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                Volume 11 |Issue 07| February 17, 2012 |


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Food for Thought

Commonsense and Common Decency

Farah Ghuznavi

Recently our driver Shahajahan arrived at work almost half an hour late. Since he is a scrupulously honest and a reasonably reliable person, I asked him what had caused the delay. I thought that it was perhaps some issue related to his family, or that he had left something behind at home, which he'd had to go back for. As it turned out, Shahjahan had witnessed a car accident and the resultant quarrel between the two drivers on his way to work. Unlike most of the other spectators - and let's face it, in Bangladesh, any form of disaster is inevitably considered a spectator sport - he decided to intervene in order to settle the dispute.

"It was quite straightforward, Apa, ekdom shohoj bapar. One man was clearly in the wrong, but he was very angry because he had received some minor injuries as a result of the collision. The other man was angry because his car was damaged due to no fault of his own. The policeman hadn't yet been bribed by either party, so he wasn't saying anything helpful (!)," Shahjahan said.


"So why did you get involved?" I asked, "Did you know either of the drivers?"

Shahjahan told me that he wasn't acquainted with either of the drivers, but felt that the situation could be resolved in a relatively simple fashion. "I spoke to both of them, and I pointed out that one was clearly in the wrong. It was obvious that he should compensate the other driver for the damage to that man's car. But since he was in pain, he couldn't control his temper. So I told the crowd to go away, and we took the driver responsible for the accident to a pharmacy nearby. They gave him some medicine (painkillers) and some water, and he was much calmer after that. After some discussion, they managed to settle the matter. It wasn't a big thing, they just needed somebody to take charge and calm everyone down. So I did that."

I should add at this point that this is not the first time I have seen Shahjahan volunteer his time to help others out. Over several weeks, he helped my friend's guard (who wanted to improve his career prospects) to learn how to drive, after my friend had volunteered to give her car for teaching purposes. He refused to take any money for doing that. So I had no doubt at all that the situation was as he described it.

But it raised an interesting question for me, and one that I have pondered many times before. Why is it that very few people are blessed with the capacity to take a commonsense approach to life? I mean, it's not really rocket science. In almost any conflict or crisis of the everyday variety, the best results are obtained by setting aside the blame laying and focusing on finding an immediate solution. After all, if you are of a vengeful bent, you can always go back to the question of whose fault it was once the crisis is over - in most of these situations, there is no 'statute of limitations' to protect the perpetrator (ask any spouse who is still compensating for their sins 20 years after the event).

However most people - whether in a domestic, professional or social setting - almost invariably get caught up in justifying themselves and holding someone else responsible for whatever problem has arisen. I'm sure there is a perverse sense of satisfaction in being angry with someone for creating a difficult situation (in fact, I have felt it myself, on occasion), but is that satisfaction really worth the price of the delay in reaching a resolution that is caused by the subsequent mudslinging?!

Given the state of the world today, I must conclude that - while I do not share their opinion - a huge number of people feel that a sense of vengeful satisfaction is worth any amount of inconvenience or time wasted. And yet, people can often be heard referring appreciatively to someone who is "good in a crisis" i.e. someone who is reliable and helpful. So why can't more of us work on being someone like that? After all, speaking for myself, Shahjahan is definitely one of the people I would choose to have as a companion in dealing with any kind of problem situation.

Interestingly enough, this issue of being a blame-layer versus a problem-solver is not so easily categorised in terms of education. Certainly, a capacity for analysis can be very useful in implementing a problem-solving approach. But it seems to me that personality type and a general approach towards life are more useful to have as indicators as to the kind of person who will be good in a crisis, as opposed to simply the level of education of the person involved. I mean, most of us have met any number of pompous and unhelpful individuals who also happen to have several higher education degrees to their credit!

What I find particularly worrying is the pervasiveness of a certain attitude amongst many of us in this country whereby we are inclined to complain, blame, or hold others responsible for virtually everything that's going wrong in our lives and in society, without actually questioning what we might be doing to contribute to that situation - or even better, to contribute to changing that situation. And there's often a direct correlation between the volume of complaint and the profound unwillingness to exert any effort to make a difference.

Let us say that some of the macro level problems are beyond the individual's capacity to change - though we have enough examples to tell us that this is not necessarily so. There is absolutely no justification for the cocktail of excuses and passivity that most people trot out to defend their inaction. In recent months, I've noticed a number of newspaper stories that have confirmed my belief that such individuals prefer to wring their hands in despair than to put the aforementioned hands to any form of work. Like the man who took a picture of a "mother" who told him that she regularly places her young child in a plastic bag in order to cripple him for income earning purposes. I have put the word mother in quotation marks, because I have serious doubts about whether this baby even belongs to the woman who was so callously attempting to inflict brain damage on him.

That poverty or disaster can drive people to behave in terrible ways in order to survive is not in question. But anyone who saw that picture would have noticed that the woman was smiling and appeared to be far from destitute. Apparently, those details escaped the man who took the picture. Instead, this man expressed his sympathy for the family, saying that when he earned more money he planned to help "families like this".

I would sincerely hope that there aren't many families like that out there - families that would choose to deliberately inflict a handicap on the youngest and most vulnerable member of their kinship group. Perhaps this gentleman would have done better to inform the woman that what she was doing was not only a criminal act, but morally indefensible. It is incomprehensible to me that he could take that picture and write a piece about it, without taking responsibility for the fact that he was basically not only just standing by and watching a child being abused, but actually taking a photograph of it!

And speaking of child abuse, another story that appeared a few months ago was sent in by a young person who confessed that a group of friends had been experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, when one member of their group suddenly disappeared, returning sometime later with a special-needs child in tow. The youngster was clearly out of his head on whatever drugs they had taken, since he informed his friends that he had found a "hobbit". The others realised that he had somehow stumbled into an event for special-needs children that was being held nearby, and had wandered off with one of the children.

Some of them returned to the spot with the child in order to reunite him with his parents. Ironically enough, they were offered 10,000 takas by the grateful parents, who had been understandably frantic at the disappearance of their offspring. Appallingly, the youngsters took the money! That such an incident should have occurred is bad enough, but for these people to accept such a large sum of money from parents whose child they had effectively abducted is truly reprehensible. The fact that one of them chose to share this story without any apparent sense of repentance or apology for what they had done is very telling.

Which brings me back to the point of this article - what is happening to the moral compass of a society that allows people to engage in such behaviours without (apparently) realising that they are doing something wrong? That it is wrong to abduct someone's child and then to accept a reward while posing as the saviour of that child is surely common sense. That it is wrong to take a picture of a child in a plastic bag without attempting to prevent the adult doing this from ever doing such a thing again, is surely common sense. And that is without even going into the immorality of both these actions. Yet the people concerned have clearly felt that their behaviour is somehow justified. What is wrong with us?!

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