Friday, March 13, 2015

5 Steps to becoming an Active Bystander

h/t Dial B for Blog
Do you remember Horton?  He was the elephant in the Classic Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who.  Horton showed moral courage and persistence in “doing the right thing” even though he faced social pressure.   While others teased, taunted, and mocked his beliefs Horton continued to repeat “A person is a person . . .”

On Monday March 9th, the news of a date party bus from the University of Oklahoma singing a racially charged song was released to the media.  People were outraged, every national and local news station covered the story and replayed the video.   There are thousands of Facebook comments about the moral character of these students, some are questioning the Greek System, and others are accusing parents. “They were all singing along” suggests that every student approved of what was going on.

I believe there were passive Hortons on the bus that night. I believe some of the young people silently cringed at the lyrics and sentiment that targeted a group of people, but no one spoke up. If your student was on the bus would he/she have said something?

Social psychology has the answer and you might not like it.  While the origins of this bigoted song is unclear, the reason why many on the bus were singing and others did nothing to stop the behavior is well documented.  It is called the Bystander Effect. Essentially there was a new social norm formulated on that bus, and each individual student felt personally ineffective in doing the right thing.

There is no such thing as an innocent bystander, and we need to be intentional in teaching how to stand up for what is right.  In study after study, the more witnesses that are present and do nothing- the less likely it is that one person will help.  It is a combination of group behavior, and individual psychology. The research interest about bystanders began in Queens, New York in 1964.  While 35 neighbors watched from their apartment windows a young woman was repeatedly stabbed and sexually assaulted.  One person eventually called 911 but it was too late.

The University of Oklahoma date party is not an Oklahoma problem, the Kitty Genovese murder was not a New York problem.The Bystander Effect is a global social problem and we must understand it to make a difference.

We all want to think that we would “do the right thing.” But bystander studies have been conducted regularly with various groups of people in multiple settings since the mid-sixties and the result is the same.  As individuals we lack moral courage as an instinct when we are surrounded by group apathy or aggression.  There is a diffusion of responsibility in crowd behavior that inhibits individual moral ethics.

Social Psychology also offers a solution: Active Bystanding.  Horton was an active bystander in his defense of the Who’s. It is a trainable skill. Beginning with the knowledge that we feel instinctively passive in crowds- we can resist the instinct. Here is how to be a Horton:

  1.   Recognize the uncomfortable feeling you have in your gut when something “feels wrong” to you personally.
  2.   Define the problem (I do not agree with this behavior- this song is racist and inappropriate)- You are affirming your own feeling.
  3.  Seek out at least one other person who is in the crowd who is not actively participating.
  4. Ask that person if they are offended or uncomfortable and enlist their support. (“This feels wrong to me.  Are you uncomfortable too?) You are gathering moral courage in partnering with someone else .
  5.  Do the next right thing. Together you can begin to develop a plan.

A passive bystander tries to ignore or sooth the uncomfortable feelings in one of two ways.  Passive bystanding focuses on the potential negative consequences (social, emotional, and possibly physical) of going “against the group” or they rationalize that since they are not participating they are blameless. These strategies reduce the stress of feeling powerless.

Active bystanding is not natural, but it also isn't really complicated.  Right now you feel a strong “gut” reaction to seeing the video.  Log this outrage for later use. You and your kids/student will be tested ethically at some point in the future.  You will be at a choice point to go with your gut- and go against the crowd or to be passive and feel guilty and later ashamed.

Be proud of yourself.  Be a Horton.

Remember this: The combined act of checking with your internal compass and then expressing out loud even quietly to one other person shifts the bystander effect from passive “I can’t do anything about this” to active “let’s do something."

Let’s make good come from bad.

Want to learn more about active bystanding? Check out the U Matter at U Mass website.