“Bystander” is a powerful concept. Few things are more comforting in the face of danger than the presence of someone who is willing to intervene on your behalf. Few things are more terrifying than the absence of help.
But witnesses to violence are also notoriously unreliable. A disturbing but historical example can be found in the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964: it was reported that 37-38 neighbors witnessed the attack and no one called the police. This group inaction has come to be known as the “bystander effect,” wherein the more witnesses present during a violent situation the less compelled individual witnesses will be to do something; responsibility is diffused throughout the group and everyone thinks or hopes that someone else will intervene.
At least, that is the common understanding of what happened when Kitty Genovese was attacked. But the version of events from that day that has been weaved into the cultural notion of the bystander effect have been disputed by several key people, many of whom claim the police were indeed called but did not respond. In any case, it might be useful to think about why someone would freeze up when witnessing a crime; is it apathy, a lack of individual responsibility, or could it be something else?
We know that in a moment of danger, the cognitive part of the brain loses function and the reptilian part takes over, resulting in the person either freezing, fighting, or fleeing. In a dangerous moment that causes our bodies to surge with adrenaline, freezing is very common. We can imagine that the bystander’s physical response is similar to that of the perpetrator’s target; after all, the bystander would invariably be adrenalized as well simply being in the presence of a dangerous situation. Therefore “freezing” may not be a conscious choice. So maybe it has nothing to do with a lack of empathy. Maybe it’s a survival instinct in its own right.
With that in mind, just as IMPACT students benefit from learning how to manage their adrenaline in threatening situations so they can defend themselves, so would potential bystanders benefit from training, which is one of the many reasons we offer a bystander intervention curriculum.
Personally, prior to my own IMPACT training, I don’t know what I would have done as a bystander if the situation arose. A potential perpetrator of a hate crime is likely to be bigger and/or stronger than me. Would I have the courage to put my own safety at risk and intervene, while the adrenaline coursing through my body is urging me to be invisible? Would I even have any idea what to do to defend myself or someone else if the situation went physical? I still don’t really know the answer to the first question (and hopefully I never will), but I now have an answer to the second question, and that gives me some hope that maybe I would be able to interrupt my body’s natural freeze response and step in.
In our bystander workshops, which usually last 2 hours, students will learn physical skills they can use to keep themselves safe against an attacker. They will also practice hearing hate speech from a suited instructor role-playing as the attacker. Students can choose to hear certain types of hate speech (requests for racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and anti-Semitic hate speech have all been made). Students are equally free to choose to limit certain types of hate speech.
I can attest that even as a witness in these classes, hearing this language is difficult. Students will often choose to practice with language that people use against them in real life—either to harass them, intimidate them, or immobilize them—and the suited instructors do their best to play realistic characters. Just watching this from a safe distance makes your heart race. You feel nervous for the student. It feels real.
But then you watch them get out of it. You watch them use verbal self-defense to keep distance between themselves and the attacker. You watch them work through their fear and interrupt the attack with physical skills.
Later in the class, you watch another student show up as the “bystander” and join the targeted student in standing up to the attacker. Your heart is still racing, and although you may feel sadness for a world that necessitates learning these skills, there are certain undeniable feelings in the room that give you hope—feelings of strength, solidarity, and courage. And as the students leave, they carry that with them.