Picture the scene: a plane crashes into a combine harvester that’s just been mugged by a shark. What do you do? Do you go in and help, or run like fuck? When something happens and a crowd gathers, every one of us has a choice to make. We can be a bystander or we can be a meddler. It’s an easy choice. It’s a tough thing to do.
Our reluctance to meddle has been termed “the bystander effect” by social psychologists keen to understand why, at times, we act like arseholes. And we do. In England, cyclist Stephen Wills was knocked from his bike by a hit-and-run driver, and lay dying as people drove past him. By the time someone bothered to call an ambulance he was dead. In Connecticut, 78-year old Angel Torres was hit by two cars as he crossed a street. Footage released by police showed him lying motionless on the ground while ten people drove past and onlookers stared. One driver approaching him slowed, did a U-turn and took off in the opposite direction. Eventually people started giving a shit, and a policeman on an unrelated call happened upon him. He was left paralysed, and died a year later.
So why do people do nothing? There are a few reasons offered by psychologists. First, we have diffusion of responsibility, whereby the more witnesses there are the less likely an individual is to act, figuring someone else will do it. Then there’s confusion of responsibility, where people worry about getting stuck in in case they’re blamed for causing the whole thing. And then there’s pluralistic ignorance, which amounts to good old fashioned peer pressure and has people standing back because they don’t want to stand out. When other onlookers fail to help, individuals convince themselves that help is not required. And as intersectional Zeroes we recognise there are, of course, other factors in play. When three cops stood by as George Floyd was murdered by fellow-officer Derek Chauvin, they were more likely motivated by racism and power than bystander hand-wringing.
We don’t need to be psychologists to offer our own excuses: If someone’s injured we might do something wrong. We might get sued. If there’s a crowd we might be shy, or assume someone’s better able to help. If we have to call emergency services we might get in trouble if 15 people have called before us. If someone’s been attacked we might get hurt. If someone needs help we might look nosey going to them. These explanations, excuses and phenomena are varied but have one thing in common. They are all composed of the same basic material: bullshit.
We’ll have seen the bystander effect in our own lives. I was in a subway station when a guy started kicking and shouting at two teenage girls, and had to walk past open-mouthed gawkers to get to them. I saw a guy face-down on some steps outside a block of flats, drunk out of his face and suffering heat exhaustion. When I hit a door buzzer to ask to be let in, this guy’s neighbour told me to leave him there because he was an alcoholic. We’ve maybe been bystanders ourselves. We’ve probably all rubbernecked at a decent car crash. We’ve maybe reached for popcorn hearing shouting in the street.
And the impact of bystanderism gets worse as the thing we’re standing by gets bigger. In the face of climate breakdown it’s easier to wring our hands and say we can’t make a difference than to make changes in our lives and get others to join us. The world burns as we lull ourselves into comfortable inactivity.
People, this is no way to live. Let’s not be arseholes. Let’s not be bystanders. Let’s look out for people who need help and when they do let’s go to them. Let’s not wait for someone else to step forward. Let’s not be the crowd. Let’s say with the world wrecked as it is and people crap as they are, we’re going to get stuck in.
We’re not bystanders. We’re Zeroes.
We aim to meddle.
You'll be a better person!
Life will be better for everyone!
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Like most of you, when I first saw WALL-E I assumed it was a documentary and was relieved to find we had at last discovered a solution to the madness of short-term landfillery. However, on attempting to contact and marry EVA, Pixar security guards informed me not just that I would be charged with breach of the peace but also that the film was a work of speculative fiction.
Devoted as you are to yer man The Zero, and as closely as you monitor my good works, you’ll be aware I do the odd bit of fundraising in spite of hating it almost completely. The past few years I’ve been meddling with Yaknak Projects, a small charity set up by a few friends to run two children’s home in Nepal. They need £16,000 a year to keep the homes running, a delightful spot of constant pressure that cheers them greatly.
As you’d expect from a man in my position, I have literally thousands of children. The groupies that gather at the foot of Zero Towers are as fertile as they are up for it, and the rise of my master race is progressing nicely. Sadly, due to the sheer size of my collective progeny, all of whom are disabled rad-fems, I am unable to support any of them financially or emotionally, thus creating twice as many social problems as I was hoping to solve.
So there I was a few weekends back, minding me own business, spending a reasonably pleasant day in the company of friends, or at least people paid to be friendly towards me on account of how my fame prevents anyone getting too close, when I witnessed what can only be described as a road traffic accident, being as how it was an accident involving traffic that took place on a road. I won’t lie to you: it was full on proper scary.
With the Olympics all done with and the Paralympics prepping itself for interest considerably less feigned than usual, it’s time to reflect on the heroes at whom we marvel, the champions who capture our hearts, the icons who inspire a generation. Jessica Ennis. Usain Bolt. Me.
That whooshing sound round the back of your head was February going past us and past me and past this blog in particular. Being as how I’m spending my days chained to the desk writing essays and my nights chained to the desk drooling on them, the old do-gooding has taken a back seat of late. Unless you count the social work. Which no one does. Tell people you want to be a social worker, they make like you’ve offered them a glass of cancer flavoured piss.
The problem with this social work lark is although I’m getting stuck in to solid gold do-gooding on a daily basis, the confidential nature of it all means it ain’t worth shit for blogging. I go out, I do good, I come home, I write essays, I use every drop of energy and I’ve got on non-blogging activities and meanwhile this place gets neglected and cobwebbed and dusty and forgotten, going all potty and Miss Havisham and playing bridge with Buster Keaton.
You’ll recall how last year I finally worked up enough balls to give up a safe job in the middle of recession and go back to uni. And how I’m now training as a social worker, taking my meddler status from amateur to professional. You’ll recall all of this because you are, in the act of reading this blog, engaging in the last legal form of stalking. You’re watching me from afar, waiting for the right moment to ask for an autograph, tell me you’re my biggest fan, or take me to your underground den of torture and have me as your bride.
They say the word ‘hero’ is overused these days, applied to anyone who kicks a ball into a net or resists the metric system or rescues orphans from a burning paedophile ring. But I’d argue in some cases the word ‘hero’ is not used enough. I’m thinking particularly here in the case of me.