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Innocence of the Bystander

Witnesses to tragedies, crimes, and unethical behavior are never innocent. They are changed by what they see even if they avert their eyes, minds, and consciences. Seeing and hearing bad things alters you, especially if you don't do something to stop, mitigate or report the event or behavior. Each time we "allow" something to pass as acceptable when we are offended, makes us a little more tolerant of such things. Over time a little callous can start to build up on our heart and our moral compass and we let more things pass without intervention. Initially we ask ourselves, "Should I have done something?"  or "What else could I have done?" Later, we can rationalize, "Maybe its me." "I don't want to be the only one who complains." Innocent bystander


Psychologists have tried to explain this phenomena:

1. The diffusion of responsibility: a bystander assumes that someone else has or will take action.
2. Pluralistic Ignorance: an individual looks around the group and because no one is doing anything to help, they assume that no one else perceives there to be an issue

In other words, "someone ELSE will or should do something."

"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."  Mother Teresa

The Penn State allegations remind us all about our duties as a bystander. No one has been found guilty but heads are rolling. People allegedly saw horrific things and nothing was done. Children may have been seriously harmed. (the average pedophile molests 100-200 children, so the 8 victims may be the tip of the iceberg) An entire community will suffer and a university will be tarnished for years because of the inaction of a few. All in the name of football. Schoolroom teachers and medical personnel are obligated to report abuse if the suspect it. Military academies and other educational institutions uphold a code of ethics where if you witness cheating, you are a cheater--unless you come forward. We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. And not coming forward can be grounds for dismissal. But coaches, executives, priests, and others can view themselves as above the law.

Selfishness and self preservation prevent us from taking chances, from making changes, and from ruffling feathers/rocking the boat. When we place ourselves above the welfare of others, that's when the conflict occurs. It is a survival instinct. However, when that instinct interferes with the rationalization of crimes, especially crimes that physically harm others--children--all innocence is lost!

What would it take for you to step in and get involved? What level of harm, potential harm, suspected harm will make you act?

Tattle tales, snitches, stool pigeons have always been vilified. Upholding the honor amongst thieves seems to be a powerful moral prophylactic. But this is not about just whistle blowing, this about how we act upon our human instinct to assist an other.

As Americans we think that we are the most generous people on earth. We are quick to judge other cultures, China most recently, who appear less sensitive or even do things we find violating our sense of decency. Regrettably, we Americans do not have a corner on the market of "Thy Neighbor's Keeper." While we invented Neighborhood Watch, the Welcome Wagon and even foundation philanthropy, Penn State is an example that we are not always responsive or respectful of the needs of others.

I love these Liberty Mutual ads. The idea that we should help strangers. That helping others is contagious and sets off a chain reaction of good deeds. One thing is certain, when you see good being done it creates a model of behavior. Everyone wants to help others. Seeing is believing. That is the power of role modeling and mentoring.

After the children who may have been injured, the assasination of the moral example and leadership of Penn State coaches and executives may be the second biggest victim on the Happy Valley campus. When leaders and mentors fall from grace, who or what fills that void? Communities of all sizes and shapes thrive when they have mentors and role models. In Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, he discusses the studies that have shown that a community stabilizes when it has 5% of its population as role models. Just 5%. The point is, you don't need nor will you ever have everyone as role models. But without them the community de-stabilizes and deteriorates. What happens when some of our top role models fall from grace? Will this void increase or decrease people's desire to help one another and get involved to right wrongs?  

Everyday we are bystanders to the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our innocence will be determined by what we do and how we role model the treatment of others by standing up for what is right and just.

Thanks for reading. John

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