Recent coverage of the Steubenville, OH rape case noted that people knew what was going on, but chose to look the other way, passively colluding with the abuse.
Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon is a new book on the culture of bullying, how pervasive it is and what we can try to do to fight it.
Abusive bullying has been described recently as an epidemic, and yet it has always been with us. Bullying may start out as normal social competition for status, but somehow crosses the line into abuse. Most of us have some sense of where the line is, even when we cross it ourselves. When we see it become consistently abusive, we become uncomfortable, but we don't know what to do with our discomfort.
Bullying often depends on passive bystanders or even an encouraging audience. The bully may not be aware of his own motivations, but enjoys the attention and sense of power it gives. The audience or the passive bystanders do not challenge him, so it continues.
Some psychologists have studied the Bystander Effect, the tendency of people not to want to get involved. One often quoted example is the tendency for people to pass an unconscious person in a busy subway where everyone else is hurrying by. Yet if one person stops to show concern, a small crowd of helpful people quickly forms. We may justify it by saying we thought someone else would do something, but the bystander effect suggests that we don't want to stand out by being the first one to break the spell.
Often we regret having been so passive if we think about it later. When this happens we are acting automatically on subtle but powerful emotions that inhibit us from taking a chance that makes us stand out, especially in a dangerous situation. If the unconscious person was in our yard or on our doorstep, we would likely act. But a crowded subway is a vaguely threatening situation. So is middle school.
It takes experience and commitment to be prepared to stand up to these subtle but powerful emotions and social pressures. And this experience can be taught.
Children who are subjected to sexual abuse are often inhibited by shame from saying no. But children who are taught a protocol of "Good Touch, Bad Touch" learn how to stand up for themselves and their peers
Similarly, children can be taught to recognize when teasing has crossed the line and that they have the power to stand up with friends who are being bullied. By discussing it with kids, reading stories about it, and even role playing, they can prepare themselves to act more effectively rather than be inhibited by their own shame and confusion in a difficult social situation. They may be the one who can help shatter the bystander effect and establish a culture of compassion and respect. lt takes courage, like diving from the high dive, but is much easier with preparation.