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When Good People Don't Act

Even the most conscientious among us can betray one another in moments of strife. As we enter one of this nation's most frightening chapters, we need to understand why and fight for one another's lives like never before.
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The hard reality is sinking in: President Obama’s final press conference did not reveal any last ditch rescue of our democracy from Trumpism. The electoral college vote on December 19 made a mockery of our hopes for a deus ex machina save. Our country remains as divided as ever. We wake up to a fresh hell every morning, new headlines burning their horror into our minds and hearts as our cries of “someone do something” go unheard.

Why does it feel like none of our institutions and the people who run them acting on behalf of the right thing? It’s even worse on the ground for people every day. Every day since the election hateful events have become increasingly common: a white woman shouts racial slurs at women of color in a Kentucky JCPenney while a line of bystanders stays silent, yet in New York, strangers rallied to muscle a man off a subway train for making anti-Semitic comments. Where is the line between watching and acting, and why don’t more of us cross it?

While it’s tempting to give in to black-and-white thinking that only some people are good and others are not, consider that “good” Germans hid Jews from the Nazis, while some well-intentioned Jews in concentration camps turned on one another in order to survive.

People do all sorts of bizarre things in groups, make poor decisions. Group dynamics are complex,” Charlotte Howard, a Texas-based licensed psychologist, tells DAME. “If we know something’s wrong, because of peer pressure, or because of fear, we don’t want to draw fire toward us. If there’s something hateful going on, then all that hate might get directed toward us, so people have a tendency of self preservation to ignore it, lay low, look the other way.”

We’ve all had moments where we freeze and later wish we’d spoken up, done something, or reached out. Years ago, I was secretary for a chapter of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA)—conducting our meeting as usual when the large, drunk boyfriend of one of our members burst in and began ranting threateningly at us. I watched a room full of adults freeze, myself included, shocked and terrified as this larger-than-life man spewed vitriol at us. After nearly 20 minutes, when I found words, they didn’t come from any place of bravery—they were part of my script in my role as secretary. “It’s time to end the meeting,” I squeaked out, and the man snapped out of his tirade and bolted. I left that meeting angry: angry at the girlfriend, though she was clearly a victim of abuse. Angry at the 15 other people, many of them strong and capable, though they probably had trauma of a similar nature in their own pasts. Angry at myself for not knowing what to say before this guy ruined our night. Why didn’t anyone act? I fumed.

In fact, psychologists have a host of terms for these states of doing nothing when something needs to be done: Bystander effect. Groupthink. Compassion collapse.

“There’s a concept called diffusion of responsibility. This is where we tend to act differently in a larger group than we would alone,” Jessica Hunter, a Virginia-based psychologist tells DAME. She says this is related to the bystander effect. “When other people are present, you feel less personal obligation to help, or personal responsibility.”

The most famous example of this “bystander effect” gets its name from a famous New York case, in which a 28-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in Kew Gardens, screaming and crying within earshot of many homes. No one called the police until it was too late.

Yet there are daily accounts of subtler acts of aggression and hostility in public from which people look away or do nothing. And now in these desperate times, with our President-elect and his band of merry fascists threatening to normalize hate speech, and minimizing the violence of his supporters, it’s more dangerous than ever. Howard says, “Trump has brought out the dark underbelly of human nature,” which she believes has a lot to do with “repressing a lot of our darkness, and that has to get integrated.” Meanwhile, that darkness pervades society like a noxious gas, sedating half of us, and poisoning others.

Looking for Leaders in all the Wrong Places

When no one appears to be “in charge” or the responsible adult in a dangerous situation or in troubling times, Hunter says people default to doing nothing. “We wonder if someone else maybe knows better. We may not know if we have the right course of action.” However, the consequence of that is, “We’re so busy waiting for someone else to act and then the bad guys get their way.”

Instead, we have to tap into what Hunter calls our “collective responsibility” not to be bystanders as life changes around us and becomes ever more difficult especially for marginalized folks, people of color, and women. While most of us can’t do anything in person about far-flung terrors, or even the impending change of president, we can stand up and speak out.

As an example, I attended a “community inclusivity forum” in my town two weeks ago, an event designed to bring together members of the community who don’t feel self and ask what we could do to help them. A member of the local Islamic community spoke eloquently about a phenomenon he has been seeing at public meetings around their attempts to build a mosque, in which “fringe” people attend and spout inaccuracies, outright lies or hate speech about Muslims, which then go unchecked by the group. His plea to us was to add our voices to counter these attitudes that Muslims (or any marginalized group) are anything but upstanding members of all communities. Silence normalizes. Silence says hate and lies are okay.

Being brave enough to act in the face of danger and difficulty inevitably brings discomfort for those who have not already been in the fray, yet “bringing awareness is what brings about change,” Hunter says. “Maybe when people get uncomfortable enough, then it will spark us.” She is concerned about the “safe detachment in social media,” that makes it all too easy to drop a barb, or parry one online, then walk away without feeling the consequences. It’s also easy to take one quiet action and call it enough. While every action counts, we’re living in times where more will be required of us.

This may mean shifting your modus operandi away from the comfort of social media, and out into the world in some visceral way. Attend a rally, a volunteer effort, or offer comfort to someone in need in person.

Find Your Moral Compass

Journalist Masha Gessen, whose own Jewish grandfather played a part in the Judenrat, working with the Nazis to select which Jews to save and which Jews to send to concentration camps, writes in the New York Review of Books that now is a time for strengthening our sense of morality and acting on it at all times. “What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge.... As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future.”

Hunter agrees. “Everyone knows the right thing to do. There’s a kind of collective morality, but we each have a delay.” That delay may be fear of attack, fear of being seen as negative, or any number of self-preservationist tactics.

Josh Nathan, a professor of critical thinking and communication at the Art Institute of Colorado warns, however, that we can’t rely on everyone to share in this collective morality. “I think we’d love for there to be a universal morality, but when we look at the span of humankind, what has been defined as good or moral versus bad or immoral has changed as often as the weather,” he says.

He faults media, both journalism and social media, for “conflating socioeconomic and sociopolitical issues with fictitious issues,” essentially training us, as a society, to take our moral cues from “what’s trending” and false news sources rather than what might be morally right.

Hunter feels that rather than feeling discouraged by “so much hate in this country” voiced by a segment of the base that supports Trump, she reminds us, “If everyone can speak up about they actually feel, the morality in this country can win.”

History remembers us for our actions, not our intentions, after all. Do you want to be the one who trembled in the corner while someone suffered or the person who spoke up bravely, with a quaver in your voice, and made a difference?

 

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Jordan E. Rosenfeld has written for: The Atlantic, the New York Times, New York Magazine, Ozy, Pacific Standard, The Rumpus, Salon, Scientific American, The Washington Post, Stir Journal, and more. She lives in California with her husband and son. Find more of her writing at www.Jordanrosenfeld.net, and follow her: @JordanRosenfeld