Why Everyone Needs Bystander Intervention Training

By Jill Weisensel – In the most recent issue of Marquette Magazine, Fr. Pilarz is quoted:

“If Marquette is to truly be Marquette, this must be the kind of place where people look out for one another and take care of another.  That’s the heart of who we are.  Always.”

I couldn’t agree more.

In being completely immersed in the development of the University’s new bystander intervention programming, this statement resonated with me.  Even more so, it inspired me to share what I have learned about what it means to “care for our neighbors” and to take personal responsibility in the safety of OUR community.

A lot of people have been asking me about “these new bystander intervention strategies.”  The other day I was asked, “What’s the big deal?  Why does this really matter to students anyways?”  My direct response was that bystander intervention programming actually matters to everyone.

“Bystanders” comprise of the largest number of people in the “cycle of violence.”  Let me try and put that statement into perspective.  If we look at the social cycles of discrimination, bullying, harassment, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, and on up through sexual violence, the percentage of people that are actually “perpetrators” of the behavior or are direct “victims” as a result of the behavior, is actually very small in comparison to the number of people who are “bystanders”.

For this argument, the word “bystander” is qualified in reference to all of the people who are witness to or are aware of a social injustice.  They are in a position to do something before, during, or after the event that could have changed the outcome of the event by lessening the cost of the negative personal, sociological, or psychological ramifications of the event.

For many people, the problem in understanding “bystander intervention” strategies lies with the word “bystander” itself.  “Bystander” literally means someone who is standing by, a witness to, but not participating in.  So trying to mobilize people who are “standing by” is a tough concept for people to wrap their heads around.  For example, many people, regardless of their work context, witness social injustices such as racial slurs, passive aggressive workplace discrimination, or maybe even not-so-subtle forms of coercion.  People who “witness” these things, or who are aware of these behaviors, usually chose not to get involved in stopping the problem by rationalizing that “it has nothing to do with me,” or that “it’s not my problem.”  In essence, that line of thinking is in direct opposition to the value of cura personalis.

The error in this type of thinking is that when people witness events, such as bullying in schools, they are condoning the behavior they are witness to.  People assume that “ignoring the problem” or acting like they didn’t see the problem, will make it go away.  The reality is that ignoring the problem does not make it go away, and just like a wound left unattended, the problem will actually grow, fester, and become more dangerous.

People also assume that since they are not engaging in the inappropriate behavior or are not a direct victim of the injustice that “standing by” seems like the safest and most “neutral option.”

Doing nothing is never a neutral option.

Doing nothing tacitly empowers the perpetrator, and quite frankly, doing nothing is in essence making a choice in favor of the socially toxic behavior further facilitating the creation of an environment that allows it.

The confusion surrounding bystander intervention goes beyond the word bystander. It also has to do with our understanding of the terms “victim” and “perpetrator.” When we use these we rigidly isolate and categorize people, events, and behaviors. Nouns such as victim and perpetrator are emotionally charged and come with a whole slew of subjective interpretations of what it means to “be a victim” or to “be a perpetrator.” Most of the time, this type of thinking allows us to rationalize and “write ourselves” out of the equation because we don’t categorize or label ourselves as fitting into one of those categories.

With that being said, I challenge you, just as the new Marquette T.A.K.E.S.  A.C.T.I.O.N. bystander intervention program has challenged the students, to stop thinking about the cycle of violence as being relevant only to those who are direct victims and perpetrators.  I encourage you to start looking at the problem from a different perspective.  For example, stop using the nouns and start using the verbs.  The term victim refers only to a small percentage of people; however, the number of those who have been “victimized” by the cycle of violence is much greater.  I am not a victim of sexual violence, but I have absolutely been victimized by it.  I am not a victim of workplace bullying or harassment, but I have been victimized by it.  I have witnessed how these things affect the lives of loved ones and coworkers, and as a friend, sibling, co-worker, supervisor, and most importantly as a leader, I realize that if I am not part of the solution, I could very well be part of the problem.

If you embrace this line of thinking, you will understand why people make the choice to intervene when they see “things going badly.”  Make the choice to draw a line in the sand regarding the types of behavior you will allow in your presence, and let’s all participate in creating a living, learning, and working environment that is socially healthy for everyone.  Why?  Because at Marquette, that’s the heart of who we are.  Always.

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