When I was a little kid, I got kicked around and abused by the older kids at school. This went anywhere from your average day-to-day bullying to burning my hands by putting them between the rails of the heater, to full-on sexual abuse.
Of course my parents could sense that something was up. I had transformed from being an adventurous extroverted kid to a fearful introvert, and I could be mean to my younger brother at times. So for years on end, they lobbied to the school board to do something about it, but most of them flat-out denied it because they preferred keeping the school’s public image clean. “Stuff like that doesn’t happen at our school”, was their mantra.
I’m pretty sure that was a general policy issued from the director(s) of the school or whoever profited most from it. I can’t imagine a large group of people becoming teachers because they love helping little kids grow up, all thinking that abuse is okay. (To be fair, I later learned that after a couple of years, one of the teachers stood up for me in front of the rest at one of these meetings because she found it was going too far. Interestingly, this was the one teacher that was never friendly to me.)
It would be appropriate to say that for most of them, keeping this swept under the rug was a choice they made because their job might have depended on it. They were not the ones creating the policy of active denial. They were merely “innocent bystanders” who believed they had no choice.
To convince themselves that they were free of guilt, they lived in denial themselves. One day a girl tied me to a tree for the entire recess. This wasn’t even one of the people who made my life miserable, this was one of the few people in school I still connected with. But she liked me a lot, so she tied me up to have me for herself. (If that doesn’t make sense to you, you should try a different flavor than vanilla.) The only problem was that she didn’t realize I wasn’t enjoying it. I like being free, so I kept yelling for people to untie me. But the teachers didn’t want to do that. They said I was exaggerating because it was all happening in good fun. Except that it was neither fun, nor good to 3 year old me. But hey, we all make mistakes, right?
Luckily, the girl had responsible parents who talked to her about consent after school.
Those parents were smart people, because here’s a piece of truth most “innocent bystanders” don’t like to hear:
If you don’t act up or speak up, you actively support whatever’s going on. You’re telling the bully, the rapist, or the incompetent boss “Just keep doing what you’re doing, you are free to hurt more people through your immoral actions. No one gives a flying a fuck.”
Innocent bystanders don’t exist. It’s just a cutesy name for “silent supporter”.
The concept of silent supporters was eerily illustrated by an event that occurred 10 years later. I was 15 years old and hanging with 20 or 30 friends on empty supporter seats that were left behind from some kind of parade in the city. At one point about 10 guys in their early twenties walked up to us asking if we were looking for trouble. Since I was the naive dude saying that we were definitely not looking for trouble and were just hanging out in peace, the jolly troublemakers quickly started bashing my face in.
They broke some other guy’s glasses telling him that they would destroy him completely for no reason. Clearly a bunch of fun dudes. Especially the one small guy in the back who was too afraid to throw any punches himself but kept yelling “You want a piece of me? You want a piece of me?” while keeping a safe distance in case anyone would, you know, actually want a piece of his pathetic existence. Their mothers must be proud.
Anyway, while I was busy being a human punching bag for about 9 dudes (I would’ve said 10 but I never actually got a piece of that brave guy in the back), all my friends just kinda… Stood there and watched.
Until one of them got up. He’s a person I’ve always loved tremendously, because he is seemingly immune to social pressure. If everyone in our gang would do something and he didn’t like it, he’d do something else. If people called him weird for something he did, he’d shrug it off and continue to be his true self. Later in life I learned those are the only people I want to be close friends with. (So if you read this, you’re still one of the coolest guys I ever met, even though we only see each other once a month or something, you rock!)
I’m sure knew he wasn’t going to floor 10 experienced fighters about a decade older than him, but he walked up to them and said “That’s enough! Stop it!”. They then proceeded to throw him on the ground and started kicking him everywhere, while I ran off with my bloody face to get help and someone called the cops.
Looking at It from the Other Side
Years later, one of my friends told me how the whole experience had slightly traumatized him. He had always thought of himself as the kind of person who would help a friend in need. But when the moment actually came, he found himself paralyzed by fear. And he felt terrible afterwards for not doing something about it. Which is understandable, because if everyone who sat there watching had ganged up on those people (which we outnumbered), maybe one less person’s face got kicked in. Just like if all the teachers had told their boss that they found not ruining little kids psyche’ more important than working at a school with a picture perfect image, maybe he would’ve preferred admitting his mistake to firing all his employees.
On the other hand, when I thanked the friend that threw himself in front of me the next day, he simply smiled and said “It sucked, but you’d have done the same for me.”. And I would.
Here’s the thing: If you've ever been bullied or discriminated before, you probably hate innocent bystanders (AKA "enablers"), but are they bad people?
Of course they’re not. Bad people are the kind of people who break someone's nose for no other reason than the fact that the person is 10 years younger and can’t defend himself. Innocent bystanders are the kind of people who have a behavioral pattern that causes them to switch to “spectator” mode instead of creator mode. Like the majority of people, they are used to a culture of watching things happen, not making things happen. That doesn't mean their intent isn't good.
As you can see, the innocent bystanders in my story had a far more horrific experience than the people who did something. Because being an innocent bystander fucks with yourself esteem. Actually doing something about it raises your self-esteem.
Why? Because acting like an innocent bystander makes you feel like a victim. While trying, even trying and failing to do something about it, makes you feel like you are responsible, and in control of your situation.
Now, Here's the Plot Twist
What’s happening in your life right now, that you don’t like?
• Maybe one of your “friends” is gossiping behind your back.
• Maybe you’re gaining weight.
• Maybe your boss is too demanding and you have no free time left.
• Maybe your boyfriend doesn’t eat you out or take you that often anymore. Oops, I meant, “eat with you or take you out” of course 😉
Are you consciously dealing with these things, or do you just sit there, not liking what’s happening? Or do you deny the existence of these problems like the teachers at my school did?
You are not an innocent bystander to the problems in your life, because innocent bystanders don’t exist. You can only ever be a silent supporter. And as long as you subconsciously tell your own mind “Just keep doing what you’re doing, you’re free to hurt me through your immortal inaction. No one gives a flying fuck.”, none of that will ever change. You’re practically cheering it on.
If you want real change to happen, you can no longer stay a silent supporter. You have to speak up and set yourself straight.
• Muster up the courage to tell your friend that even though you hope it’s not true, you’ve managed to trace back the gossip to them, and that you don’t tolerate such behavior from people in your life.
• When you’re in the super market, put down the donuts and stand up for the part of you that wants to lose weight. When you get offered food, decline it politely and tell them you love their kindness but you have set a weight goal for yourself that you find more important than sociability.
• Analyze your own performance at work and present your boss with the report, showing him that you will be much more productive and profitable when you get more time off.
• Tell your boyfriend that you’ll no longer cook for him and he’ll have to either take you out to eat, or have pussy for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. (Which incidentally, might help him with his weith loss goals 😉 )
It’s not always fun to assume responsibility for your own problems, but look at it this way: Even when the truth may be painful at first, at least accepting it will liberate you.
Staying an innocent bystander on the other hand, will imprison you for life. You’ll sit there waiting for years, hoping that someone else (Your friends? Society? God himself?) will someday solve your problem. But the truth is that you’ll never solve them until you stop being a bystander.
And yes, maybe not every problem in this world can be solved, but like my buddy who threw himself in front of me: Wouldn’t you rather live to know that you did all you could, accepting the fact that sometimes that wasn’t enough, than die knowing that you just stood there watching everything go the wrong way until your shit was totally fucked up?
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