In the face of injustice, it is often more comfortable to become a bystander than to become an activist. The bystander is one who witnesses oppression or the effects of oppression and does nothing. In an increasing global society, ignorance is improbable for individuals living in Western nations. This concept is illustrated in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians through the character of the Magistrate. Specifically, Coetzee uses the Magistrate’s identity development to symbolize the modern bystander. To support this thesis, examples from the text, political theory and personal interviews in Namibia and South Africa are addressed.
Initially, the identity of the Magistrate is undefined. The nameless Magistrate can embody any individual who chooses inaction. Like any common citizen, he lacks significant authority or influence over an oppressive government. However, he fails to utilize his choice of dissent in favor of indifference towards the oppressed barbarians.
Like the bystander, the Magistrate’s inaction is not grounded in malice. He adopts the identity of a humanitarian through various moments of pity. Not unlike those who pity the victims in headline news, the Magistrate’s pity does not translate into action. He then becomes apathetic, basing his actions on selfish convenience. The barbarians are seen as different and savage, thus becoming obstacles rather than human beings.
Mackenzie Case, ’10 Idaho Falls, ID
Sponsor: Shannon Reed