Bystander Silence vs. Bystander Intervention

To stand up for what you believe in has never been a simple task. Even children are taught to “do what’s right,” yet more often than not the answer to problems in our community is simply silence.

In watching a video on combating racism (link below), I was reminded again that a major reason perpetuating the presence of racism in society is bystander silence. Why is that? It seems that the vast majority believe racism is “bad”, whether that means racism toward people who are white, black, or any other ethnic minority. I’d argue that people, nearly universally, would rather stay quiet than to get involved in a fight on behalf of someone else.

The struggle for justice is a theme visible in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”. Upon drawing the marked slip, Tessie Hutchinson repeats, “it isn’t fair.” However, the unfortunate villager never spoke out against the system or the practice until it turned against her; as a result, I as a reader am able to feel only minimal sympathy for Tessie.

And this isn’t just a regular occurrence in fiction, either. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who penned Night, describes “the perils of indifference”. In claiming that “indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never [the] victim”, Wiesel reminds us that the horror of the Holocaust was, in part, the result of bystander silence. “If they knew, we thought, surely those leaders would have moved heaven and earth to intervene. They would have spoken out with great outrage and conviction. They would have bombed the railways leading to Birkenau, just the railways, just once.”

But, of course, we have since learned that they did know. The Pentagon, the State Department, the President of the United States knew. And they chose to not intervene, they chose to not send aid — and they chose to turn away the St. Louis, with its “human cargo” of “maybe 1,000 Jews” seeking refuge from the genocide.

It’s a disturbing story, and one that puts into perspective the many shapes and forms that indifference can take. Evil is not always a village stoning; bystanders are not always powerful, influential politicians; genocide is not always as easily identifiable as concentration camps, whether in Germany for Jews, or in the United States for Japanese-Americans. Sometimes, the crisis is “just” a racist stranger shouting on a train, or a casual commentator asking a sexual assault survivor, “how much did you drink?”

The call to do something to fight injustice can be sometimes be hard to hear, or scary to heed, but it brings up another important question:is there a point at which bystander intervention goes too far? What, for example, should we think about punching a Nazi? Clearly, that’s the opposite of bystander silence. Is it an act that erodes freedoms of speech or assembly, as the fascists themselves may fight against, or is it simply the dutiful protection of an oppressed minority? If violence works, can it be morally or ethically right?

5 Ways to Disrupt Racism:

Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery”:

Elie Wiesel, “The Perils of Indifference”:

The Black Bloc: Inside America’s Hard Left

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