I am not sure what to say, or even whether to say this, but on reflection I think I will.
Yesterday I broke up a fight. I was driving back from the cafe when I saw a stopped car on the other side of the road and a bicycle lying down. Two men got out of the car and another was by the car, there was a confrontation.
I don’t know who started it, but suddenly they were fighting. And just as quickly I stopped my car in the middle of the road and leapt out. I had to wait for the car behind them to slowly pull out and drive past the fight, but I started to shout at them to stop fighting. They kept on punching each other. Two men punching another man … who to be fair was trying to fight back. I marched over and stood in the middle of them and shouted at them to stop and step back from each other (and me) and then facing the two men and using my best classroom voice I instructed them to get back into their car ….. which to my utter surprise they did.
I am not sure what surprised me the most, the fact that they decided to hit each other in the road, the fact that they stopped fighting when I intervened, or the fact that despite a queue of cars on both sides of the road nobody else did anything. Nobody got out to help, they just sat safe in their cars and watched.
I didn’t know what had happened, but I didn’t think two men punching another man in the road was going to help resolve matters and it had the potential to be a lot worse.
Being a bystander, simply regarding the pain of others while ineffectually absolving ourselves of any responsibility for the situation is, I think, hugely problematic – we watch as people are attacked in the street, we watch as people drown in the Mediterranean, as they are incarcerated and tortured in detention camps, as they are bombed, besieged and shot at, as they are economically exploited to the point of starvation – and we do nothing, excusing our inaction because it isn’t our fight, this is just the way the world is, if it wasn’t them it would be us.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Instead of seeing the suffering of others as a distancing spectacle we could imagine a world where we recognise the humanity of each other; we could live as though the lives of others mattered (Simon, A Touch of the Past), we could act as if all lives were of equal worth. Maybe we shouldn’t continue to inure ourselves to the barrage of violence we view everyday by dismissing it as the problem of others happening elsewhere. Maybe we should stand up and shout out to stop injustice and violence in all its forms whenever we can – or at least a little more often than we do – it is surprising how effective it can be.
N.B. Susan Sontage, Regarding the Pain of Others (Penguin, 2003) is making me rethink some things and getting me excited about teaching again in the autumn. It is also short. Unfortunately I am not using it in the Ottoman textualities book so it has been sidelined until the manuscript has been sent off …. maybe at the end of this week.