“I have your six,” is a term used by air force pilots during sorties, indicating the six o’clock position of a clock dial — to say they are in position to protect a fellow pilot.
Everyone needs someone to rely on and feel safe, whether it’s family, friends or state institutions. The structure of society is intended to make an individual feel part of a community. However, these very structures are also known to collapse as society develops polarised interests, or faces war, disasters or economic crises. It then falls upon individuals or social groups to ensure protection of the vulnerable and the voiceless.
Pakistan, and especially Karachi, has a very large number of charitable institutions, generous families and individuals, who effectively create an informal welfare state, stepping up where the state fails, by offering free hospitals, free meals, educational scholarships and micro loans.
There are also those incidental moments where intervention is needed. Most people will have protected an animal from cruelty, a child from being beaten, or even tried to resolve a road rage brawl. It’s more complex when large numbers of either oppressors or the oppressed are involved.
What makes some people fight for and protect others, while some are reluctant to intervene, even when they can?
Malik Adnan became a national hero when he single-handedly tried to prevent a mob from attacking the Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot. But no one stood up to protect a female Tik Toker from being groped by a crowd of men at Minar-i-Pakistan in Lahore during August 14th celebrations a few years ago. More recently, a mosque in Jaranwala, Punjab, opened its doors to the Christian community to offer prayers after their homes and churches were burnt down by enraged mobs.
What makes some stand up for others, while others are reluctant to intervene even when they can? Psychologists speak of the ‘bystander effect’ where people assume someone else will act. ‘Social loafing’ describes the attempt to hide in a crowd to avoid taking action.
In 1967, psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier described their theory of “learned helplessness”, whereby people feel they have little control over the outcome. This is often learned from childhood, when caregivers do not respond to the child’s needs on a regular basis, causing a sense of helplessness to continue into adulthood.
Seligman also coined the term “learned optimism”, which is used to challenge learned helplessness, and turn a bystander into an “upstander”. In schools, 50 percent of bullying stops when someone intervenes.
People can prepare by rehearsing possible scenarios they may encounter in the future. This includes having a moral compass, training oneself to have presence of mind, and being able to analyse the situation to determine what action is possible. Studies show that people who act are not different from those who do not, suggesting that almost everyone is capable of selfless intervention.
Cinema has become an important medium to teach empathy, to understand disadvantaged people, to appreciate the struggles people face in life, or to learn successful ways to support, defend or champion others.
With the rise of social media, online petitions encourage more people to raise their voice. The first known petition was written by workers building pyramids in Ancient Egypt, asking for better working conditions. Petitions are submitted to governments all over the world. Pakistan, too, has a petition law that obliges the Senate to respond. The petitions website Change.org says that, globally, one of its petitions succeeds every hour. Even when petitions do not succeed, they play a part in raising awareness.
The South African bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Inaction sees a gradual escalation, as we learn at first to stay quiet over small injustices and, then, over greater ones. As has been said, “Sometimes silence is violence.”
While many voices are raised today for political issues, Naeem Sadiq speaks for the dignity of sanitary workers, Mahera Omar speaks for the zoo elephant Madhubala, and Dr Amjad Saqib provides microfinancing for those who want to improve their lives.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin Luther King Jr and, as the Quran says, “Whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all mankind.”
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2023