Image: “Bully” artwork by John Hain via pixabay.com

How many of us would feel confident intervening if we saw one person yelling slurs at another person? It might be someone harassing a woman in a hijab, or toughs pestering a disabled person, or kids teasing a fat person. What can we do that won’t make matters worse? What can we do to de-escalate the situation?

When someone sees others bullying another person and fails to intervene, it’s called “bystander syndrome.” It is specifically forbidden in Torah, in Leviticus 19:

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor – Lev. 19:16

What should we do, especially if we are nervous about intervening? This is something that has troubled me.

A wonderful woman, an artist named Maeril, addresses the solution to bystander syndrome in a cartoon specifically aimed at Islamophobic harassment. Her advice is solidly based in psychology, and its purpose is to de-escalate the situation. It would translate nicely to many other situations, however, and I plan to practice it the next time I see someone being mean to someone else. As with anything else, it will get easier the more often I do it.

I will put the cartoon in its entirety at the bottom of this post, but to summarize the steps:

  1. You see someone harassing a vulnerable person. Go to the person under attack, be as calm and collected and FRIENDLY as you can, and say hello. Sit next to them if you can. Pay no attention to the harasser(s).
  2. Pick a random topic and start chatting. The weather, a TV show, anything – something neutral and easy to ramble about. Continue ignoring the attacker; do not even look at them. They do not exist.
  3. Continue the conversation until the attacker leaves. Offer to escort the person to a safe place, but respect their wishes if they say they just want to leave.

This way of dealing with the situation is based in a psychological concept called “non-complementary behavior” – instead of “fighting fire with fire” we deal with a situation by doing something completely the opposite of the expected script. Think of it as fighting fire with water. In this case, if the attacker is yelling racist slurs at a woman, we sit by her as if nothing unpleasant is going on, and engage in a pleasant conversation, ignoring the screamer. He wanted to feel big and powerful – now he’s totally irrelevant! Even if he temporarily escalates to calling you names too (“slur-lover” etc) if it gets no reaction at all, he will begin to feel like a fool. That’s not what he wanted at all, so he’ll move on.

My pronouns assume that “he” is the bad guy and “she” is the innocent – that matches the cartoon – but harassment can come in any gender. A woman yelling at a transman is equally horrible and yes, he needs your support!

And yes, it may be that the bully won’t move on and someone will have to call the cops. At least in the meantime, the innocent person is not left alone to deal with the torture. And it really is our best shot at getting the creep to go away and leave the person alone.

I know I feel a lot better equipped to be a mensch after seeing this – I hope you do too!

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