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Everybody doing nothing

Overcoming the bystander effect through self-initiative

You’re at a party and you’re having fun. In the corner of your eye, you notice a very drunk individual hitting on someone. The person of desire is obviously not interested, but the inebriated person does not seem to care. You’re not sure if you should say something, so you look around to see what other people are doing. No one else is intervening either. At this point, you might just convince yourself that this is none of your business and continue enjoying the party. Perhaps when you wake up the next morning, you’ll wonder if the situation ended up being okay, but you’ll never know.

This phenomenon is called the bystander effect and refers to a situation in which the likelihood of a person to help someone in distress stands in an inverse correlation to the number of people present. The larger the number of other possible helpers, the higher the probability for diffusion of individual responsibilities. A study published in the 1998 issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that bystander effect is generally less likely to occur when people have experience in fields that need direct action to help people (nurses, for example). While people with less experience in aiding others, like students, were more likely to react while alone, the overall rate of helping was consistent in nurses, irrespective of who else was there. Preparing people for certain situations was shown to be crucial in overcoming the bystander effect.

“Most forms of structural oppression affect people in ways that are made invisible to people who have the privilege of not experiencing those forms of oppression.”

A 2011 study published by the American Psychology Association showed that the bystander effect was less likely to occur in situations that could immediately be identified as an emergency. This could for example be a scenario with the presence of a perpetrator obviously posing an immediate threat to someone; however, situations where individuals face distress take on a variety of forms, including accidents on the street, physical and verbal attacks, online bullying, sexual harassment, gender-based violence, microaggressions, and more. Situations that might not be perceived as immediately threatening should not be ignored. Kira Page, External Coordinator at the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) McGill, told The Daily in an email, “It seems important to point out that most forms of structural oppression affect people in ways that are made invisible to people who have the privilege of not experiencing those forms of oppression. […] Racism, ableism, homophobia, misogyny, cissexism, classism, and so on are therefore usually situations that students are facing in often extremely isolating contexts.”

Many of these issues have become part of societal norms, and are as such often ignored by people not directly and negatively affected by them. People who were born into this system of institutionalized racism, sexism, and patriarchal power relations, need to take initiative to see beyond this distorted value system that’s perpetuated through our daily activities. As soon as we turn on the TV, Western sensationalist media will bombard us with Islamophobia, when we switch to sitcoms we’ll put up with bad jokes about rape culture, and the ads we’re exposed to, literally everywhere, make us internalize misogyny. We are conditioned from a very young age to think a certain way, but in the end what matters is how we choose to educate ourselves.

There are a variety of organizations at McGill, such as QPIRG, Midnight Kitchen, the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, the Union for Gender Empowerment, Queer McGill, Healthy McGill, Rez Project, and SACOMSS, that provide students with information, and offer workshops, talks, and film screenings. Page stated that, “McGill students have incredible opportunities at their fingertips to learn about these things. […] Our Culture Shock series, for instance, addresses issues of white supremacy and colonization in the Canadian context. Social Justice Days address a wide range of social justice issues, this year, with a focus on mental health and care. The Radical Skills Workshop series gives people concrete skills for actively engaging in these issues.” The Israeli Apartheid Week that is currently underway at McGill offers a variety of workshops giving insight on problems faced by many Palestinians.

“[… Education and awareness are] clearly part of the equation, but seem to happen at the exclusion of a conversation about actually intervening.”

Even though educating yourself is a first step, Page notes that too much focus on education alone might be problematic, “There is a harmful and self-protective reliance on ‘awareness’ as the only possible or appropriate response to actual, immediately visible and preventable instances of violence. [… Education and awareness are] clearly part of the equation, but seem to happen at the exclusion of a conversation about actually intervening. There seems to be a predilection for understanding ‘anti-oppression’ as the ability to articulate that discourse or ideas are ‘problematic,’ while not understanding anti-oppression as something that actually requires you to step up and act.”

Intervening in situations of distress might seem counter-intuitive for some people. A lot of times, however, intervening does not mean walking straight up to someone and getting into a fight. Even small actions like getting someone else to help, diffusing the attention of a target by spilling your drink, turning lights on and off, or simply making your presence as a witness known might help. A smartphone app called RISE, released by the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, and other community partners, tries to teach people about how to safely intervene in different situations. The app, which was supported by organizations at the University of Ottawa, shows the user a broad range of scenarios followed by possible responses.

Page does not have the impression that McGill is doing enough to educate people on bystander intervention, or to raise awareness on these issues. On the contrary, she believes that McGill is perpetuating negative influences. “McGill is implicated in these issues, often refusing to protect students being harmed (for instance, in the history of McGill, being more interested in protecting football players than survivors of sexual violence), and also often in actively perpetrating harm against students.”

All of us have heard about incidents where someone was assaulted at a party and no one intervened, making it seem like the assault was okay. And most of us will probably have thought that, if that were us, we would have done something to prevent it. Yet bystander effect is a real problem in our society. It is a very human reaction that most of us have probably experienced at some point. One way to overcome this inaction and start being helpful in precarious situations, is by becoming aware of issues, taking responsibility, and acting on one’s own judgement instead of imitating the reactions of people in our surroundings. And next time you encounter a drunk person harassing someone, you might realize the socially accepted passiveness everyone experiences, and proceed to overcome your own apathy.