July 28, 2013

Isolated incidents vs. global suffering: when should we respond?

I had hoped that the return of my passion for blogging would be marked by a piece filled with positive energy and not by a piece expressing my extreme frustration over the chain of events that I’m about to inform you of. But incidents as of late have undermined those hopes.

Folks living in the Arabian Gulf region, specifically UAE, have most probably heard of the YouTube video showing a senior-level government employee humiliating, berating and physically abusing an Indian delivery-van worker following a minor car accident. To add insult to injury, the evidence, for now, has been declared inadmissible in court due to its illegal status, as filming without the subject’s permission is forbidden according to the UAE constitution. The man who assaulted the driver could face a fine of DHS 10,000. The man who filmed this video could face a fine of at least DHS 20,000. Twice the amount. For capturing a crime. Not for committing it. 

But the present blog post isn’t a memorial arguing the legalities of the case. Rather, I’m concerned about an entirely different angle of this entire incident.

I read a newspaper article citing a psychologist’s analysis of the victim’s likely state to be one of  humiliation, low self-worth and depression.  Since I’m neither qualified nor of the right social background to change the state of affairs in this country, I decided that the most I could do in my position was to try and make the victim understand that none of this is his fault, that his self-worth does not depend upon how others’ treat him, and to make him realize that he is worth as much as any other human being in the world regardless of his race, social status or occupation.

Thinking this, I called the victim’s company and asked his co-workers for his number/address I can deliver a care package to. Or even just a letter. I’m assuming the person I spoke to was the manager, because he was prompt in rudely dismissing me once he learnt that I was a private citizen and not from an organization. He was rude, dismissive and frankly not willing or able to understand why I wanted to send him a care package or a “present”. One of the biggest problems was that wasn't fluent in either Hindi/Urdu or English. So explaining to him the concept of moral support, human rights and care for strangers seemed entirely impossible.

That’s when I realized there’s a huge cultural gap here, among, of course, other reasons. In the sub-continent, I was told by someone born and brought up there their entire life, that the concept of care packages solely for moral support and lifting spirits was unheard of, because, “there are other real problems such as starving families and dying kids”.

To me, that didn’t sound like a justification. Isolated events such as these should be responded to with actions specific to that incident. In this case, my giving a care package to a humiliated worker would only lift his spirits. It doesn’t mean that I will stop trying to solve world hunger and global health issues.

Whether it was the cultural gap or the manager thinking such care packages would spoil his employee on top of the media attention he was already receiving, it was extremely frustrating for me to not even be able to help an individual out who was publicly humiliated in full view of all the cars on a street. On top of that, Mr. manager had the nerve to say that “We don’t have any problems. We don’t need you. Stop contacting me and my firm”. Clearly, you don’t. The victim on the other hand, does.

I’m not sure this blog post will help change anything, of course not. Still, this disregard for human emotions infuriates me. Are we expected to look at such mistreatment and turn a blind eye towards them? Utter a little tsk and go about our business? Should we not have more compassion and try to do whatever we can in our capacity to help those distressed? Yes, there are “real” problems in the world. Yes, there are more serious issues than moral uplifting that need our attention. But someone needs to take care of these smaller issues too. And again, responding to a one-time issue such as this will not shift our attention away from more pressing world problems.  

If we continue to disregard human emotions and human suffering in favour of working for a more large-scale global suffering, then we are conditioning ourselves to respond to suffering only when it’s in large numbers. We’ve become desensitized to pain. Instead of robotically turning a blind eye towards human suffering, we need to be more compassionate. 

Sometimes, it’s the smallest acts of kindness that make the biggest difference.