Standing up, not standing by

You know those stories about someone being beaten in public, and no one bothering to help? It seems they have become common, with various ‘scientists’ even staging experiments to try to determine factors influencing the public’s involvement. I always believed if it were me in that situation, I would be the one to speak up. The one to step in and stand up for the victim. It turns out it is harder than I thought.

I was sitting in Starbucks with a friend last night. We were chatting and I happily enjoyed my chai latte (with soy, of course). It was only after a while that I noticed a couple sitting towards the front of the store. They had various books and a laptop on the table, so I assumed they must be students. It was amicable enough, until I saw him get up, slam his cup into the rubbish bin, and slap her laptop shut. A tear glistened in her eye as he left. Shortly afterward he came back, sat down and started to speak roughly in another language. I tried to be discreet but couldn’t help glancing often in their direction. When he noticed me, he pulled her closer and grabbed her arm aggressively. I didn’t know what to do. Was this the time to go over and say something? Or was it just a couple’s argument that was none of my business?

I saw that some other customers had also noticed the behaviour. After what seemed liked forever, but was probably only 5 or 10 minutes, he angrily packed up her things, and grabbed her arm, forcing her outside without her jacket. I looked at the other customers, asking them if they knew what it was all about. They didn’t, and we both wondered if we should say something as the couple continued arguing outside. After some deliberation, a group of us went and confronted them. We offered to take the girl home or to help her inside. Teary eyed, she refused and said, “it’s okay, thank you” over and over. The guy looked sheepish as I told him, “It’s not okay to treat someone like that. You have to treat her with respect.” Eventually, we went back inside, my hands shaking with adrenaline and anger.

Of course this was not a public beating or rape (though I did wonder how he treated her in private if he was willing to be this aggressive in public!), but I believe we did the right thing. Physical aggression of that kind is never necessary and should be called out as inappropriate and abusive. But I couldn’t believe how long I sat there debating at what point it became okay and even important for me to step in.

The bystander effect tells us that the more people there are around, the less likely an individual will step in and help. However, just because something has a name does not mean that the behaviour is acceptable or encouraged. If we want to, we have the power to redefine the bystander effect. We can help if we are alone, and we can be even more likely to help if there are others around. I truly believe each of us has a responsibility to stand up for our fellow human beings when they are in need, not stand by and watch as they are mistreated. Let’s stand up.