take action. At the moment, I will not abandon my studies are go to a foreign country and help oppressed peoples, but in a near future, I will make a change in this world.

Nonetheless, there are a few actions that we can always take to improve our surroundings. We may not be able to stop the ongoing war in Palestine, but we sure can help feed the poor in our community, help spread a political idea, actively participate in protests regarding internal issues of our countries. After all, we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and the following article includes a few practical ways to start making a difference. Stop bystanding on situations that you could easily provide aid too- this is the key for a brighter and more peaceful future. All it takes is one person to take action, and a series of others will follow through. Today, I will not be this leader internationally, yet locally... who knows what tomorrow holds?