Most people, when tested, will reveal themselves to be devoutly populist, meaning they form their values from what’s perceived to be a prevailing sentiment of the majority around them. This creates an interesting phenomenon — bystander apathy.
One sees something that seems entirely out of place, but seeing multiple people around who aren’t reacting to it, the individual refuses to react as well.
I think of it in terms of the 8th grade dance. Everyone wants to dance. The gymnasium is decorated and basketball courts are transformed to dance floors. Music is playing, everyone is dressed up and we’ve been secretly practicing our moves. The boys are all bunched up on one side, girls on the other and nobody is dancing.
If nobody else is doing it (though we certainly came to dance), we cannot bring ourselves to act differently than everyone else. Yet, if one person is so brazen as to walk to the middle of that dance floor and bust his or her respective move, a flood of participants will follow.
Unfortunately, apathy works similarly in even grave situations. It’s common in the workplace. An employee might witness exploitation and blatant disregard for safety. But if other workers have been conditioned to endure these conditions without dissent, it seems impossible for any one employee to raise concern.
When people are convinced that something just cannot be changed or that vying for change will be too awkward, uncomfortable or troublesome, it becomes exponentially more difficult for any one person to act.
Terrible things take place because of this. Entire communities become aware of abuse taking place within a single household but won’t confront it until they find themselves mourning the death of the victim.
In 1993, when two 10-year-old boys kidnapped and tortured 2-year-old James Bulger before murdering him, it was reported that people driving by saw the boy being assaulted but did nothing to interfere or even call authorities because nobody else seemed to be reacting to the terrifying spectacle.
Our herd mentality has proven deadly. We’re conditioned against confrontation. We’re told fighting is bad, speaking out of place is bad and interrupting is unforgivable. We blend into crowds. We don’t draw attention to ourselves and we don’t, under any circumstances, rock the proverbial boat.
We have to break ourselves of this. We have to be radical and we have to be bold. We have to be the brazen boy who busts a move when no one else is dancing. Even when we’re scared and we’re alone in our convictions, against all odds, we must dissent against injustice, and oppose abuse and intimidation.
When you know in your heart something isn’t right, even when 1,000 people around you are going by as if this thing is perfectly acceptable, it is up to you alone to do the terrifying thing of standing up and showing that whatever is going on has not gone unnoticed.
Your heart will never forgive you for failing to act.
It’s a great and burdensome responsibility; a promise that we must keep for ourselves and for each other. It will be hard. It will be at times incredibly lonely.
But you have got to stand your ground.
To contact Jorge Krzyzaniak, email email@example.com