Steubenville’s Bystanders

Last week an Old Boy told me about an incident that had been bothering him for some time. A few years ago he and a colleague were walking down a very busy street, when they came upon a man and a woman, perhaps a husband and wife, engaged in a heated argument. While still in plain sight, the man reared back and punched the woman. Instinctively, the Old Boy stepped in to intervene, but just as quickly, his colleague grabbed him by the shoulder, directing him forward, and the two of them continued on their way, acting as if nothing had just happened.

After telling me this, the Old Boy paused for a moment and confessed that the image of the man’s punching the woman — and the memory of his doing nothing –continued to bother him. He asked, “What should I have done?” For just a moment, he looked almost haunted by the question.

Last week Elizabeth Renzetti raised a similar issue in her “Globe and Mail” column where she wrote, “Maybe everyone has a story like this. Once, when I was living in London, I was sitting on the top deck of a bus … (when I noticed) four young men in their late teens or early 20’s sitting in the very back row. They hurled insults at each other, which was entertaining enough – at first. Then they began tossing pieces of their fried-chicken dinners at other passengers.

I rolled my eyes and hunkered down in my seat, along with everyone else. A tourist – a German, judging by his accent – turned around and told them to stop. The boys rose as one, as if they’d been waiting for this moment. They stood over the man and screamed threats at him until he turned away from them, arms folded.

Still no one did anything. The boys then spotted a young woman sitting by herself near the front of the bus. They began taunting her, a stream of really vile sexual abuse. She sat there, hands clasped between her knees, her face getting redder and redder. No one did a thing to help her – me included.

I was very pregnant at the time, so I had the heft – moral and physical – to intervene. But I remember thinking, ‘Oh for God’s sake, why can’t someone else do something? One of these Londoners should step in.’ This is ape-level reasoning, because, of course, they were all thinking the same thing.

After a few moments of torment, the young woman bolted downstairs and off the bus. The idiots crowed in triumph. The rest of us – if I can extrapolate from my own experience – felt shame for a long time afterward.

I often think of that girl and how she must have been furious at the boys, but also at us, her fellow passengers, who didn’t even offer her the most basic human kindness.”

There has been a lot of focus recently on the roles and responsibilities of bystanders, in part because of all the publicity surrounding the news from Steubenville, Ohio. If you aren’t familiar with the Steubenville rape case, you should know that last August a bunch of boozy high school boys, many of them celebrated football players, raped a 16 year-old girl at a party. Because she had been completely intoxicated at the time, it wasn’t until days later, after she discovered, via social media, pictures of herself being violated, that she decided to file charges. Two boys have already been sentenced to 1 and 2 year jail terms, and an investigation continues because bystanders may be brought to trial for their failure to intervene, and at least one adult may face charges related to a cover up.

The Steubenville Case is multi-layered, and I hope that in classes or in advisory groups, you’ll have the chance think about this partial list of issues:

– the adulation of high school athletes

– the dehumanization of a powerless young woman

– the misuse of alcohol

– the apathy of bystanders

– the use of social media

– and the issue of profoundly misdirected sympathies (Some Steubenville’s citizens were apparently more concerned about how all of this will affect two schoolboys’ sports careers than they are about the impact of rape on a young woman’s life.)

Were I to try to address all of these issues, I’m afraid I’d resort to saying a number of insultingly obvious truths. So I will spare you a tiresome rant, and ask you to instead think about just one item on the list: the role of bystanders.

What do we owe one another? It’s a question that goes back to the earliest stirrings of human history. The first story of male adolescence, the story of Cain and Abel, ends with Cain’s asking the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

While we all know the answer to Cain’s question, we also know that we don’t always act in accordance with this fundamental truth. Somehow or other, knowing that we should defend the vulnerable, the stranger, or the weak does not always spur us to action.

