Every so often, we find ourselves audience to someone else’s drama. The neighbours are arguing. You can hear their angry voices through the walls of the apartment building. At the office Christmas party, you notice a woman getting yet another drink and a man (who has never, in your experience, paid her any particular notice before) being attentive and flirtatious. Being a generally well-informed and experienced person, you know that the dramas unfolding could take a number of different forms. The argument might resolve itself in hugs and kisses in a few minutes. But there is a chance that it could turn violent. At the party, you may merely be witnessing two people enjoying a festive atmosphere, or even the budding of a new office romance. But you also know that this same scenario sometimes ends in rape.
Once these dangerous possibilities occur to you, so too might this next thought: you are not, in fact, simply part of the audience to other people’s lives. Unlike your experience watching movies, in this case, you can affect the course events take. You can intervene and perhaps prevent a bad outcome. On the other hand, you may also feel a sense of discomfort at the thought of interfering in other people’s lives, especially at these emotionally vulnerable moments and especially when you are not sure that anything is really wrong. Indeed, just being a witness to such moments can feel like an intrusion into other people’s private business.
But having realised that you have the option to intervene, you are faced with a choice. Will you intervene, or will you do nothing? At this point, you face more than one form of uncertainty. As we have already highlighted, the factual nature of the situations is uncertain. Is the neighbours’ argument headed toward physical violence? Or is it simply a verbal disagreement? Raised voices do not always signal violence, after all. But, sometimes they do. Just how much has the woman at the Christmas party had to drink? Is her judgement impaired? What does the flirtatious man have in mind?
We are almost never in the position to be able to answer questions like these with any certainty. Instead, we make rough judgements about whether situations seem more or less risky. We will act (we tell ourselves) if things seem to take a bad turn. Unfortunately, the psychological studies that have been performed on bystanders since the late 1960s give us reason to doubt whether we can trust ourselves with this task. Studies, including work by Bibb Latané and John Darley, suggest that bystanders often tend to remain passive even when a more objective observer (that is, someone who does not have to choose whether to intervene or not) would say that it is clear that the bystander could easily give aid to a person in peril with no risk to himself.
A number of factors have been identified to help explain these tendencies towards passivity: diffusion of responsibility; pluralistic ignorance (wherein several bystanders each falsely believe that the others approve of what is going on); routinisation and desensitisation; fear of embarrassment, retaliation, damaging relationships, or becoming too involved; and the belief that one will be unable to make a difference. So here is a second area of uncertainty, one concerning our own reliability to form the relevant judgements and make the crucial decisions from the bystander position. If we were to come upon a person in danger, would we recognise the situation for what it is? Or would we – perhaps from an unacknowledged fear of having to take responsibility or looking ridiculous if we are mistaken – talk ourselves into the belief that all is well? If we were to recognise the risk, would we act?
In response to the findings on the high rates of bystander passivity, a number of scholars and violence prevention advocates have begun engaging in what is known as Active Bystander training. The general idea is to try to create campus and workplace cultures in which bystanders will be more likely to intervene to help people in need, especially in situations of sexual harassment, bullying, domestic and relationship violence, and rape.
They do this by increasing awareness of the prevalence and harmfulness of these forms of abuse, by informing people about the psychological factors that can lead bystanders to fail to respond when action is warranted, and by teaching a wide range of intervention techniques that bystanders can implement when they witness problematic events.
One criticism of Active Bystander programs is that they do not take the first form of uncertainty that I mentioned seriously enough. Bystander scenarios like the ones with which I opened this essay often involve factual uncertainty – here, whether the neighbours’ argument will turn violent and whether the flirtatious man is plotting to take advantage of the inebriated co-worker. Active Bystander programs, insofar as they encourage a more interventionist bystander culture, often appear to be advocating intervention at lower levels of perceived risk. That is, one interpretation of a “more active” bystander culture is one wherein bystanders intervene whenever there is some evidence of a problem or some risk of harm, where these standards may be rather low. This is one reading of the line one sometimes hears in such circles, “See something, say something”. Something is a fairly low standard of evidence.
