Overcoming the bystander effect

Earlier this week, three Muslim women were verbally abused by two men on a packed Melbourne train.

Jason Cias, a commuter on his way home from work, confronted the two men when they threatened to “smash” the women. One of the men punched Mr Cias in retaliation before moving to another carriage.

The incident has drawn public condemnation for the vile, unprovoked attack on commuters, as well as praise for Mr Cias’ stance against bigotry.

Larry Marshall from Uniting Through Faiths said that challenging abuse is vital for creating a safe environment.

“We need to understand how this male abuse is the reality for many women of all faiths who do not feel safe anymore,” Mr Marshall said.

He spoke of a 15-year-old Muslim girl who told him “I felt like I belonged before they told me that I didn’t.”

“Men have a particular responsibility to change this culture of abuse,” Mr Marshall said.

Mr Cias told The Age he intervened when the men threatened to use violence against the women.

“I detest violence in any way, but particularly violence against women. It’s a personal thing, I just don’t think it’s right,” he said.

While Mr Cias was the only person in the carriage who came to the defence of the three women, he said he understood why others in the carriage did not step in with him.

“I understand why, there is a sense of frustration about that, but that’s countered by the fact that people are scared. It’s a common fear,” he said.

The ‘bystander effect’ is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people do not come to the aid of a vulnerable person because they assume other onlookers will act instead.

Stories of ‘Good Samaritans’ being attacked for coming to the defence of a victim can discourage people from intervening. This is especially the case in situations involving violence and aggression, which can threaten the safety of the bystander.

In Sydney, a campaign organised by Act for Peace showed that everyday Australians do stand up against visible signs of discrimination in a nonviolent setting.

The campaign involved a young man walking around the Sydney CBD while wearing a sign and handling pamphlets saying “refugees are scum”.

Numerous pedestrians confronted the young man, with one person branding him a “disgrace”.

One pedestrian was so enraged by the sign that he ripped it off the young man’s back and stormed away with it, to the applause from some of the onlookers.

However, when the sign changed to read “help the refugees”, most pedestrians ignored him.

Act for Peace says the campaign showed that Australians do care, but may be less willing to take action to support their beliefs.

The social experiment aims to raise awareness about the injustices faced by refugees and to encourage people to channel their anger into a positive response by taking part in the Act for Peace Ration Challenge.

Whether it is standing up against racist behaviour on a train, or raising money to help disadvantaged communities, translating beliefs into actions is an important step in tackling injustice.

Image by Alpha via Flickr. 

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