Have Cities Made Us Insensitive?

A reflection on why we raise our voices against distant problems, while not embracing the issues surrounding us.

Last week, I thought of tweeting about what happened to George Floyd. It was heart-wrenching to see someone getting killed in public. I wanted to point out and say how cruel it was, to take a human life for granted.  

But then I paused for a moment and asked myself, 

“When have I ever raised my voice against something cruel that happened in my country or in my city?”. 

The answer was never. 

I was quiet when there were occurrences of caste-related violence, honor killings, rapes, the CAA-NRC protests, etc. 

The only reason I wanted to write about George Floyd was because it happened in a country that is thousands of miles away.  

Whenever I felt like writing something that happened in my country, I let the thought slip because I say to myself “What good is this going to bring?”  

There is also this other question that pops in my head. 

“Why talk about it when you’re not affected by it?” 

I know it is sick. Maybe it has got something to do with my upbringing.  

It is Okay to be Selfish 

I remember my parents saying, “It is okay to ignore something unless it affects you directly.” 

Once, my dad told me “If you see someone getting hit or get into an accident, it is not mandatory to go and help. If things get serious, you’ll have to go to the police, court, etc. It is okay to let it go. Somebody else will help them.”  

I bet he wasn’t the only parent who said this. Most of the Indian households preach the same. 

The mantra is “It is okay to be selfish sometimes.” 

The word “sometimes” is very subjective. And we were never taught when does this “sometimes” applies.  

In a typical Indian family, being selfish is considered a good trait.  

People were graded as good and respected when they say “Naan undu en vela undu nu iruken” (It translates to “I have done nothing, except minding my own business”). 

 “Study well. Pray to god. And take care of yourself and your family” are words by which we’re living by. Caring for a fellow human who is not family and caring for society were not part of the commandments.  

But, when people read the headlines in the newspaper or watch the news, the first thing you hear from them would be “The world is becoming such a bad place...” 

I had come across many uncles in tea shops making statements like “People have become heartless and everyone is acting selfishly”. This would be the uncle who would’ve told his kids that it is okay to take care of themselves and not help others. 

We’ve also been taught a lot of other things.  

“Study hard, get a good job, and then watch TV! Now is not the time; Why do you want to go on a trip? Get married and explore the world with your spouse”.  

There was a time my dad read the newspaper and said “Look at this kid! He’s got the first rank in the state. And, in the interview, he says he has no friends. That’s how you should be” 

I was like “What does having friends have to do anything with marks?”.  

Also, I knew that even if they’d locked me up, I wouldn’t have scored more than what I was capable of 

I got good breaks, landed a good job, and got some great opportunities only because I went against the advice my dad gave me.  

If all those people who had helped me had been selfish, I wouldn’t have become a product marketer.  I have this career because some people went out of their way to help me.

If you think about it, we’ve become a generation of people who have been taught to not care about anything until we’re directly affected by it. 

Cities have made life Transactional 

It might look like I am blaming my parents. But I am not.  

I’m sure it wouldn’t have started with them. It goes way back. This phenomenon started when large groups of people started settling in cities to make a better living.  

Cities make people perceive everything as a competition. It gives them the idea that one must be selfish to move ahead in life.  

I came across a fantastic essay “Metropolis and Mental Life” by Georg Simmel when I was doing some research. 

In his Essay, Simmel talks about cities and what it does to the individuality of people. He says that,  

“Modern mind has become more and more calculating.”

According to Simmel, as a city grows, it starts to depend on the economy and everything we could think of becomes transactional. He also mentions that this behavior is very different from the small-town life which rests more upon deeply felt and emotional relationships. 

In cities, everything around us is designed in a mechanical way making us more calculative and less instinctive.  

“Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence and are not only most intimately connected with its money economy and intellectualist character. These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without.”

He says that people who are living in the city get agitated for the smallest things, they run out of energy to gain strength and often feel the incapacitated to react to things with appropriate energy. I was able to relate to it.  

We get irritated/agitated about the smallest issues on social media. It could be an actor saying something in a movie, or the latest movie trailer. But we never show that level of agitation when it comes to important issues.  

Everyone who is speaking about George Floyd on social media, I appreciate you raising your voice against racial discrimination. But do you know how much discrimination exists amongst us! If you have no idea, check this page that has a chronological timeline of all the incidents that happened due to discrimination. And those are just the tip of the iceberg.   

Our generation has shown immense progress in a lot of areas. We’re achieving a breakthrough in technology; we’ve embraced sexual orientation of all kinds, and we have developed an open and broad mindset towards dating and relationships. But that’s not enough.

We should be more vocal about the social issues that shake the foundation of our society. We should set an example for the next generation. It is our responsibility to teach them to raise their voices against injustice. Imagine your kids saying, “Back then, my parents raised their voices in whatever way they can when something went wrong” instead of saying “They used to share memes and mock each other on social media all day.” 

The last few lines of Simmel’s essay say, 

“The metropolis reveals itself as one of those great historical formations in which opposing streams which enclose life unfold, as well as join one another with equal right. However, in this process the currents of life, whether their individual phenomena touch us sympathetically or antipathetically, entirely transcend the sphere for which the judge's attitude is appropriate. Since such forces of life have grown into the roots and into the crown of the whole of the historical life in which we, in our fleeting 12 existence, as a cell, belong only as a part, it is not our task either to accuse or to pardon, but only to understand.”

That’s what I am doing here. I am not accusing anyone. What I have done is, tried to understand what made us who we are today.  

And, I felt that the least I could do is embrace my cowardice for not raising my voice against all the issues in the past.

I know it is not easy to overcome the inhibitions as I’ve been living with them since I was a kid. But, I consider this as my first step.

I express my heartfelt respect for those who are fighting for all the right causes. I aspire to be one of them someday. 


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