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Paul Taylor: The bystander effect – and why we don’t always do what we know to be right

Fulneck School principal Paul Taylor’s occasional blog this time looks at why it’s time to be an ‘anti-bystander.

fulneck school principal Paul Taylor
Fulneck School’s Paul Taylor.

New York was a very different place in the 1960s to the city you know today. Crime, for example, was a persistent problem in certain parts of the city.

In the early hours of March 13th 1964, 28 year old Kitty Genovese was returning home from work in the Queens district. As she approached her apartment, she was attacked and killed.

As you might be aware, New York is a city that never sleeps and it was reported that dozens of people heard her cries for help but none responded. In fact, it was reported at the time that there were 38 witnesses, but no-one stepped in to save her life. It was even 30 minutes before anyone called the police – far too late to help Kitty Genovese. 

Mrs Carver’s Psychology class will tell you that some of these facts have been disputed over the years. Regardless, the incident has become the classic example of what psychologists now call the bystander effect.

In short, and again the A Level psychologists will frown on the simplification, the bystander effect explains why the presence of others around might discourage you from taking what you know to be the right action. In fact, it seems that the greater the number of people around, the less likely one person is to act.

There seems to be several explanations for why we don’t always do what we know to be right. There’s a mathematical equation: it may be that the more people there are about, the less any individual feels responsible for what is going on – someone else will act and of course no-one does. Then again, it may be that we look around us and when we see that no-one else is bothered it’s easy to just walk away – everything is probably ok because no-one else is worried.

Last week, in the context of anti-racism, I said that now is the time to stand up and speak out, what we might call an anti-bystander effect.

It’s time to be an active bystander. There’s no legal obligation to get involved and there might be times when you call the police or teacher rather than directly intervene. But, if you do nothing, are you not guilty of a moral crime?

History is littered with iconic photographs. I remember Zara’s GCSE Art project was filled with them a couple of years ago. The sailor kissing a nurse in New York on VJ Day, 1945; Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969; the Vietnamese girl running away from the napalm in 1972; the man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. I think we can now add to that list.

Patrick Hutchinson had attended a Black Lives Matter protest in London last June. On his way home, Hutchinson noticed an altercation with counter-protesters – you may remember that was not one of our greatest days as a nation. With his four friends, he stepped in to help an injured man. Whilst his friends formed a protective circle around the injured, Hutchinson carried to safety a bloodied middle-aged man. His instincts told him that the man’s life was in danger.

By the early evening the photograph had gone viral. If you’ve already seen the photo, you’ll know why: Hutchinson is black and the wounded man is white. The symbolism of the photograph is incredibly powerful. When later asked why he had stepped in, Hutchinson said he wanted to make a point: “We need to unite to inspire change.”

I hope that you never find yourselves in a situation as physically threatening as this. So, let’s move this away from witnessing wrong-doing. Let’s widen this to make sure we never stand by and watch when we could make a difference.

If you see that someone is upset or quieter than normal, don’t stand by, go and help. If you see someone drop litter in our beautiful grounds, don’t stand by, call them out. If someone has forgotten to sanitise their hands, remind them. If you intervene, that will encourage others to intervene. Don’t be a bystander.

Our thought for the week comes from the former first lady, Michelle Obama:

“You may not have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all the world’s problems at once but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.”

I want to finish today by congratulating Aimee on having her poem published by the Anne Frank Trust over the summer. Her theme was spot on for today’s assembly.

Black Lives Matter

Everyone is unique, on the inside and out,

But if you’re targeted every day, then you might start to have doubts.

So why are people racist, when everyone deserves a chance?

No freedom till we’re equal, and for that we’ll take a stance.

It takes one horrible word for someone’s heart to shatter,

So we will fight until there is justice, because black lives matter.

Imagine being scared because of the colour of your skin.

This will not go on any longer, racism won’t win.

We will protest together, till black people have their rights,

From dusk till dawn, through the days and the nights.

It takes one horrible word for someone’s heart to shatter,

So no stopping until our voices are heard, because black lives matter.

We know we will never know how it feels, but we will fight for you too,

Anti-racism is what we want, non-racist won’t do.

Every generation has tried to make segregation stop,

But we are gonna put this to an end, our hard work cannot flop.

Why are we fighting this battle? Why does racism have to exist?

The years of justice and equality, our earth has missed.

But there is no stopping now, our job isn’t done,

We will continue until there is peace, and rights for everyone.

You don’t get everything handed to you on a silver platter,

But one thing is for sure, black lives do matter.

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