A Society of Guilty Bystanders

We are familiar with the concept of “innocent bystanders”; these are the people who accidentally get injured in cross-fires or explosions. And we are familiar with those who “stand idly by”; they are the people who turn away and knowingly allow atrocities to happen. It’s considered a tragedy when innocent bystanders get hurt and it is repugnant when bystanders stand idly by. But these days, we have a different breed of bystander: the guilty bystander, the absolute worst of them all.

The guilty bystander is worse than the idle bystander because the guilty bystander does not turn their head and ignore atrocity; the guilty bystander watches it happen, records it on his/her phone, and uploads it to Youtube. For example, take a recent story from Vancouver in which a 16 year-old girl was drugged and gang raped at a rave, while onlookers took photos that they then posted to Facebook.  (Some of them are even refusing to take the photos down, despite threats of being charged with disseminating child pornography from the police.) Last year 15 year-old high school girl was gang-raped in the parking lot of her school during a homecoming dance, while a crowd watched, laughed, and took pictures. I do not know exactly how often this is happening, but it’s at least two times too many.

The idea of the watching, laughing, jeering bystander is nothing new; it’s an unfortunate, cowardly, human response. The 21st century addition to this offense, however – which pushes into a whole new category of evil – is that these guilty bystanders are actively participating by recording the rape, and disseminating it to the internet for others to enjoy. By adding those photos to Facebook, the guilty bystanders invited their friends to view them and add comments, all of which were of the slut-shaming variety (e.g. “Straight up WHORE,” a “complete slut”). Discussing why people would look at a photo of a gang-rape and direct their disgust at the victim is a whole other story. Now these photos have been unleashed into cyberspace and there is no way to destroy or delete them all, meaning that the victim will be forced to relive the event, and the subsequent bullying, over and over again each time a photo resurfaces.

So why the hell are people committing such disgusting acts? Why don’t people interfere and stop the rape? Why has the default response changed from “standing idly by” to recording the event with voyeuristic excitement? I really don’t know, but I do have one idea: reality tv.

We are a nation of voyeurs. We are now accustomed to viewing the misfortune of others as entertainment. We also know the rules of reality tv production – the film crew must not interfere, not even when a child (like we have seen on Jon & Kate Plus Eight or Teen Mom) is about to get injured. It’s supposed to preserve the “reality” of the show, but what this expectation has done, in fact, is create a new “reality” in which one does not interfere, not even when someone is getting hurt.

There is no hard data or scientific evidence that media messages categorically change and/or influence behavior; there’s only common sense. And perhaps it’s only common sense that a generation of young people raised on reality tv have gotten some very backwards messages about what is entertainment and what is reality. No wonder they can’t tell the difference between when you are supposed to watch and when you are supposed to intervene.

There was recently a story about a flight attendent who removed a baby from its parent’s custody on a flight because the parents were slapping it. I think the story confused most of us – we weren’t sure if the flight attendant was supposed to be a hero, or if she overstepped her bounds. We are a society that doesn’t have a clear idea of what is abuse and what isn’t, what is violence and what isn’t. (The infamous “Snookie punch” vs. when Amber hit Gary on Teen Mom?) And reality tv, unfortunately, is a part of that.

Now, I obviously have no data or “proof” that reality tv is the cause of disgusting displays like this. I am not trying to claim that I do, or that the issue is simple enough to be boiled down to just one cause. Still, as I sit here fuming with anger and disgust for my fellow members of the human race, it’s the best explanation I can come up with.

We may never be able to eradicate rape from society or cure the impulse to rape in rapists. But it is not a mental illness that causes bystanders to assume that an obviously intoxicated 15 year-old wants to be raped by multiple people in public; it’s a social illness. We CAN teach people to intervene in situations of public gang-rape or other types of violence and/or abuse. We can, at the very least, teach people to recognize public gang-rape ofor what it isn’t: guilty pleasure entertainment.

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