I use the first person deliberately, by the way, in admitting that our failure to act is somehow rooted in fear, fear of challenging the status quo, of making a scene, of getting sidetracked from the task at hand, of embarrassing ourselves or of offending someone else. We are afraid to break that silence, afraid to make a stand. In our sad and sometimes even desperate attempts to fit in, to go along with the crowd, to be one of the “bros” – we inadvertently compromise our values. Our silence quietly affirms the wrong we fail to confront.

I wish there were a magic word I could give you, a word that would miraculously provide you with the wisdom and courage you will need. What I can give you, though, is a thought, an insight perhaps, on the nature of courage itself. Perhaps seeing courage in a different light will help you master it.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle points out that we learn courage by doing courageous things. That may sound like a tautology, a non-answer to the question, “How do we learn courage?” But what Aristotle suggests is that courage is more like a muscle than it is a mental activity. It’s not enough to intellectually understand how a bike works. You actually have to hop on the bike. The cognitive can take you just so far. You really have to put your feet to the pedal.

In the same way, you need to exercise your courage muscle. How do you do that while you still are in high school? It may mean speaking up, when you see something going wrong, or it may be confronting a classmate or harder still, a friend, when you think something needs to be said. These are hard, hard things to do, of course, but that’s precisely the point. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be work.  It wouldn’t be exercise. And it is working that courage muscle that will give you what you need, the chutzpa, for lack of a better word, to meet the moments you will need to meet.  After all, you don’t want to wait until you are 40 to become courageous. You need to work that muscle now.

A word of caution: You also need to be wise. I don’t want anyone here misinterpreting my message. I am not calling for vigilantes. I don’t want you going Rambo or doing your own Jason Bourne impersonation by walking into a dangerous situation where, for example, there may be weapons. You need to use common sense as well as courage.

I hope, though, that whether you find yourself on a busy city street, or on a bus, or in a locker room, instead of asking, “Why isn’t someone else doing something?” I hope your instinctive reaction will be, “What can I do? How can I make this better?”  I hope you will have the courage to do something to make a difference. Uta Hagan encourages us all to, “Overcome the notion that you must be regular. It robs you of the chance to be extraordinary.” We need you to become the extraordinary and courageous men you were meant to be.


30 thoughts on “Steubenville’s Bystanders

  1. Your story of the old boy and the incident with the man punching the lady brought back a memory which seems like yesterday but was grade 12 or 13 in 75 or 76 when I was at UCC.

    My friends and I had just watched a movie that ended about 11PM in downtown Toronto. We walked to my car which was at an outdoor lot just south of the Gardiner expressway. In the parking lot, a man was grabbing a woman and there was a lot of shoving, shouting and quite rough play, she was in obvious distress. My classmates got in the car, but I wanted to help, so I walked over at my then small size of 6′ and maybe 125 pounds as if I could have done much.

    I asked the lady what was going on, and did she need any help. The man blew me away, and I did not physically intervene.

    Rather we drove home and, then I went to the police station to make a report with the car make, model and plates plus a description of the man and the lady. I just couldn’t let it rest.

    Well what happened next, surprised me. The sergeant who took the report said it was probably the man’s wife and I should just go home and have a good sleep.

    The unfortunate lesson there was that possibly if I had been physically bigger and intervened, the police might have had words with me or possibly even had me charged. Nevertheless I always felt I did the right thing.

    But with all of the weapons and anger out there now, one thinks it is just more dangerous in this world, and I don’t know what I would want any of my 3 sons to do.

  2. I would encourage people to check out the Green Dot Bystander Intervention Program. It was created at the University of New Hampshire and is now being implemented at college campuses across the U.S. It’s an excellent program, and really does a great job of teaching people how to asses and intervene with their own safety in mind. We have to do more than just talk about being courageous. We have to teach our students how to do it. It really is a way of thinking that empowers people to be agents of change. The range of options available for interventions for anything – from jokes to possible assault – is amazing, and students are awesome at engaging their creativity to find solutions to the problems they face (and they know them better than we do!).

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