By Dushyant Shekhawat May. 02, 2019
The bystander effect is an epidemic in India, which promotes a culture where people are likely to turn their heads when they witness a crime. Speaking up and taking action when no one else will might be a thankless job, but somebody has to do it, like the woman in black did.
When a middle-aged woman in Gurgaon told a girl wearing a short dress at a restaurant located in a mall that she deserved to be raped for the way she was dressed, she didn’t realise she was going to become famous… or rather infamous. The ensuing showdown between Ms Shamer and and the girl who later identified herself as Shivani Gupta and her friends, was filmed and posted on social media. It all ended with a bang as the angry woman reiterated her views. In fact, according to Gupta, the woman even asked some men seated at a table nearby to “rape” her and her friends.
Of course, the video went viral, just as Gupta promised Ms Shamer it would, and because this is social media, battle-lines were drawn and heated arguments ensued over who was right and who was wrong. There were those who thought that Gupta and her friends should not have publicly shamed the woman online, while others were happy to see the middle-aged woman’s regressive thinking get served its comeuppance. But whatever your views might be on body shaming, or on social media’s call-out culture, I think we should all take a moment to appreciate the unsung heroine of this whole episode: the lady in the black dress.
Halfway through the video, the Lady in Black, or LIB as I shall be calling her, swooped in to confront Ms Shamer and demand an apology on behalf of the insulted women. She spoke to the shamer, saying she was addressing her “mother-to-mother”, and said that it was unconscionable that she would advocate for rape, being a woman herself. She might have taken things too far when she told the judgemental aunty that she “didn’t have a body to flaunt”, but who wouldn’t feel a surge of anger when confronted with views so offensive?
Many of us would like to think that we’d act the same way when we’re confronted with bigotry, but LIB actually did it. With no personal stake in the matter, she chose to get involved and let the judgmental woman know that her views were backward and heinously wrong. Not only did she put the woman on blast, she stayed on the scene and promised to speak up for Gupta and her friends if the police were called. It’s not easy to stick your neck out for a stranger, especially when you have nothing to gain, which makes LIB the heroine that India needs.
Being part of a crowd seems to promote this inaction, as most people find it simpler to wait for somebody else to take responsibility.
The bystander effect is an epidemic. We’ve almost become accustomed to hearing news of a public lynching or assault. From videos that show a man being murdered on the street in Hyderabad as a police vehicle drives past, to the depressingly easy-to-find lynching clips, to the shocking frequency with which acid attacks are reported across the country, too many wrongdoers get away with their crimes simply because nobody from the gathered crowd cares to intervene. Being part of a crowd seems to promote this inaction, as most people find it simpler to wait for somebody else to take responsibility. This is known as “the volunteer’s dilemma”, an ethical quandary that goes hand-in-hand with the bystander effect.
The volunteer’s dilemma arises because the person who eventually does take action has nothing personal to gain, and much to lose. In August last year, an Uttarakhand police officer named Gagandeep Singh saved a youth from a violent mob, absorbing a few punches and shoves as he escorted his ward to safety. After his act of bravery, Singh had to be sent on leave as he began receiving death threats from those who were unhappy he didn’t let the mob finish its grisly work. Sometimes, as was the case with Keenan Santos and Rueben Fernandez in Mumbai in 2011, the results can be fatal. After confronting men who had been harassing the women in their group, Keenan and Rueben lost their lives after the harassers came back with weapons and cut them down on the street. Even though they paid the ultimate price, Keenan and Rueben went down as heroes for doing what was right, without concern for what might happen to them. As the hoodlums knifed Keenan and Reuben, bystanders including the hotel staff, refused to step in.
Stories like these promote a culture where people are more likely to turn their heads when they witness a crime. Speaking up and taking action when no one else will, might be a thankless job, but somebody has got to do it.
Coming back to the incident at the Gurgaon mall, the lady in black didn’t have to confront the woman who slut-shamed Gupta, but she did. The stakes might not have been as high for her as they were for Officer Singh or Keenan and Rueben, but acts like hers are rare enough to be commendable in themselves. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is coming from a lynch mob, a few street thugs, or a backward-thinking and misogynistic woman, we need more people to step up and confront wrongdoing when they see it. We could all learn something from the actions of these individuals.
So while it feels like the rest of the internet is slogging it out over the morality of publicly shaming the middle-aged woman, I’m tipping my hat to the nameless heroine, LIB. In today’s India, we could use a lot more people like her.