‘We Are All Responsible’: How #MeToo Rejects the Bystander Effect

The classic “Bystander Effect” blames a lack of intervention on diffusion of responsibility. That doesn’t fly anymore.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (2,357 words)

Halfway through Dirty John, the Bravo series based on the life of sociopathic con artist John Meehan, the titular character’s first wife, having discovered her husband of several years has been cheating and shooting up, meets one of his friends in a diner. Sitting stone-faced across from her husband’s grinning college buddy, she learns how “Dirty John” got his nickname through an ever-expanding laundry list of scams his classmates witnessed: being a “dog” with women, conning old people, credit card fraud, insurance fraud. She says nothing, but it’s clear from her face that she is getting progressively more enraged at this man for having repeatedly stood by and watched as the father of her children mistreated a succession of people. At one point, it seems to kind of dawn on the guy that the fruits of his failure to act might in fact be sitting right in front of him, so he issues a half-assed mea culpa: “I lived with him that year and we had good times, or whatever, but he never talked about things and I never asked.”

This is not the classic Bystander Effect, but it’s a variation that has become progressively pertinent within the current movement against sexual harassment and assault. The original Bystander Effect is a phenomenon that was named by social psychologists John M. Darley and Bibb Latané after the killing of Kitty Genovese in 1964. She was the 28-year-old New Yorker who became a symbol of urban apathy after The New York Times reported that 38 witnesses did nothing while she was attacked twice on her way home early one morning. The number of witnesses and their lack of response was later found to be exaggerated, but the story spurred Darley and Latané to stage a series of experiments publish their results in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1968 under the headline, “Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility.” They observed that in the presence of an emergency, a person who does not intervene is not making a firm choice, but instead vacillating between the costs of helping — embarrassment, harm, time — and the costs of letting the victim suffer. When a group of people were observing the emergency, they discovered, the response was even worse — the more observers, the less likely any one bystander would respond. In the words of Darley and Latané, “given the presence of other onlookers whose behavior cannot be observed, any given bystander can rationalize his own inaction by convincing himself that ‘somebody else must be doing something.’”

But what if the onlookers aren’t strangers? What if they are friends of the perpetrator? Or the victim? This was the scenario with John Meehan, but also musician Ryan Adams, and a number of other men who have been accused of abuse over the past few years. While the “classic Bystander Effect” focuses on diffusion of responsibility, the version in which the victim or the perpetrator are known to the bystanders is a lot more complicated, according to Victoria Banyard. A social work professor at the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at Rutgers, she has been studying the response and prevention to interpersonal violence for more than 25 years. Colleges like hers have acted as incubators for bystander intervention training programs, boosted by the 2013 United States Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act. And while sexual harassment training has proven to be largely futile (the men most likely to be perpetrators are the least receptive) engaging the community in bystander intervention training has been tremendously effective. “We are all responsible,” says Sharyn Potter, executive director at The University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center. This is a paradigm shift, one she compares to the drunk driving initiatives of the ’80s, which suddenly flipped the onus from the driver onto the people around them: “It’s really getting to those people that changes the culture.”

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Last week’s New York Times exposé on indie musician Ryan Adams had several women, including singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, accusing the “To Be Without You” singer of emotional abuse. Bridgers told the Times that when she ended their brief romantic relationship, Adams flaked on his offer for her to open for him and withheld the music they recorded together. “Ryan had a network too. Friends, bands, people he worked with. None of them held him accountable,” she wrote on Instagram a few days later. “They told him, by what they said or by what they didn’t, that what he was doing was okay. They validated him. He couldn’t have done this without them.” Two days after her post, Adams’ guitarist, Todd Wisenbaker, apologized for his complicity. He explained, also on Instagram, that he “chose to believe [Adams’] insane version of the truth because it was easier than believing that anyone is capable of being this much of a monster.” It was reminiscent of the facts that later came out about Kitty Genovese’s neighbors: that very few of them saw what was actually happening, that many of them thought they were hearing a garden-variety lovers’ quarrel. In both cases, the perception was that there was no immediate cause for concern so there was no need to cause a fuss.

There are three main reasons bystanders don’t intervene: They fail to recognize the situation, they don’t feel a sense of responsibility, and they don’t feel they have the skills to effectively handle a problem if there is one. Wisenbaker’s reaction gets to the first one. “All of those things that contribute to the silencing of victims also can make bystanders go, ‘Hm, I don’t really know if this is a problem,’” says Banyard. There seems to be a particular blind spot with respect to sexual matters, the taboo around meddling in private matters mixed up with patriarchal holdovers about gender and consent. Not to mention the systemic disregard of abuse victims, which introduces a fourth reason for not intervening: fear of retaliation. “If survivors of sexual violation were believed and valued, across culture, society, and law, that in itself would be a major transformation,” feminist and legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon told The New York Times last year. The problem was exemplified in a study of the U.S. Army published that same year, which revealed that most soldiers intervened in some way when it came to suicide or substance abuse, but only half responded to sexual harassment. “Despite the many efforts made by the military to address sexual assault and harassment, 58% of those who report a sexual assault also report being retaliated against, and only 4% of cases result in conviction,” the CEO of the Service Women’s Action Network told CNN.

