I recently spent a week training on bystander intervention. This is a strategy for the prevention of violence against humans (gendered violence, in this case, and most often) that focuses on creating a culture in which bystanders speak out against and prevent acts of violence. The thinking is that a community in which all of its members hold each other accountable for violent actions and the attitudes and beliefs that lead to them will ultimately become a community in which violence cannot thrive. If we all speak out when we see violence occurring, about to occur, or supported in attitudes and beliefs, then individuals will hesitate to perpetrate acts of violence because they know community members will not tolerate such actions. Moreover, the culture of the community will change to one that supports positive behaviors and simply doesn’t allow violence to occur.
This strategy ultimately counters bystander apathy – the tendency for bystanders to simply stand by, failing to act when something necessitating a response, in this case violent acts, occur in their presence. Years of psychological research have demonstrated the power and existence of this phenomenon, as well as hypothesized reasons for its occurrence.
During the training, as I listened to and watched examples of bystander apathy, learning strategies for engaging individuals in the opposite, bystander action, I thought of the ways we are all bystanders to violence every day. Bystander intervention strategies, in my experience, focus only on preventing violence against humans. They focus on very obvious violence – assaults, crimes, statements, etc. How would the world change if we attended to the less obvious ways in which we are bystanders to violence every day?
Violence against non-human animals is absolutely engrained in our culture. It’s so inherent that we don’t even see it. We literally create entire industries that profit off of forced pregnancy, killing, and other terrifying treatment of nonhuman animals. We make commodities out of living beings, out of bodies. All of which contribute to the very violence we are trying to prevent with strategies such as bystander intervention. Why don’t we see that?
I was a bystander to violence every time I sat next to my fellow training participants during lunch. I was witnessing the final act of violence in a long, horrifying path that a living, feeling, thinking nonhuman animal was forced into that ended with pieces of its body and secretions from its reproductive organs laying on a plate, stirred into coffee, for another’s pleasure. I listened to, and as a vegan was the topic of, conversations that replicated a hierarchy of worthiness, and justified the idea that some have a right to power, violent power, over others.
How would our world look if I had had the courage to speak up when the above occurred? How would things be different if I had been in an environment that was supportive of bystander action in those cases? What if we all could take many steps back, before the body ended up on the plate, before the forced pregnancy, and could prevent these abuses of power before they occurred?
I simply hope for a world that is peaceful and just for all, not a select few who are deemed worthy. We have good, viable strategies to create that world; all we need to do now is open our eyes a little wider.