Another Opinion on Bystander Intervention

India Flinchum, Columnist

Social justice advocates have argued for decades over the extent to which bystanders are responsible for intervening in acts of injustice. Indeed, an individual’s definition of “injustice” may vary according to his or her culture and values, but there is undoubtedly a universal feeling of unease that rises up in our guts when we witness an event occurring that compromises our own beliefs and ethical standards.

In truth, bystanders are always partially responsible for an injustice that they fail to intervene in. What many bystanders fail to realize, is that intervention can take place in many forms and you do not have to sacrifice personal safety. It’s essentially up to you to decide what you’re willing to risk in terms of intervention.

Illustration by Haley King

For instance, if you witness racial slurs being thrown at a passerby as you’re crossing the street you may decide that breaking up the skirmish could be dangerous. In this case, you must assess the situation. Does the perpetrator have a weapon? Is he or she moving violently and inflicting physical harm on the passerby? If this is the case, direct engagement may not be ideal.

Instead, intervening in the event could entail calling police force or getting the attention of someone more willing to take direct with a more confrontational approach. Doing nothing, however, is paying tribute to the perpetrator. While not openly supporting his or her actions, you are excusing his or her behavior.

The extent to which you intervene in an act of injustice is partly dependent on individual choice and partly situational, dependent on the context of the incident. It is not enough to refrain from intervention if you feel uncomfortable or afraid. These are natural feelings that arise when you’re confronted with a situation that conflicts with your moral system, and you must learn to channel these feelings into productive, responsible action that prioritizes the safety of the victim and the perpetrator’s repercussions afterword.

If you are not participating in the pursuit of justice, you are not an advocate for social change. If you do not actively renounce an unjust situation when it is safe and necessary to intervene, then you are partially responsible for the end result of the injustice that occurs, because part of it could have been prevented. There is no intermediary. You are either an advocate for social change and justice, or you are not.

Preaching values without denouncing actions that oppose your beliefs, but failing to stand up for your beliefs and articulate your idea of justice to the world, you are failing at your job. Teachers can’t simply stand in front of the room and condone inappropriate behavior in the classroom.