Combating the Bystander Effect

January 5, 2017

by CJ Rowe

I rang this new year in snuggled up with my love under a patchwork quilt in a log cabin. Our Aussie pup, Diamond Lil, asleep at our feet. On this cozy getaway, I took some time to reflect on 2016 and the lessons I’ve learned over the last few decades to begin to build towards my personal goals in the coming year. Specifically, how in 2017 I might be able to strive to work in stronger allyship with others.

These thoughts brought me back to my last post for 2016. In it, I wrote about what it means to engage in bystander intervention—a way in which we as community members and friends can stand up for one and other and maybe even begin to shift our culture. At the end, I promised to share some tips and strategies to guide us all in engaging with these practices.

As one way to widen the conversation, I posted an invitation on my personal Facebook page that asked my friends to share some of their tips and strategies. Here is a collection of direct quotes that I invite us all to think about and draw on:

There are a million situations that can call on us to participate. An infinite number. Small and large. Everything from smiling at an overwhelmed mother of a melting down toddler to screaming “I’m calling 911!”.
Tip one: Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable.
Tip two: DO be afraid to be hurt. Stay safe. You can’t help if you’re hurt.
Tip three: Know when to use your Mary Poppins voice, and when to use your Batman voice.
Tip four: read these things, I think they are helpful…

One strategy: create a diversion … any diversion… and interrupt the harassment. If folks are drunk at a party and harassing someone… jump on a coffee table!
If there is a bus hassle happening make a production of something out the window. The point is that you don’t need a perfectly crafted intervention to interrupt the situation.
Another strategy: simply disagree with the verbal harassed or bigot. Remember that they are fueled by believing they are supported in their beliefs. Even though they may seem unaffected by your views your comments will register on the disapproval side of the scale. If everyone speaks up the silence won’t be seen as supportive.

Remember that we are all, every one of us, all the time, in the position of making a mistake. So we want to treat the person with the same respect we hope for if we are mistaken. The thing is: disrespect doesn’t work. Often allies want to demonstrate that they are “not like” the person who is being oppressive—looking for an innocence certificate. This is not effective. A person who is shamed is most likely to take their humiliation out on someone with less power and greater vulnerability.
A related piece: don’t be afraid to make a mistake yourself. We are all learning together, even and especially people we strongly disagree with.

If there is time listen with curiosity to what the person thinks. Ask questions. Make a connection. Have a real conversation. Explore their ideas.
Don’t expect that your goal is to change the person for all time with a single conversation. Think about the ways your own views have been changed. It takes time and ongoing engagement.
Talk to other people who share your privilege—as white and/or male and/or able bodied and/or cis status and/or Christian upbringing and/or being neurotypical and/or always having been sheltered, etc. Talk about how to recognize your own privilege and to act against it. It will help you be more compassionate and creative addressing someone who is speaking from their privilege.
Share successful stories! We need to learn from each other what works and to acknowledge our lessons learned and our successes.”

My favorite ways are to go over and start talking to the person who is being harrassed like i know them and havent seen them in ages. In extreme situations i say, hey lets go get a coffee – and take them away from the situation. This actually worked once on the london underground and the woman was so thankful as she said the guy had been following her and hassling her for ages and she was just being polite and didnt know how to tell him to get lost. Or simply standing in the way with my back to the harrasser, blocking their view works too.

Almost everyone who posted on this tread of conversation ended by expressing the need to continuously learn, to look for people to debrief with and to be kind to oneself—we are all going to be imperfect. What matters is that we don’t hold those silences and we don’t let those moments for intervention pass us by.

Interested in learning more? I know I am, so I dug up a few sites for us to click on and learn further:

It’s one thing to engage in bystander intervention it’s another to respond when someone has called us out on our own language and/or behaviour. Check out @chescaleigh’s “Getting Called Out: How to Apologize” and “5 Tips For Being An Ally.”

I’m looking forward to continuing this journey alongside of you all in the coming year. Happy 2017!