No innocent bystanders

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I grew up in a culture where physical violence was seen as a source of respect. It was common practice for my older brothers and their mates to go out of a Saturday night looking for a fight for no apparent reason other than ‘I get all mad and wanna biff someone.’   With tough talk, if they can, and violent deeds if they must, they signal they are persons to be reckoned with.

Who, when they are on the receiving end of it, would deny that such an attacker is powerful? And just who would confront him knowing that he is consumed with an explosive sense of inadequacy.

The counter-rage cited in those attacks, combined with norms directing others to mind their own business, escalate the chances that those on the receiving end will retaliate. Ultimately, a community of internalised wrath re-creates an atmosphere of pervasive violence that appears inescapable to those trapped in it.

So how do we change a ‘once-were-warriors’ or ‘king-hit culture’ in which physical and verbal violence is normative?

Here’s what I know. Violence almost always involves more than the victim and the perpetrator, it includes the bystander, whether the bystander is there and looks on in horror, says nothing, hears about it from perpetrator or victim, or sees it on the news.

Here’s what I also know, by encouraging passive bystanders to express their fears, then already a whole different situation exists. This new possibility starts by men and women understanding the subtle pressures that can cause passive bystander behaviour, such as diffusion of responsibility like ‘It’s not my problem. I’m too busy. I’m not an expert. It’s not our job to cope with this. I might make it worse.’

One particular view that I hear time and time again from people is this: ‘Were I in that situation, I would behave in an altruistic, wonderful way.’ What I say is, ‘No, not necessarily. I want to get you in touch with the ‘pressures’ that cause passive bystander behaviour. Then when you feel those pressures, I want that to be a cue that you might be misreading what’s happening right under your nose. The ultimate goal, is of course, to help men and women to effectively and safely call each other out; to confront abuses when they occur.

This is not a mandate to take on the world. It is an invitation to recognise the power of the active bystander in preventing and reducing the impact of violence—in big and small ways!


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