I just viewed the youtube video, TheBullying Experiment. In it a young man pretends to be a bully while another playacts the bullied. The bully is relatively big and wears tough guy clothes. He physically manhandles the victim who looks like he’s ready for prep school. It is shot live, presumably on a quiet part of a college campus. The intention of the video is to show how most people do not try to stop bullying and how by not intervening we are part of the problem. The video has had over 6000 hits. While I agree that we are complicit by not acting I have some issues with this video, specifically its underlying message of fear and shame.
After each fake altercation the “bully” confronts those who ignored the situation. Why didn’t you do anything, he asks. However valid the question the methodology is both shame and fear provoking. Imagine witnessing someone aggressively manhandle another and then have that same person turn to you and demand why you didn’t act. One bystander apologized. I would have done the same. But instead of being remorse for my non-response it would have been to avoid being pummeled by this guy. It reminds me of being confronted by an angry and authoritarian parent: damned if you tell the truth; damned if you don’t. Shame and fear are powerful inhibitors.
That said, some degree of shame is effective. This shame, however, must come from within rather than without. Internal shame propels us to change our behaviour and make amends. External shame, on the other hand, quickly becomes another form of bullying, an ostracization that alienates and decreases the potential for pro-social behaviour.
That is what I feel the video has done. These bystanders are forever shamed and for what purpose? Shaming someone for their lack of courage or even indifference is not effective. Perhaps if the pretend victim rather than the bully had approached those who passed by the results would have been different. Instead of provoking shame and fear, there may have been empathy. Both parties could then have talked of their fears. When people share a common feeling they are more likely to be proactive.* This, of course, would not have changed their first reaction but perhaps encourage a more pro-social response in future.
It is easy to sit in one’s armchair and judge those who do not act. But ask yourself, would you have really gone in and stood up for the man being assaulted in the video? The pretend bully was scary. I applaud the young woman, physically smaller and presumably weaker, for doing so. But it doesn’t always end happily. Three years ago a young woman was killed in Vancouver’s Gastown while trying to break up a fight. She didn’t know the men fighting; she was only trying to help.
I close with a CBC excerpt about Nelson Mandela, a man who will forever remain one of our best models for compassionate humanity.
In prison he meditated every day while seeking signs of common humanity even among white guards — some of whom later became close friends. He discovered … a willingness to respect all and an ability to make even old foes feel better about themselves. At the same time he made it clear his core values were unshakable.
* If you Google “empathy and pro-social behaviour” you find that the majority of studies show a positive correlation between the two. However, one recent study showed that this correlation fell through if the subject felt they were in a lower socio-economic status. As the researcher states, the literature is complex.