The problem with having a low threshold for perceived risk of harm is, of course, the loss of privacy and related goods that would result from an over-active interventionist culture. If you interfere where no abuse would have taken place, something will have been lost or damaged without a compensating gain. At this point we run into a third, moral form of uncertainty. How does the bystander strike the correct balance between the need to protect others from abuse and the good of minding her own business?
Consider again the scenarios wherein you are a bystander to your neighbours’ heated argument and to the alcohol-infused scene at the Christmas party. If there were clear evidence that violence or coercion had begun, then the need to intervene would be obvious. The case is difficult because matters are uncertain. Someone might be in need of your aid here, but perhaps not. The couple next door might be saying (shouting!) things to one another that need to be said for the good of their relationship. Or perhaps this is simply the way this couple communicates. What you find upsetting may be, to them, simply a way of releasing tension. Your intervention could make things worse for them, or embarrass them needlessly. Calling the police, when the police are not really needed, can have undeserved, negative consequences for people, especially if they have had dealings with the police in the past. Similarly, interfering with the two people at the Christmas party may disrupt positive relationships and create negative consequences, such as damaged reputations, for no good reason. What people say to their partners, whether they argue and about what, how much alcohol they consume, and with whom they choose to flirt or go home are all quintessentially private issues. We may decide that privacy should sometimes be overridden to protect more important interests, but surely privacy has a value that must be weighed in the balance.
In response, one might argue that, if forced to choose between the value of protecting people from abuse and the value of minding our own business, we should always select the former. Active Bystander training programs often emphasise the magnitude of the harm caused by behaviours such as rape and domestic violence. Wrongs such as these occur more frequently when bystanders remain passive. For example, rapists are better able to prey on intoxicated victims when bystanders say and do nothing. Furthermore, the severity of the suffering caused (e.g. the feelings of isolation, abandonment and hopelessness of the victims) is exacerbated when bystanders remain passive. Therefore, one might conclude, whenever you have a reason to think that someone might be in danger of such abuse, you should intervene. If you do not, you might even be considered complicit in any wrongs that follow.
However, it is worth considering what the consequences might be of always following this line of reasoning and always intervening anytime there is a risk – however low – of abuse. Considered one case at a time, a chance to prevent abuse may always seem to trump the interest in privacy. But larger scale shifts to the boundaries of what is and is not permissible bystander intervention would redefine what counts as private.
When we tell people to mind their own business, we are often making a plea for the value of privacy. That is, we are defending the interests of the one who would otherwise be interfered with. But there is also another argument to be made for the value of minding your own business. This second argument warns what may happen to people who habitually interfere with others. Such a tendency is usually associated with the vice of character often called judgementalism or moralism, which involves a tendency to over-diagnose moral failings in other people or to see moral issues where there are none. Moralism, in turn, tends to nurture other vices including: self-righteousness, since frequent correction of others implies that one’s own moral standards are higher than other people’s; hypocrisy, since it is difficult to live up to one’s own standards if they are very high; and what we might call censoriousness, which involves the taking of pleasure in correcting other people’s failings. To these specifically moralistic vices we may also add the voyeuristic vice of taking too much pleasure in peeking in at other people’s private affairs.
Whereas the first argument emphasised the possible harms to the interests of other people caused by bystanders’ failures to properly mind their own business, the second line of argument suggests that bystanders may also do damage to their own characters by cultivating habits of intervention that are too active. Together these arguments suggest that the value of minding one’s own business cannot simply be written off as negligible, even given our (rightfully!) great concern with protecting our neighbours, co-workers and other fellows from abuse. The moral uncertainty of the bystander cannot be handled so tidily.