In this economy, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for employees to question whether it is within their job description to intervene, or if they should just keep their head down in an already precarious job market — while physical safety is a concern on the street, in the office there is the added concern of economic safety. In the Times’ feature on the complicity machine around Harvey Weinstein, Amy Israel, who worked as a head of acquisitions at Miramax, addressed this catch-22: “As a spectator to the abuse you were silenced by the fear that you would become the next target. The only alternative seemingly was to quit — to throw away everything you had worked so hard for and walk out the door.” Even though research shows that letting perpetrators get away with small infractions can lead to larger ones, in an environment that privileges hierarchy over safety there is clearly more motivation to keep quiet than to speak up. Then there are the intersectional factors — are you the only person of color accusing a white boss in an environment surrounded by white colleagues? Are you the only woman accusing a man in a world surrounded by men — what happens then? The experience of Predator star Olivia Munn provides an answer to the second: when she spoke out about working with convicted sex offender Steven Wilder Striegel last year, her male castmates bailed on her. Then there was Jessica Walters, drowned out during a Times roundtable by her male Arrested Development co-stars while discussing Jeffrey Tambor’s abusive behavior towards her. It was noteworthy — and perhaps predictable — that the only person who intervened on Walter’s behalf, Alia Shawkat, is a woman too.

Bystander intervention training involves teaching a person how to identify situations that require it, the various ways to intervene in said situations, and, finally, practicing the strategies that work for that particular person. Sharyn Potter of Prevention Innovations Research Center, which has provided violence prevention training for colleges and the military, says that intervention strategies change according to context. For instance, the way you would respond as a college student (maybe flicking the lights at a party, but not calling the cops because you’re drinking underage) would not be the way you would respond in the office as an adult (maybe by directly confronting a colleague). In both cases, training involves finding a way to intervene that is the most comfortable. “Not everybody can jump into a situation with a superhero cape,” Potter says, “but most of us can do something subtly.” This conjures the image of “Snackman,” the 25-year-old New Yorker munching on a bag of chips who went viral for wordlessly placing himself in the middle of a physical fight on a New York subway in 2012.

While Snackman appeared to be a natural at intervention, training can work just as well. In one study analyzing 6,000 college students across the U.S., participants reported two more instances of intervention in the months after being trained than those who were not. Rutgers’ Banyard thinks part of the reason for the increase is that trainees finally have the tools to be able to follow through. Still, for intervention to be really effective, the entire structure has to be changed. “It’s not enough to just go and train bystanders and say, ‘now you know what to do, go do it!’” Banyard says. “You have to also be training leadership, you have to be changing policy and you have to be changing those organizational norms.” This includes not only acknowledging the abuse of power — see Dirty John scamming retirees — but no longer normalizing it, so that our impulse is not to stand by and giggle at its violation, no matter how minor, but to feel responsible to stop it at source so that it doesn’t proliferate. Summing up the model scenario, Banyard provides a tangible goal for every workplace: “The person who’s going to step in is someone who recognizes the situation, sees themselves as having a sense of responsibility in that situation, has confidence and some degree of skill of what they might do, and is in a context where there are social norms that say helping and everyone taking a role in prevention is important and supported and retaliation against bystanders will not be tolerated.”

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Towards the end of Dirty John, John Meehan’s first wife — the one who met with the friend who rattled off his scams — now divorced, takes her ex’s stash of stolen drugs to the police. The officer she meets is honest about how it looks, like she is a spurned spouse trying to pin a crime on an innocent man. “If you do look into John, you’ll see what this is, who he is,” she argues. “And if you don’t, well, he’ll just keep doing what he’s doing, but at least I’ll know I tried to stop him.” He does look into it and she returns again later to find out what he has uncovered. The cop proceeds to reel off several individuals who have already reported her husband. “Yep, a lot of people knew something was up with John Meehan,” he says, “the bad news is a lot of other people apparently kind of decided it wasn’t their problem.”

It’s the same dynamic that we are currently reckoning with — while Banyard confirms that bystander intervention is more common than generally believed, a lot of other people decide it’s not their problem. Some of these people, who failed to intervene before our recent cultural awakening around sexual violence, have retroactively apologized like the friend in Dirty John (though with far more sincerity). Besides Ryan Adams’ guitarist, there was the high-profile apology by screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, who worked with Miramax from the early ‘90s and admitted in a Facebook post that he and many others knew something about Harvey Weinstein (if not everything) and still did nothing. “Doesn’t being a bystander bring with it the responsibility of telling the truth, however personally disgraceful it may be?” he wrote in 2017. “You know who are. You know that you knew. And do you know how I know that you knew? Because I was there with you. And because everybody-fucking-knew.”

In the case of Weinstein and Bill Cosby and R. Kelly and Michael Jackson and so many other powerful men, suspicions were muffled by money. But even where there is no immediate gain, even if the perpetrator is a relatively small potatoes musician or a little-known con man from Orange County or even one of your coworkers who is not famous at all, it is always more comfortable not to risk being the one who ruins the party, the one who interrupts the passionate date, the one who is labeled the office rat. You’re not the one making the problem, so it’s not your problem, right? This is where a societal shift awaits: Instead of seeing yourself as an isolated individual and intervening as a way of potentially compromising yourself, you must see yourself as what you really are — a member of society, in which intervening is a way of saving not just on person, but all of us. And, anyway, you don’t have to act like a superhero, you just have to act in some small way. “In a way people wouldn’t even really notice,” says Potter, “but the person who is in the situation whose about to be victimized — or being victimized — will notice.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.