How to defeat bystander apathy or, it’s none of my business

I attended a comparative religions class at University, some years ago now. After his presentation, the lecturer invited comments and questions from the students and I, along with others, put up my hand. He then responded to each. For a second time, I put up my hand but this time, before I could open my mouth, he said “If you were a Buddhist you would be beaten over the head for asking too many questions.”  I was left stunned and shaken. At coffee break my class mates had retreated to the other end of the room leaving me isolated and alone.

On reflection, what upset the most was bystander apathy – indifference and lack of concern; no one asked ‘are you ok?’ The students (some 45) who witnessed his behaviour did nothing despite their shocked looks. And that made me wonder what I would have done in the same scenario.

Women don’t need ‘protecting.’ But we are too often put in a position where some men use their power to bully and intimidate. So why don’t most of us speak up about it or take it further when it happens?

We all struggle when it comes to doing the right thing. We juggle with our thoughts. Should I step in? Am I interfering? Will this create problems for me?

The same bystander apathy happens with domestic violence.  Last week I learned of the tragic news of a young woman killed by her husband – even though it was common knowledge that this man beat up on his wife often, it was seen as a private matter between a husband and wife.

You and I can change bystander apathy. Our active bystander workshops teach concrete bystander intervention skills for use in the most difficult situations.

There’s only one wrong answer in instances of actual or physical violence and that is ‘to do nothing.’

Ree Boddé (PhD) is Program Director for Think Prevent


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