While living in a nation so politically polarized, it can be daunting to speak your mind and be yourself. Those who do find the bravery to express themselves may find themselves targeted or harassed. In these moments, the focus is often on the victim and the instigator, but we shouldn’t fail to note those who stay silent: Bystanders play a far more influential role than we realize.
The bystander effect has always been a part of our society. The phenomenon occurs when several people witness an act of violence or injustice being carried out against someone and fail to intervene on behalf of the victim. Whether it’s taking a picture of a someone in need rather than helping them or failing to call the authorities when necessary, there have been numerous notable examples of such apathy on a larger scale. But as the country’s political climate becomes increasingly hostile, the bystander effect is creeping its way into our daily lives.
It is not uncommon to see people resort to racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice, slander and harassment when they find themselves in a disagreement. And more often than not, there are bystanders who witness these events both online and in real life, but choose to do nothing. Their silence sends a harmful message even if they don’t intend for it to.
When someone refuses to speak up against injustice, they display a lack of empathy and are complicit. The victim’s validity is put into question as people fail to recognize that they are being mistreated because of who they are or the beliefs they hold. It can make them feel as though people do not care enough about them as individuals to ensure that they are being treated with the level of respect expected in this country. Likewise, it enables the attacker to continue. If no one steps up to tell someone that what they’re doing is wrong, they’ll keep doing it because they don’t anticipate any consequences. In these moments, it is essential to state that these behaviors are wrong, try to educate the perpetrator and exemplify that it is not acceptable to treat people in that manner.
For example, when an attorney in Manhattan, New York, complained about employees speaking Spanish at a deli, other patrons challenged him and recorded him accosting the employees in a video that quickly went viral. He soon found himself facing scrutiny from reporters and protesters and went on to publicly apologize for his actions.
The fact that he was held accountable for what he said led him to recognize that he was wrong. He had to face the backlash of his speech because the people around him deemed his actions unacceptable. Had they not stepped up to confront him, he would never have had to reflect on that moment and would never have to reconsider his behavior.
It’s easier to stay out of a disagreement than it is to get involved, especially at a young age when we fear judgement and ostracism from our peers. However, complicity toward hate and ignorance not only enables, but eternalizes prejudice.