The Bystander Effect

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me. -Martin Niemöller (probably, in some form at least)

A couple is standing in the street, having what appears to be a heated discussion. Passerby skirt them, glancing at them as they move past but returning into their own affairs once the arguers are out of range. The tone of the conversation rises, and abruptly, one partner begins slapping and punching the other. The abused partner cringes away, drawing arms around the head for protection.

What do you do?

If you’re like a surprising number of people, you do absolutely nothing. You may watch them, you may feel uncomfortable, but you will take no action. If the abused partner begins screaming for help, you may step forward. If the abuser leaves and the abused partner falls to the ground, you may step forward. But if you see two people arguing violently in the street, you are, statistically, not going to do anything.

Don’t get offended. It’s nothing personal.

It’s just how people are. The bystander effect, as it is known, occurs all over the world, in many different cultures. Put bluntly, when people see something questionable, disturbing, or upsetting but they are in a crowd, they are less likely to act. Not because they are heartless individuals, but because they think that someone else will do something. It’s not even a conscious decision like “I don’t want to call the police because then I will have to stand around waiting for them” or “someone else will do something” or even “this isn’t my responsibility.”

That’s why cities have “if you see something, say something” signs in an attempt to get people to report suspicious behaviour. They realized that individuals throughout a city, collectively, see all sorts of things, and that if information about these things was collected and analyzed, it might reveal important patterns. Interesting trends. The sign of something about to come. But they also knew that people wouldn’t report suspicious activities unless they were prompted to do so; speaking as someone who has broken a car window in during broad daylight in the middle of a street, I can say with some certainty that people have a fairly high threshold of tolerance when it comes to ignoring peculiar things.

But the bystander effect doesn’t just involve the safety of a society as a collective, or the security of public transit. It also plays a direct role in acts of abuse and violence all over the world, every day. The failure of someone, anyone, to take action sometimes has lethal consequences, or tragic social ones. On a grand scale, the bystander effect is what contributes directly to genocide, as no bystander will lift a hand to protest or to provide shelter to refugees.

I am not, as we know, an advocate for a nanny society. I’m not a fan of spying on others and reporting them for things like watering during restricted hours or failing to park within 18 inches of the curb (guilty on both counts, incidentally). But I am a big fan of taking action when it is evident that someone cannot take action, when someone needs help, when I sense a threat. I am not going to advocate for someone when ou can do so independently and clearly does not need/want my help, but I can going to take action on behalf of someone who is clearly in need of assistance.

That couple fighting in the street? All it takes is a call to the police. Walking into an adjacent business and asking the person behind the counter for help. Or, for people feeling braver and more ready to engage, a challenge to the abusive partner, a “hey, what are you doing?”

But taking action isn’t just about directly averting or addressing violence. It can also occur in more subtle ways. When a man with his group of friends says “hey, I actually find that statement/behaviour kind of offensive to women,” that’s taking action. When a racist comment is made in a mixed group and a single person speaks up to say “you know, that’s racist, and not appropriate,” that’s taking action. When you’re having dinner with the family and someone says something kind of ignorant about fat people and you take an opportunity to say “you know, the latest studies actually contradict that, do you want me to send you some information,” that’s taking action. All of these actions have the benefit of potentially preventing greater social harm, the potential of possibly changing a mind.

This has really been brought home to me recently, as I’ve challenged Feministing on their ableism (and have yet to get a response) and endured an amazing amount of vitriol over it. Just for speaking. And I think about the fact that it is sometimes incredibly hard to be in a crowd and to say “I do not support, condone, or approve this.” I think about the fact that people have been speaking up long before me and have been enduring the same amount of vitriol and it has beaten them into submission. About the fact that I am not the first one to speak up about this, and definitely not the most widely read person to speak about it, and the fact that nothing has changed.

And I wonder what would happen if more people would speak up. Right now. About things that are not ok. If more people would say “yeah, you know what, this is enough.” We can give courage to each other by advocating. We do the right thing when we say “this is wrong” and we do the right thing when we see someone else saying it and we say “I agree, it is wrong, and it needs to stop.”

Every time you act up for the oppressed, the beaten, the tormented, the silenced, the excluded, you are taking action. And you can take action at your own comfort level, whether that’s getting in the face of a street harasser on behalf of yourself or someone else, or writing a post on a website somewhere. Taking any action at all is better than being a silent bystander, because one of the reasons that horrible behaviour thrives is that people take silence for tacit consent or even support.

