I was co-teaching a Mediation course today and we started talking about how important the role is of those who may not be directly involved in a conflict, but are in a “by-stander” role. You are a by-stander if someone comes to you to complain about a co-worker, colleague or friend. You are a by-stander if you witness someone else being hurt. You are a by-stander if you are a witness to any kind of conflict.
In our individualistic culture, when someone is involved in conflict that doesn’t directly involve us, the accepted wisdom is that it’s “not my business.” In fact, we can be seen as busy-bodies or meddlesome. So our collective mantra becomes: “I better stay out of it.”
However, Barbara Coloroso, best known as a parenting expert, thinks differently. After spending time in Rwanda, she dived into the links between genocide, bullying, the bullied and the bystander. She found a direct correlation between the dynamics of school yard bullying and the dynamics that eventually lead to a genocide.
One key insight she found was something called the “trap of comradeship” which occurs between the bullied, the bully and the bystander. Although I find the word “bully” to be a loaded, emotional term that tends to cloud the actual behaviours being talked about, Coloroso’s perception that the broader community has a role to play in active peace-making resonates deeply.
Coloroso has created a taxonomy of bystander roles starting with the “henchman” – someone who might not want to harm another, but was raised to please, especially those in positions of perceived high status (having started pleasing with their own parents). Then there is the active bystander – someone who might participate indirectly. In the workplace, it could be passing along a negative story, but isn’t an instigator. Coloroso also identifies the passive bystander – someone who might not participate in any direct way, but laughs about it in private.
Most surprising, Coloroso calls the “disengaged onlookers” as the most “dangerous” group. This is the person who observes behaviour out of the accepted norm and ignores it. They might say: “It’s not my problem” or “none of my business.” It’s the “boys will be boys” comment – or “girls just want drama.” It’s the accepted norm in our society.
She then identifies more constructive roles bystanders can play. There is the “potential defender” – the person who values civility and compassion but is afraid to take action. Coloroso sees the most powerful bystander role as the “brave-hearted witnesses, resisters, and defenders of the target.” These are the people who may have some social status themselves but are willing to pay the cost to defend another from any targeted behaviours because of race, gender, inequality, etc.
Coloroso believes it is this kind of active bystander who can break cycles of violence. She points out that when a brave-hearted witness acts, this can give a potential defender the courage to take action as well – helping to shift a culture from top-down, power-over to a more caring team, culture, community, society.
Listening to Coloroso’s Ted Talk on the subject has raised my own awareness of the moral responsibility that comes with being a member of a community.
Where can you speak up?