Saturday, June 11, 2011

Complicity, Part Two

Inspired by Nicole Shaw’s recent article on bullying, I’ve been reading Barbara Coloroso’s book: The Bully, the bullied, and the bystander. What interests me most is the information on the latter. The bystander can be either an active witness, one who does something proactive against the bullying; or one who is complicit in the act (the passive bystander) by not doing anything to stop it. Although one could argue that they have never bullied or been bullied, I would state that all of us have, at least once in our lives, been a passive bystander as such. The reasons are varied and numerous from being fearful of our own safety; feeling the person getting bullied deserves the attack; or maybe deciding it just isn’t worth our time and energy. Maybe we were running for a bus when we saw it happen, or were late in picking up our child at school… regardless of why we do nothing, bystander complicity has, as Coloroso writes, its own consequences:

“Standing idly by or turning away have their own costs. Injustice overlooked or ignored becomes a contagion that infects even those who thought they could turn away. The self-confidence and self-respect of the bystanders are eroded as they wrestle with their fears about getting involved and with the knowledge that do to nothing is to abdicate their moral responsibility to their peer who is the target.”

To be complicit in bullying then can be as corrosive as being bullied. Notwithstanding the devastating consequences what I want to look at is the delicate line we daily draw for ourselves separating our status of active witness to passive bystander. When is minding one’s own business the correct path and when it is harmful to another (or to ourselves)? When is stepping in being a rescuer and when it is stopping an abusive (or potentially abusive) situation. How do we decide when something (or someone) is worthy of our notice and/or actions? Is our judgment based on ability or scope? Is a bullied country to big a scope and beyond our abilities to assist?

I asked a somewhat similar question at the end of my Butterfly in a Jar blog. There I was, disgusted at what I thought was a symbolic representation of garnering joy at another’s entrapment and yet I did not complain to the store management. Was I complicit in perpetuating the false myth of (hu)man’s dominion over all creatures? Of the grand denial that interconnectness is, indeed, a truism and that all beings (perhaps even representation of) deserve respect?

Here’s another example: I once worked reception for a hearing aid company. Little did I know when I got the job that part of my work would include telephone sales. In my desire to do a good job, I decided to give it a try. Management gave me a call list that I assumed, in utter naivety, were people who had voluntarily submitted their names. I assumed wrong. After calling several hundred people, extolling the virtues of hearing aids, I finally came across an irate “customer” who demanded to know why I was calling. He was the on “National no call list”, my company could be fined, it was an invasion of privacy, and much, much more. I immediately stopped calling people and approached my boss. Oh, don’t worry, he said, a $10,000 fine is a legitimate business expense. Keep calling.

And now I had a choice: keep calling and abusing people’s right to no sales calls or obey my own sense of ethics, cease calling and risk losing my job. Not knowing what to do, I called a few more people and feeling increasingly uncomfortable, decided for the higher road. Thankfully the boss was as concerned about that as he was with the fine. But it is not always this way. Question: If I had continued calling would have I been complicit in my boss’ disregard of people’s rights? Is there such thing as acceptable complicity?

The line of complicity is prone to variables such as job security, physical safety, and ostracism. How far along that line is making telephone sales (to people who are on a “no call” list) to working as a concentration camp guard because “I needed to survive” or “they told me to do it”. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to devalue the horror of prison camps. There is no comparing the two. What I am saying is that the slope is slippery and we must strive to be conscious of it at all times in regards to our actions, our motives behind our actions and the consequences to our self and others.

Anne Michaels, author of Fugitive Pieces, states: “Complicity is not sudden, though it occurs in an instant.” How aware are we in the non-suddenness of it?

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