Bystander blaming

Trigger warning – talk of violence and sexual assault.

I know I’ve talked before about my love for the Belle Jar Blog. And I do love it! But this article left me a bit disappointed. It talks about bystanders and how as bystanders we need to help because it’s what “good” and “moral” people do.

The thing is what does that mean? The thing that “good” and “moral” people do, aka the “right” thing to do? And where in this conversation is mention of the parallel experience of trauma that victims and witnesses both experience? For those of you who have witnessed violence or other types of abuse, you know it can feel awful and you feel helpless, scared and possibly in denial. And to note, this conversation is about witnessing violence/abuse specifically because of the trauma that will most likely occur when one is witness to such acts.

I know that I’ve done the “right” thing at times. I called the police when I saw a man assaulting a woman on the street outside my house. Another time, I picked up a cell phone that was lying on the ground near where my friend said she’d seen a guy beating up a girl (and she had not called the police mind you). I picked up the phone and I called the contact labeled “mom.” I didn’t explain the circumstances surrounding how I found the phone and why I felt it was especially important to ensure the phone got back to its owner. That was up to the girl (the survivor) to disclose. But I made sure it got back to her and she knew people were looking out for her.

I also know there are other times that I did not do the “right” thing. There was a time I was on the subway and I saw a man gesturing at a woman and whispering something at her that I couldn’t quite hear. His face had a menacing look and she looked intimidated and I did… nothing. It’s not that I didn’t care. I did and I was worried about her safety. But I froze as the following thoughts inundated my mind “What do I do? Do I confront him? Do I talk to her? Ohmigod,ohmigod I don’t know what to do!!!” And all the while a little voice in the back of my head was saying, “This can’t be happening, maybe he will stop, maybe if I just sit here it will all go away.”

My point is that being witness to violence and/or its aftermath can be in and of itself very traumatizing. And when you’re in a moment so overwhelming that it’s traumatizing, you don’t always act the way you’re supposed to or the way you’d want to. Just like the direct victim, you go into fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes you know what to do and sometimes you want the ground to open up and swallow you so you can get the heck out of this situation.

It shouldn’t really surprise me that this happens. I mean, we live in a society that subscribes to a right/wrong type of victim mentality so why wouldn’t that belief system extend to bystanders? You’re either the right kind of bystander who intervened and is a “hero” or you didn’t intervene (for whatever reason) and you’re not a decent person who, some would say, did something just as bad as the violence/abuse itself.

Of course we barely acknowledge and understand the psychology of trauma that goes along with being the direct victim of violence, physical or emotional, so our understanding and empathy for bystanders who are unwilling witnesses to a trauma is unsurprisingly limited.

I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t discuss the role of the bystander. We should. We should talk and encourage people to take action in a safe way. But we should present it as an option and talk about it from a place of empowerment. We should let people know we understand that they may be traumatized as a result and therefore, we will not shame them. Instead we should approach them with empathy, recognizing that they are only people who bring with them to any experience their own current situation as well as all their past experiences. For instance, what if the woman who froze and stared as another woman was sexually assaulted isn’t herself a rape survivor whose own trauma was triggered at that moment and a full on flashback occurred? Conversely a rape survivor could spring into action and call 911 and if safe or possible, engage the victim and this could serve as a corrective experience for her. In either situation, she is doing nothing wrong. She is an unwilling witness to something terrible and she reacts in a way that makes sense given her own life experience. Also it’s important to remember that what is traumatizing for one person to witness may not traumatize someone else who witnesses the same thing – though I’d guess that most people would be traumatized by witnessing rape or other violence.

So yes, let’s please talk about ways to empower bystanders and recognize that in empowering bystanders, we empower ourselves because any of us could become the bystander one day. Let’s empathize with them and recognize that we really don’t know what our reaction will be until we’re faced with such an experience. And that our reactions may vary depending upon where we are in our own lives and how empowered or not we feel to respond, as has been the case for me when I’ve responded differently. And it isn’t a linear process. I’ve done the “right” thing one year then reacted another way later on and then circled back and responded in a way I felt good about. Trauma and our emotional experiences/reactions are a cycle and it’s okay and normal if our behaviors don’t follow a linear fashion.

If a witness to a traumatizing event doesn’t respond to it in a way that society deems appropriate please don’t shame them. They’re likely doing their best and responding in a way that’s normal, considering where they’re at in their own lives. Offer them empathy and focus on the victim and ways to empower and educate and always, always support both victim and bystander. Recognize the ways that shaming someone may create more division and dichotomy than unity. And recognize that negatively focusing on the bystander ultimately detracts from the only person who’s actually responsible, the person who made the choice to be violent.

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