“Whenever one person stands up and says, “Wait a minute, this is wrong,” it helps other people do the same.” Gloria Steinem
A high school soccer referee barred Samah Aidah from her March 12th game because she wore a hijab, even though the association that governs soccer internationally had already lifted rules preventing players from wearing head covers.
Samah’s teammates responded. At their next game, every single girl wore a hijab in playful solidarity with her.
These girls took action rather than letting oppression go without comment. Whether they knew it or not, they followed a basic principle of nonviolence— that problems are most easily reversed at the early stages. If ignored, issues can become progressively more difficult to stop as they spiral to ever more intense levels. That’s the case whether we’re talking about so-called non-physical forms of violence such as humiliation, harassment, and prejudice. It’s also the case with physical forms of violence, from domestic abuse to war.
When people don’t intervene, assuming others will step in, they become bystanders who “permit” violence to happen. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. This is called “diffusion of responsibility.” If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person, that person is more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.
Social scientists who study intervention in violent situations know that when others object or actively get involved their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence. Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil that genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany started with prejudicial statement and small acts of repression. Oppressors test the response, only escalating to greater atrocities once they determine that bystanders will allow to them continue. It requires the willingness of uninvolved people to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Such actions empower the victim and reduce the power of the aggressor.
We tend to believe that we’ll have the moral courage to speak up and help when someone is suffering. But when something happens we usually have only an instant to respond, either we listen to our doubts and turn away or step outside our comfort zone to intervene. What makes it more likely that we will help?
1. A sense of commonality with people who are unlike us is important, letting us see beyond “us versus them” and prompting us to act with empathy.
2. Past experience reacting positively in a crisis leads people to do so in the future. In that case, the girls wearing the hijab to support their teammate not only made the current situation better but also primed themselves to act compassionately next time it’s necessary.
3. People who feel freer to defy the norms and who are able to think for themselves are more likely to help. Pluralistic ignorance (going along with the crowd) dampens a person’s compassionate response.
That’s why learning about nonviolence is so important, because it gives us a background on which to base our actions. For examples of individual bystanders who stepped up to make a difference, check out the heartening real-life examples in this piece:
How To Get Involved When It’s None of Your Business
And let’s enjoy another example of young people choosing to go beyond being bystanders.
A few years ago a new freshman arrived at a Nova Scotia high school on the first day back to class. He was wearing a pink shirt. Several students mocked him and threatened to beat him up. No one intervened. But two senior boys heard about it and decided to respond. They bought dozens of pink shirts at a discount store, emailing their friends to let them know they’d be handing them out the next day. The news spread and hundreds of students showed up the next morning already wearing pink shirts. The bullying stopped and now Pink Shirt Days are held yearly in many schools to spread awareness about bullying.
Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times by Zoe Weil
Keeping the Peace: Practicing Cooperation and Conflict Resolution with Preschoolers by Susanne Wichert
The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to HighSchool–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle by Barbara Coloroso
Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years by Carl Pickhardt
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner
Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook by Susan Dermond
books for kids
Bystander Power: Now with Anti-Bullying Action by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein
Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig
My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig
Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson
Speak Up and Get Along!: Learn the Mighty Might, Thought Chop, and More Tools to Make Friends, Stop Teasing, and Feel Good About Yourself by Scott Cooper
Erase Bullying videos
Stop Bullying site