Bystanders and Heroes

It seems like weekly, a new story is crossing my stream somewhere about a woman who ‘bravely’ detained a weenie-waver on public transit long enough for security to arrive. Maybe she started yelling at him on the bus or train first, shaming him in public; perhaps she snapped a photo of him and published it; she definitely kept him from escaping at the next stop because she felt it was important for him to be held accountable for his actions.

There are some things about this narrative that intrigue me. The woman is usually presented as a heroine, bravely standing up to sexual harassment on public transit, and she’s often young and attractive, usually white. Media outlets feature these heroes as outstanding individuals doing their part to build a better world, making it clear that they won’t tolerate harassment and speaking up on behalf of other people on the train.

I’m struck wondering about the other people on that car. What were they doing? This is the part of the story that’s usually elided; very rarely do we hear anything about anyone else who was there. When we do, it’s usually a classic illustration of the bystander effect in action, because they did nothing. They stood by and watched while a woman shouted at a harasser, sometimes ignored her when she was asking for help.

These witnesses, these ‘people at the scene’ sometimes have helpful quotes like ‘well I heard her shouting but I didn’t see him doing anything.’ Implication, of course, is that the woman must have been overreacting. Hey, that train was crowded, he probably just bumped into her by accident. That happens a lot when you’re standing, struggling for a grip on the poles, and the train lurches in or out of a station. It could happen to anyone.

It’s intriguing to me that these narratives about bystanders and heroes rarely single out the other people in the train car for attention, suggesting that they, too, could have done something instead of being passive observers. They certainly don’t conclude with tips on what to do when someone in the train says that someone is behaving inappropriately, like helping that person get to a safer area of the train, alerting the driver, and detaining the passenger until the next stop, where security can be present to take statements and determine which, if any, additional actions need to be taken.

Instead, there’s a kind of casual reinforcement of the bystander effect here by making it seem like women should be responsible for handling their harassers on their own, because no one else will do anything. There’s no embedded expectation that anyone else should do anything; it should be remarkable and horrific that a woman is forced to deal with harassment on her own, not fascinating that she choose to take action instead of tolerating it in silence.

And it’s telling to see which kinds of women are featured in these narratives, too. We don’t see as many stories about fat women and women of colour standing up to harassment on public transit, even though they do. When they confront their harassers, bystanders often seem to believe that they’re being loud and inappropriate, making things up—who would be attracted to a fat woman? Women of colour are so noisy and overreactive, that guy probably just bumped into her!—reinforcing the idea that it is only white women who deserve some kind of public acknowledgement when they are harassed, who should be allowed to name, shame, and confront the people who think they are public property there for the using.

I read these stories and get angry about the harassment, but honestly angrier at the people who were present and didn’t feel the situation was their concern. A situation where someone is being harassed, abused, and made uncomfortable is my concern as a fellow human being, and I have an ethical obligation to make it clear that I am available to provide assistance if it’s wanted, and to render any assistance that’s asked for and within my power. Whether that’s joining in the outcry on a train to make sure people know what’s happening, or helping someone move to a different car to feel safer, or talking to security at the next station about what I saw.

To sit there and do nothing is beyond the ken for me, but it’s the norm for most people on public transit. They don’t want to make a scene or be involved in a fuss, they don’t want to be late, they resent the extra time being involved in speaking up and being part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Later on maybe they’ll see the story in the news, but it won’t register with them; instead, they’ll say confidently that the woman clearly had the situation in hand and there was nothing they needed to do, so they feel vindicated.

Meanwhile, scores of people suffer in silence when they’re harassed on public transit because they are too afraid to take action, and because they know that no one will help them if they do. They’re left to their own devices, surrounded by a social narrative that says they need to take change on their own and shouldn’t expect any support. That same narrative tells them that being the wrong sort of woman means their attempts may be viewed with suspicion; if they are too large, or too not white, or too butchy, they clearly aren’t worthy of respect and may be criticised for daring to exert autonomy over their bodies. For every hero who makes it onto the news, there are many more victims you never see.