On May 20th, two transgender women were stripped naked and beaten on a train in downtown Atlanta. According to GA Voice, Georgia’s LGBT newspaper, ‘people on the train did not try to stop the fight and instead many cheered and took videos on their phones’.
We often talk about the ‘bystander effect’ as if it were an apolitical fact of human psychology: people fail to intervene because they assume someone else will and because they take social cues from their fellow bystanders. In the 1964 Kitty Genovese case that inspired Darley and Latané’s ground-breaking studies into bystander apathy, a New York woman was raped and murdered by a man while several witnesses failed to intervene. Darley and Latané seem not to have drawn a connection between this instance and a societal tolerance of male violence against women.
These links still go unnoticed. Last January, psychologist Marilyn Campbell accounted for a case of racist abuse against an Indian woman on a Brisbane bus in similarly general terms: people fail to intervene, she said, because they think that ‘the person who is harassing or bullying the victim will turn on them’, they are ‘too embarrassed to do what is right’, and the presence of other witnesses creates a ‘diffusion of responsibility’.
Not only did this interpretation elide the abuser’s racism – it masked it. Racist abusers are unlikely to ‘turn on’ people from a racially dominant group, and they certainly won’t do it in the same racialised way. The risks of intervention were not identical for every person present on the bus. It is not arbitrary that some people end up victims, some end up abusers and some end up bystanders.
The Twitter response to the Atlanta train incident has been telling – most have combined justified outrage with surprise that no-one stopped the attack:
The thugs on the train in Atlanta believed that society would tolerate their transphobia, and as it turns out, they were right. The man on the Brisbane bus believed that society would tolerate his racism, and he was right as well. They acted on pre-existing communal prejudices. Anger is an appropriate response to these incidents – but surprise is not.
However, there has been a growing acknowledgement that societal prejudices play a role in people’s willingness to intervene. In response to the Elliot Rodger massacre, Arthur Chu wrote about online nerd culture and its complicity in male entitlement and misogyny. Notably, he did not blame our failure to stop people like Rodger on nebulous human instincts; he instead unearthed specific sexist assumptions and blamed himself and his friends for not challenging them.
This work needs to continue.
In response to incidents of bystander passivity, people often ask themselves what they would have done. Here is one potential predictor: look at what you do in situations where speaking out poses a low risk to you. If you don’t intervene then, it seems unlikely that you would in a higher-stake scenario.
For example: if you don’t know someone who has shouted racist abuse on a bus, you certainly know someone who thought it was funny when a black man spoke on the news about his sister almost being raped and a pair of white men auto-tuned him. Opportunities to intervene against bigotry are grimly quotidian.
Already, many people will acknowledge in private that their friends hold appalling views. ‘Yeah, he’s so transphobic.’ ‘Yeah, her attitude to welfare recipients is atrocious.’ ‘Yeah, that rape joke he made was just disgusting.’
We feel good doing it: it’s an aggressively performative attempt to show how tuned-in we are to racism, how sexism never passes us by, how keenly we pick up on homophobia. But these pronouncements ring hollow if we don’t try to dissuade our friends from their horrible beliefs – and if we stay friends with them after they’ve made if clear that they won’t be dissuaded.
The link might seem tenuous at first. After all, not all people who use transphobic slurs come to believe that they will get away with attacking trans people. But that is no excuse for letting their hatred go unchecked. Firstly, some of them will turn violent (if they haven’t already); and secondly, the fact that you don’t want to let someone’s transphobia affect your friendship with them sends a greater signal of disloyalty to the trans community and of tolerance for transphobia.
That should be obvious, but it seems not to be. Whatever the theory, many feel that the practice is just too strenuous. ‘What do you expect me to do – ignore their wall posts?’
Well, yes. Ignoring someone’s Facebook communications requires less muscle exertion than typing out a reply to them – and snubbing a bigot shouldn’t require much psychological effort, either. Certainly, it shouldn’t upset you more than the alternative: telling people affected by discrimination that you’ll only support them if it doesn’t require a sacrifice on your part.
Letting oppressed people know that you abhor what’s happening to them, and stopping there, is precisely the sort of milquetoast activism that prompted people to sit back while the Atlanta train attack happened in front of them. Trans people do not need cis-gendered allies to educate them about transphobia. Women do not need male allies to educate them about sexism. Victims of oppression are better informed about their experiences than privileged people are; you know what it’s like for them only because they have told you. While your support will often be appreciated, it is not enough to bring about change.
The people who need your input are the bigots. The bigots you know. The bigots who enjoy your company and value your opinion. They need their friends to call them out on their bile.
It is difficult and emotionally draining to combat oppression. This tweeter, along with many others, finds it tiresome:
But you are privileged in having a choice in whether or not to notice discrimination. The recipients can’t help but be aware of it. When privileged people express sympathy for marginalised groups but never actually call anyone out on their bigotry, they are selectively assuming anti-discriminatory rhetoric when it’s fashionable – without changing their actions.
If you put up with racists, then interrogate the fact that you’re comfortable in their company – comfortable enough to keep talking to them, anyway. Think about how you’ll only point out that you disagree with the racist when you’re around people who might judge you for tolerating such beliefs – and think about whether that implies that you don’t judge yourself for doing it.
Most of us (myself undoubtedly included) are far less progressive than we like to believe. We pick the easy fights and baulk at the real challenges. Nothing will ever change until we become genuinely willing to intervene.