Empathy, prejudice play role in people’s reaction to violence
Most of those who assaulted him were purportedly onlookers who sympathised with the traffic policeman who the Nigerian, named Prince, allegedly manhandled over a traffic violation.Updated: Mar 21, 2019 04:26 IST
In the video clip that surfaced on social media on Wednesday, a dozen men were seen assaulting a person from Nigeria in Delhi’s Dwarka area.
Most of those who assaulted him were purportedly onlookers who sympathised with the traffic policeman who the Nigerian, named Prince, allegedly manhandled over a traffic violation. Some of them are purportedly heard abusing him and intermittently yelling, “How dare he beat a policeman?”
In September 2016, a 21-year-old woman was stabbed 22 times by her stalker in a North Delhi locality in a daylight incident. In August 2016, a 35-year-old man lay dead on the road after being hit by a speeding car in West Delhi. Then there are the cases of civilians turning on the police, the latest of which was reported in January when drunk men assaulted a policeman outside a Dwarka metro station.
In all these cases, scores of people were mute spectators, police records showed. Some of them instead record the incident on mobile phones and that is how videos of incidents go viral in the first place.
But why was it different in the case of the Nigerian man?
“The factors that usually lead to public apathy in such cases include the fear of being harmed in the melee or an inherent sense of victimisation and lack of confidence in the justice system, which discourages them from intervening,” said Rajat Mitra, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist who was a counsellor for Tihar central prisons for more than 15 years.
The parts of the brain that a play key role in awareness and consciousness, Mitra explained, go dormant when an onlooker witnesses violence.
“Meanwhile, parts of the brain that are involved in generating emotions related to primitive instincts and survival take over, thus often leading to the onlooker freeze in shock,” he said.
“But the strong racial prejudice against the African person in this case apparently stopped this biological transition among the onlookers who beat him up.”
Also, onlookers are not homogeneous in nature, Mitra said. “What makes each of them different is their social conditioning. Racial or ethnic prejudices can convert a passive onlooker into a participant of an active mob,” he said. “If onlookers witnessed a local assaulting the police official, they would have probably ignored it. But here, their racial prejudices apparently pushed them towards a group formation.”
The “focus of empathy” is a crucial factor, said Avdesh Sharma, International lead in the public education initiatives of the World Psychiatric Association. “And empathy with regard to onlookers is directly related to subjects they can connect with or identify with.”
“If the person beating a policeman was anyone with features of a north Indian person, the onlookers were more likely to have empathised with the civilian and recalled instances of police harassments faced by them, no matter how trivial or serious they were, and thus acted as mute spectators,” Sharma said. He further said, but when you bring the African person into the equation, the onlookers would have a tendency to empathise with the policeman, because he is more similar to them in terms of race, ethnicity and culture.
He added: “Empathy has a correlation with mindset. And the mindset is no longer limited to one’s immediate physical environment. Families play a major role here. People learn prejudices against races, religions, castes and several other factors from homes in their early ages. By the time they become young adults, most of them consume a huge amount of information from the internet and that affects the mindset in both positive and negative ways. Someone who had never interacted with an African person can still have prejudices through misinformation consumed.”
First Published: Mar 21, 2019 04:26 IST