Pluralistic Ignorance & The Bystander Effect

In our last post, “The Spectrum of Sexual Violence & the Language We Use to Label It,” we discussed how pluralistic ignorance sets up the bystander effect following community disclosures of abuse (sexual abuse, domestic abuse, workplace abuse, community abuse, etc.). When communities fail to see abuse as an emergency, they disregard red flags and leave their fellow community members in harm’s way.

Watch the following video. Notice the way bystanders respond to (1) a distressed gentleman in a suit; (2) a distressed woman; (3) a distressed man in regular clothes. Ask yourself whether you would be a “good Samaritan” to all three? Why or why not? What accounts for the differences in treatment? (This seven-minute clip demonstrates the very reason this blog exists. We’re on a mission to change this.)

25 Ways to Reduce the Bystander Effect for Victims of Violence

  1. We become trauma-informed. We learn about adverse childhood experiences and abuses of all kinds. We educate ourselves and our children about the full spectrum of sexual violence. We learn about the long-term and short-term effects of trauma.
  2. We expose hidden cultures about sex and gender by talking about the issues.
  3. We stop tolerating lower levels of violence. If we hear our friends, spouses, family, and/or co-workers to perpetuate sex-based or gender-based stereotypes, then, we call them out, correct, and redirect.
  4. We teach our sons to respect females. We teach our daughters to respect males.
  5. We talk about the prevalence of male victims in society. We say male victims also deserve to be heard without judgment.
  6. We say, yes, real boys do cry.
  7. We teach our daughters that their bodies are beautiful God-created designs, and that they should not be ashamed of them. We teach our sons the same. We teach them real words for real body parts (e.g., penis and vagina).
  8. We make sure our young females understand that the hormone estrogen’s enlargement of their breasts during puberty is natural, not sinful. We make sure they know normal males do not take nonconsensual liberties with others’ bodies. We make sure our girls do not take nonconsensual liberties with others’ bodies (females abuse too).
  9. We do not keep unhealthy secrets or encourage “secret keeping.”
  10. We make sure boys and girls understand violence is about POWER, not sex.
  11. We take ALL accounts of violence seriously.
  12. We do not play the dismissive, silencing “at least” game (e.g., “Well, at least he didn’t rape you”).
  13. We do not pretend we can assess “reasonable” trauma when we do not understand or know attendant circumstances surrounding a report of violence. We acknowledge the limits of our own subjective bias in assessing where an allegation falls on the spectrum of sexual violence.
  14. We do not homogenize sexual violence.
  15. We don’t sanitize reality to make it more palatable.
  16. We get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
  17. We stop acting disgusted toward victims and redirect disgust toward offenders’ behaviors.
  18. *HUGE* No matter who an offender is, we allow victims to speak candidly about their experiences (to do anything less shifts blame to the victim). And we use caution in retelling, taking care not to cast a soft filter on the high-definition gritty details of reality.
  19. *REPEAT* We do not blame victims (this is a separate form of psychological, emotional, and spiritual violence that re-victimizes).
  20. *REPEAT* We do not allow others to blame victims.
  21. We take action.
  22. We put safeguards in place to protect victims, we employ reporting procedures in communities, we speak up for victims, and we offer them real, face-to-face support (not “silent support”).
  23. *REPEAT* We report to police.
  24. We realize we are insufficiently equipped to objectively handle abuse allegations (especially sexual and domestic violence disclosures) by ourselves, but we also realize we *MUST* (mandatory language) take action AND…
  25. We support victims throughout the aftermath–including during the reporting phase, the criminal justice process, and the healing process.

Ending the Bystander Effect: From Apathy to Empathy

Some police departments are adept at handling sexual and domestic violence reports, but sadly, many are not. Criminal investigation processes are lengthy (some take years) and draining on victims. Reform is needed in this area, too, but legislative change begins with community change. Where we see no emergency, communities see no emergency, and legislators see no emergency.

In the meantime, society is left in danger and victims risk more trauma when they are left without support during drawn-out investigations that may end with solicitor rejection (even where strong direct and circumstantial evidence exists).

If we are tired of hearing media accounts, if we roll our eyes when we read each new breaking headline, then we need to take a long look in the mirror.

Our hands aren’t clean.

Pluralistic ignorance causes the bystander effect, resulting in bystander apathy. Reducing sexual and domestic violence requires empathy, not apathy. We must own their part in creating the climate for sexual violence and secrecy.

Apathetic community’s, community’s who “hide the ball,” who “cover,” who deceive, and who defraud, charge victims for offender’s debts and put their communities at greater risk for injury.

Getting this wrong, being apathetic and deceitful and defrauding others, does more damage to a community than handling disclosures with empathy and candor. When violence occurs in workplaces, schools, or churches, apathetic responses damage more than victims. Apathy damages the brand. In the case of churches, that means apathetic responses damage others’ view of Christianity and defame the name of Christ.

Christians teach the threat of Hell is a real cost. It would seem pretty absurd for Christians to preach Heaven and Hell, stressing Hell as a measure of God’s accountability system, when they do not observe any systems of accountability for those who commit crimes against other persons and society. What do Christians show the world when they are more outraged over damage to their cars–calling police, filing accident reports, reporting to insurance–than they are over damage to people?

The bottom line is, until we remove the steep price tags from victim disclosure, we should expect victims to find more safety in silence, even if that silence is transitory and not very “safe.”

Until communities and people within them elect to respond to violence with empathy rather than apathy, victims will lose and offenders will win. Unless the cost of committing violence is greater than the benefit conferred on an offender (e.g., power over another, coercive control), the offender has little reason to stop offending. The odds are in his favor.