When witnessing injustice, most individuals say they believe they would intervene on behalf of the victim. However, an online presentation held by SAFFRON Centre on March 26 showed there is more to bystander intervention than commonly assumed. 

Early in the presentation, Jack, a practicum student at the centre who presented on the topic, states, “A key component of bystander intervention is that it is deliberately non-violent in nature.” 

Jack makes it clear bystander intervention is much more than being a knight in shining armor stepping into battle on behalf of a helpless victim. In fact, the goal is not to battle, but to act with the intention of defusing the situation. And though it may seem this kind of intervention is for face-to-face interactions, the presentation emphasizes it is just as important to mediate when witnessing injustice online.  

The most common reasons why people may not act when they witness a conflict are fear for physical safety and being unsure how to help. However, bystander intervention is deliberately non-violent and places the highest emphasis on personal safety. Another key reason is what experts describe as Diffusion of Responsibility, wherein individuals in a group or public setting with others present assume someone else will intervene. One of the most notable cases of this phenomenon is the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York City, where it was originally reported 38 witnesses heard the horrific events taking place, but did not act because each assumed others would intervene or seek help. While the original article making this claim has since been ruled as inaccurate, the term “Genovese syndrome” lives on as another name for what is now more commonly called the bystander effect. 

The SAFFRON Centre states those who are confident in their abilities to improve in conflict or emergency situations and those who have seen successful bystander interventions in the past are more likely to act. This is why it is important people are taught effective ways to diffuse a hostile situation. The more knowledge and information one is armed with, the more confident they will likely be. 

Effective intervention is broken down into the three Ds:

Direct communication with the parties involved using clear and direct language while employing empathy.
Distracting or diverting attention away from those involved.
Delegating to individuals in the bystander group to take a group approach or seek out higher authority. 

The SAFFRON Centre suggests documenting the incident when safe to do so and checking in with the party who may have been harmed. Jack emphasizes documenting or contacting a higher authority only with the consent of the victim and considering how those actions may cause future harm. 

The overall message of the presentation was clear: bystander intervention is about preventing harm. The more people who are willing to intervene with the intention of mitigating harm, the more others are also likely to do so in future situations, thus preventing harm and trauma overall. 

Jack easily sums it up: “Every individual matters, especially with bystander intervention and learning these techniques.”