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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