So what is a poor bystander to do? Well, one might say, there is no cure for uncertainty but information. When we are not sure how high the risk of a harmful outcome is, the moral uncertainty of the choice between protecting a potential victim and minding one’s own business is quite difficult. But if we could reduce the factual uncertainty – if we could get better information of how high the risk of harm is – then the moral question becomes easier to answer. When the risk of harm is high, we can more confidently intervene. When the risk seems low, the case for restraint is stronger. The more we can learn about the situation, the better we may be able to judge the cases that fall in the middle. So, the suggestion continues, the best thing for the bystander to do is to investigate.
Unfortunately, the moral problem often blocks precisely this move. In cases like these, the only way to investigate further is to not mind one’s own business. How can you figure out whether the neighbours’ argument is about to turn violent? By turning the volume down on your television and pressing your ear to the wall. How can you decide how risky the situation at the Christmas party is? By asking the bartender how many drinks the woman has had, collecting gossip about the man’s sexual habits, or, at the least, watching their movements for the rest of the party. These are all examples of nosiness – well-intentioned nosiness, perhaps, but nosiness. To choose to investigate is to choose to infringe on other people’s privacy.
No wonder bystanders are so often passive. In addition to all the other psychological forces that may be at play, the problems of uncertainty are daunting indeed. Should I give aid or not? How can I be sure aid is needed? My interference may be unwelcome or do greater harm if I am mistaken. I could try to find out more about the situation. But how can I do that without being presumptuous? One begins to understand the temptation to simply throw one of our two competing values overboard – to say, as some in the Active Bystanding community appear tempted to do, “always act,” or, as people in some more traditional communities have tended to say, “always keep your nose out of other people’s business.” Given that the latter choice seems to commit us to abandoning one another to potentially disastrous outcomes, the former may be preferable. But, luckily, the choices we face as bystanders are not really this stark.
Both minding your own business and the kind of active intervention that might aid another person come in degrees. There are ways of interfering in other people’s affairs that preserve more or less of their privacy. Purposefully lowering the volume of your TV so that you will likely be able to hear if the argument turns violent, but not so low that you can decipher the words being shouted, is a way of walking such a line. Offering the woman at the party a ride home is less intrusive than telling the man to back off.
Providing bystanders with a wide range of more and less subtle ways of intervening in situations is central to Active Bystander training programs. This may lend more plausibility to the suggestion, which seems to me to be implicit in their materials, that intervention is permissible even when there may be only a low risk of harm. A case involving a less risk may warrant only a less intrusive response from a bystander, whereas a severe risk would warrant a more intrusive response.
Interestingly, one thing that seems appealing about many of the less intrusive forms of response is that they allow the bystander to preserve certain kinds of uncertainty. Up until now we have talked about uncertainty as a problem. You would be more likely to know whether to intervene if only you knew more of the facts of the situation, or how to balance the value of protecting others against the value of minding your own business. Those forms of factual and moral uncertainty have left you unsure how to act. But it doesn’t follow that all uncertainty is bad, or that you should try to resolve all uncertainty. If you can monitor the rough tenor of the argument through the apartment wall, without going next door and getting drawn into the details of your neighbours’ dispute, that is a good thing. If you can solve your dilemma at the party simply by confirming that a friend is driving your co-worker home, great! You ensure her safety without having to take the moral measure of your flirtatious male co-worker.
Our duties to protect other people do not always allow us avoid infringing on their privacy to some degree, but there are sometimes ways of doing this that will help us avoid the vices of moralism. We can sometimes intervene in ways that allow us to protect people from harm while preserving our uncertainty about the faults of others.
At other times though, such simple interventions, which allow us to preserve much of our comfortable distance and prevent us from having to form any moral judgements about other people, will no longer be possible. Perhaps the fight next door does escalate. Perhaps you see the man lead the half-conscious woman into a darkened office. Here, the uncertain factor is you. Will you, at that moment, act the way you now, at a cool moment of reflection, believe you should?