The tagline of the Fund for Animals used to be “we speak for those who can’t,” referring specifically to animal victims of violence. But sometimes humans can’t speak up either, and we need to step forward to speak or to help them speak. To give people a voice and to show that we will not tolerate wrongs as a collective society. To say that we will be bystanders no longer. And sometimes they can speak just fine, and all we need to do is add our voices to the chorus, to let people know that they are not alone.

I am feeling pretty fucking alone here right now, people. For every person who has cosigned, reprinted, and distributed my Feministing post, there has been a corresponding clutch of people who have attacked me for it. And it is giving me some seriously new found respect for people who started speaking up a long time before I did, who have endured what I am enduring for years. Oh, I respected them all along and thought that they were awesome for doing that they were doing, but I did it from the sidelines. This is something which people cannot understand until they actually experience it: Speaking up is incredibly difficult. I have been so upset that I have cried, shaken with anger, had to go stand in the shower for 20 minutes over the last few days. I have been so upset that I gasp for a rescue inhaler which I cannot afford and therefore do not have.

I understand, now, that when you speak up, every single person who speaks with you matters. Even if it’s just to say a single word, like “yes,” or to utter a sentence like “I agree with you,” or “I cosign this.” I understood this on an abstract level before, but I understand it on an immediate one now. Thousands of people have viewed my open letter. A fraction of that number have commented. How many of those thousands read the letter, thought “I agree,” but didn’t say anything?

If you know someone who is speaking up for what is right, you go and find that person, right now, and you tell that person that they are awesome for what they are doing, and that you agree with that person. You might be thinking that this person knows, but, trust me, ou doesn’t. And, you know, why not do one better, and actively join that person in advocating for what is right? If you’re a blogger, post about the issues they talk about on your blog (and don’t say “my blog is about x and their issues are about y, so it’s not a good fit,” because everything is interconnected). If you’re a member of a social group, trying making sure that this person is not always the first one to challenge problematic language and ideas. Even when this person isn’t around, when you see something, say something. You have that power.

6 Replies to “The Bystander Effect”

  1. This is a really powerful post. I’m only just starting to overcome my (quite strongly ingrained) inclination towards reticence, and this post reminded me of how important it is for me to keep working on that.

    Would it be alright with you if I linked to it on my LiveJournal?

  2. Yes, this. It’s also why I try to document my more significant fuckups and my attempts to repair them, to help promote the idea that fucking up and acknowledging it and making meaningful efforts towards atonement is part of the process of working for social justice. Perfection is not only not required, perfection is the enemy.

    We aren’t always in situations where it’s safe to speak up at the time. But I think if we keep working at this we’ll keep making the world a less safe environment for the people on the other side of the issue. It’s not intolerant; it’s respectful of the rights of people to not be offended or abused or excluded. Which I feel are more important than the rights to give offense, to abuse, to exclude.

  3. Yeah, very important to stress that people are never under an obligation to speak up when it is not safe to do so. Thank you for bringing that up.

  4. Fantastic, powerful post. Was just watching some social experiments on YouTube done to test the Bystander Effect, and was appalled. Countless people walking by as a child gets mock-abducted, high-end shoppers watching a customer get mock-harassed by salespeople because of her race, etc.

    Why is speaking up so hard for so many people? When I was younger, I used to think it was just here in Singapore, but apparently, it’s everywhere

  5. I was linked to ur blog thru someone sharing this post. I think you make a really good point that speaking up is really important, but sometimes simply acknowledging when other people do speak up or intervene it can make a huge impact on that individual.
    I began using Bystander Effect in my job teaching “leadership” in to college men in a fraternity and even bringing the topic up made me feel alone, because it requires an organization or group to take ownership if the problems they cause – and many organizations only want to relish in the supposed good they do, which I will just say is huge factor in a majority white, all male (or at least identified) organization. We finally got this bystander program and it took about six months of pushing it. Almost everyday I feel alone because challenging behavior and language can alienate you and this really doesn’t help me feel good about myself or anything. I am also in an anti-war vet organization and won’t even share that openly with a huge group of people I interact, like my job, because I already feel alienated. So my outreach becomes limited in other areas…I dunno if I expressed this frustration right, anyways…

    I really like this post and the way you were able to express the bystander effect and your own struggles when you do ‘speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.’ Thanks.

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