You there, bystander: Intervene

‘If you see something, say something’ has become twisted into a catchphrase of the surveillance state, and thus something that we shy away from. However, the core sentiment speaks to something that’s not about surveillance, but about a duty of care to other humans. Because when we see something, we should say something, even if it is difficult and unsettling to do so. We owe it to each other, because otherwise, we are alone in a dangerous and frightening world.

I’m talking about bystander intervention here, a skill that people should be learning and leveraging to make the world a better place. One of the reasons oppression and abuse and cruelty persist is that no one moves to change these things — people watch silently, feeling uneasy and restless, knowing it’s not okay, but not knowing where to go from there. It’s hard to overcome the very intense drive to not intervene, to not make a fuss, to just let something pass by.

Some organisations actually offer bystander intervention training and if it’s available in your area, I really recommend taking it. While a lot of the things they teach are common sense, having them reinforced can make them reflexive, and being able to practice them in a space dedicated for that purpose can be really useful. It’s easier to intervene in a scary situation when you’ve roleplayed it in more controlled circumstances.

Considerable amounts of research have explored both the bystander effect and bystander intervention. Researchers have found that it’s pretty effective in a variety of situations and for an assortment of reasons. Sometimes one person speaking out makes other people join in, feeling emboldened by the person who was willing to resist. Sometimes, an abuser realises that they are being watched and that someone sees the situation and is going to do something about it, and it has a chilling effect on whatever they’re trying to do.

People engage in shocking acts of abuse in public because they think they can get away with it. Because they’ve seen people get away with it in the past. Because the people they are abusing are marginalised and afraid and nervous about reaching out for help, fearing being turned down. Predators identify those they consider ‘weak’ and they’ll take advantage of that, until they find out that their weak prey are actually anything but. Many abusers are actually pretty pathetic, covering up fear and insecurity and other things with viciousness, and it doesn’t take much to pop their bubble.

A really interesting study explored the effects of bystander intervention on a platform notorious for abuse: Twitter. Researchers took on questions of racism and racist behaviour, curious to know if there was an automated way to functionally address it. They found that indeed there was: They built anti-racist bots who would call out racism when they saw it. The bots worked, if they were white and male. Thus, they showed not only that bystander intervention works, but that it can have shades of meaning.

This has big implications for people in positions of privilege. If you hold privilege in a situation, you can use it like a weapon, or as a tool — if you’re a white man on Twitter and you see racism and say something, it makes a difference. If you have a nice white male avatar and a vague name…you can become a tool for resisting racism, whether you’re running a bot or an alternate account or you’re working incognito. Bystander intervention works, and can make environments less toxic.

It goes against a lot of social training. We’re taught to be nice and quiet, to not attract attention or controversy. We’re taught not to contradict people and we’re also trained to avoid getting involved in ‘ugly’ situations. That’s why bystander intervention works so well, though, because people aren’t expecting it. Racists think they can abuse people on Twitter because no one will say anything. People think they can beat their partners in public because they assume people will turn away. People think they can scream transphobic slurs at women in a parade because they believe that the bystanders around them will remain silent.

So don’t be silent. Yes, it takes work, especially if you have anxiety or other mental health conditions and/or cognitive disabilities. Not everyone can do it. You won’t necessarily do it perfectly. But you have the power to say something when you see something, and that power is worth using. You alone can decide how you want to live your life and navigate the world. I think it’s worth trying to make the world better for other people by using the power that I do have to intervene when I see something that is wrong, whether I’m leading an intervention or joining one.

In a community where people exercise this duty of care, it becomes harder to abuse. It also becomes easier to identify abuse, because when you see intervention happening around you, it’s easier to internalise that yes, this thing that is happening, it is abuse and it is not okay. If it is happening to you or someone you know, you don’t need to tolerate it. That right there? Is an important thing in a world where abusive tactics, patterns, and beliefs are everywhere, including at the very highest levels of society.

Image: Crowd, Cassandra Panayiatopoulos, Flickr