What Happens when you don’t mind your business

What Happens when you don’t mind your business

Growing up believing that What Happens In This House, Stays In This House, I was also taught, like most people, that you’re supposed to mind your business as much as you’re supposed to keep your business secret.  I guess we’re all supposed to respect everyone keeping their demons secret.

Through the years, I’ve done lots of workshops where I’ve described bystander intervention and encouraged others to intervene when they witness or suspect violence is occurring.  And more than once, I’ve had someone raise their hand in protest because there was this one time they tried to defend a girl from her boyfriend and, when the police showed up, she turned on them and said they picked a fight with her boyfriend.  Or someone would say that they’ve heard people fighting in the apartment above them and called the police but the victim lied and told the police that everything was ok, so they felt like there was no point in trying to help her if she didn’t really want their help.  I can understand why either situation would discourage someone from wanting to help in the future.  But, it’s important.  One of the cases we’d often discuss is the case of a gang rape in California outside of a homecoming dance.  A fifteen year old girl was gang raped in an alley outside of the school gym, and as people realized what was happening, instead of calling for help, they took their phones out to take pictures.  They laughed.  Some of them even joined in.  It was a classic case of the Genovese syndrome or the bystander effect, when a crowd of people is actually less likely to help a victim than they might be if there were only one or two people witnessing the abuse.  For example, in the recent Brock Turner sexual assault case, two students noticed Brock Turner raping an unconscious student near a dumpster and, when “something seemed weird”, they confronted him.  

Carl Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson were cycling when they noticed Brock Turner raping an unconscious woman.

Carl Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson were cycling when they noticed Brock Turner raping an unconscious woman.

When he took off running, they chased him and held him down until the police arrived.  This is why I’m such an advocate for bystander intervention.  If it hadn’t been for them intervening, he may not have ever been caught or prosecuted.  While his sentence has been controversial, it makes a huge difference that he was caught at all.  The young men who stopped them were very brave and what they did is commendable but, there are also lots of ways to help someone without putting yourself at risk for retaliation or feeling like your efforts are in vain.  There is no excuse for standing around watching abuse that you can do something about.  Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Call a spade, a spade.  When you recognize abuse or domestic violence or bullying or whatever else you witness, name it properly.  Use your words.  Talk about it.  Don’t say that he disrespects her when it’s more accurate to say that he is abusive.  Don’t glamorize controlling behavior, like constantly calling and texting or acting jealous, as sweet or an indication that you are desired or valued.  When we stop normalizing abusive behavior as something that every couple goes through, we empower victims to recognize abuse for what it truly is sooner than later.  At the same time, it may send a message to abusers and potential abusers that their behavior does not go unnoticed and is not condoned.

  2. Don’t abandon your friend.  Let’s be honest.  When a friend is in a relationship, her friends are in the relationship too.  She gushes about the sweet things he does and she consults them about how she feels in her relationship.  And when he disappoints her, if she feels comfortable, she’ll tell her friends what he did to mess up.  And after hearing about how many times he’s messed up, her friends may begin to tell her that she should get out of her relationship.  From the outside looking in, they see the relationship from a different perspective and want to protect their friend from getting hurt.  But, she doesn’t want to end the relationship, she wants the abusive and unhealthy behavior to stop.  While she is working through her feelings, it is critical that she has the support of her friends and family.  Try to put yourself in her shoes and understand the various reasons that make her feel like she should stay.  Be gentle.  Don’t judge her.  And don’t give up on her.  It’s the abuser’s goal to isolate her from her friends and family.  If you get tired and keep your distance, the abuser gains more control and she’s more likely to be in the relationship even longer.

  3. Be the bat-signal, not Batman.  When the student told me how he tried to rescue the girl from her boyfriend, I applauded his efforts.  But, I warned him that, in the future, he should just call the police.  Don’t be a hero.  Report the behavior you’ve witnessed and keep your distance from a dangerous or volatile situation.  If she lies about being abused when the police show up, it’s not a lost cause.  Now they both know that someone is paying attention and, one of those times, she might feel safe enough to leave.  Because the behavior is being exposed, there are fewer safe and secret places to hide and cover up what’s happening.

The golden rule certainly applies here but not in the way that we’ve been using it.  Treating others the way you’d want to be treated doesn’t mean minding your business so that they’ll mind theirs; if you were being abused, you’d want someone to care enough to call for help instead of pretending not to notice, or worse, taking pictures and joining in.  Even the small things we do can make a huge difference in What Happens in someone else’s life.  

Sound off in the comments about other ways you can safely intervene as a bystander.