The Bystander Effect

I remember walking up the escalators in Bondi station trying to get to work. There’s that general social rule that if you want to stand still and let the machine carry you to the top you stand to the left, and let people who are running late for mildly important engagements stagger toward the goal on the right hand side. I was one of the staggering types, and on this long escalator, during rush hour, a woman was standing alone, on the right, blocking the entire way. A quick “Err, sorry, can I get through?” usually suffices, but today I was interrupted by a man throwing his hand right into my chest and announcing “Oi mate, why don’t you just wait?”

Without thinking I grabbed his arm and thrust it off me, and asked what the hell he thought he was doing? He noticed my breasts, like he wasn’t expecting them to be there on my chest all out there, and then went bright red in the face before yelling at me that he thought I was a man, which is why he thumped me in a public place for trying to get to work on time. The woman by this stage had shrunk off to the left hand side and allowed me to head onwards and upwards, but not without the man yelling out behind me “What are you even? A chick or a guy? Which are you?”

What did you notice was missing from this story? Was it the fact that during this exchange I was surrounded by at least fifty people, just watching the events unfold? Was it how not a single one of those people even told the guy to give it a rest? Was it the lack of any sort of security, and the lack of action or interest by any Cityrail employee, who have not had the same cavalier attitude when they think people are jumping the gates? It happens to be all of the above.

I understand it’s easy to ignore the bad things in the world, head down and get on with life, at least it wasn’t me in that situation, but I’ll tell you now – you will be in that situation in your life. And it’s all because of that sand surrounding your head. How differently the situation would have unfolded if when I was thumped in the chest the surrounding bystanders collectively yelled at him that this was not okay. There is no danger of violence in this situation, because no matter how deranged a person is in believing themselves to be the Escalator King, they will never believe that they could win a fight by themselves against a plethora of people surrounding him. And the result of this interaction, where this man has been literally told by society his behaviour is reprehensible, is that he is far more unlikely to pull a stunt like this again.

It feels so obvious, this would be the perfect way to keep people feeling safe, but apparently it’s all just too hard. I have to get to work, anyway. And what if no one joins me when I speak up? Why should I put my neck out on the line if no one else would do the same for me? And on it goes.


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