A Call for Action

This week marked the 70-year anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Holocaust is a disgrace to the humanity and there is no redemption from the sin of inaction by the world community that silently witnessed death of six million innocent human beings.

The horrors and terrors of the concentration camp is painfully and spiritually captured by Holocaust survivor Victor E Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a slim book with lot of pain, humility and wisdom tightly packed in it. I first read this book during my college days and to-date I keep revisiting sections of this book to learn something new. This is a must read for anyone that seeks to understand meaning of life and choosing ones attitudes.

Victor Frankl writes on choosing ones attitudes –

“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”

“There is also purpose in life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.”

When everything is taken away and their loved ones are thrown to the gas chambers, on the question of what kept the survivors going to see the next day, Victor Frankl writes –

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how'”

After the Holocaust, ‘ Never Again’ became a catch phrase and you may have heard this being used in speeches by world leaders and leading news articles. ‘Never Again’ represents a promise to past and future generations that the world community will do everything to ensure such horrors are not repeated. Even 70 years after the tragedy, the world has seen and continues to silently witness series of genocides, ethnic cleansing and war crimes on a shamefully massive scale. Why is that we as fellow human beings fail to act timely to stop such atrocities?

We see in news every day how murders, rapes and attacks on innocents are perpetrated publicly and bystanders just do not offer to help. The worst is that the victim is ignored and the people move about without taking any notice of what has happened.

This inaction by the bystanders is a topic of Social Psychology research and many experiments have been conducted to demonstrate the effect. This phenomenon is known as Bystander Effect or Bystander Apathy. I learnt about this phenomenon in a recent course I took on Social Psychology by Scott Plous from Wesleyan University on coursera.org.

Bystander Effect

“The term bystander effect refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress.”

It simply means that more the people, less the chance of someone actually stepping forward to help. I learnt that, experiments demonstrate 75% of the people will not help 85% of the time. These rates are pretty consistent across geographies and cultures (although eastern cultures show higher rates i.e. more people will not come forward to help).

Why does this happen?

There are two contributing factors a) presence of other people creates a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ i.e. people assume nothing is wrong since nobody looks concerned and b) people like to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways i.e. nobody likes to standout or want to call attention on themselves in public.

Watch some experiments –

Unfortunately if you are in such a situation what should you do?

Experiments suggest you should single out one person, make an eye contact and ask for help. That eliminates the ‘diffusion of responsibility’ factor and you are more likely to get help.

This limitation of human beings to just be bystanders and not offer help is pretty dejecting… what is our hope that such Holocaust will not happen again? ISIS slaughtering away people and Syrian King killing his own subjects are the realities of today. You call it political pressure or bystander effect, we are guilty of inaction even to this date. Albeit if history were to repeat (as they say), I am not sure if ‘Never Again’ commitment can be upheld. Education and awareness is probably the only way to get rid of this tendency and free ourselves from this trap of inaction.

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