Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: No Innocent Bystanders:The Role We Play in Reducing Violence


“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

In a culture that is horrified at the degree of interpersonal violence reflected in child abuse, school shootings, bullying, Intimate Partner Violence, racial discrimination, hate crimes and suicide rates, it is worth considering that there are no innocent bystanders.

The well-known slogan “ If you see something—say something” merits our attention beyond just noticing an unattended package.

In their book, Bearing Witness, Sandra Bloom and Michael Reichert invite us to consider that violence almost always involves more than the perpetrator and the victim—it includes the bystander as audience whether the bystander is there and looks on in horror, says nothing, hears about it from perpetrator or victim, or sees it on the news.

This is not a mandate to take on the world. It is an invitation to recognize the power of the bystander in preventing and reducing the impact of violence—in big or small ways.

As bystanders we share elements of victimization and perpetration in the dynamics of violence. While some have actually experienced violence first-hand, most have faced it in some way. Our human reaction invites fear, empathy, anger and denial.

  • We may be terrified at what we witness.
  • We may identify and feel emotional pain for the victim and family.
  • We may deny the reality by implicating the victim in some way.
  • We may feel rage coupled with a wish for retaliation.
  • We may feel it best to say nothing, stay out of it.
  • We may feel guilty–at a distance.

It is likely that most of us have felt and done all of the above.

What else can we do?

It is worth recognizing that there is a continuum of responses that turns a bystander into a helper.

  • It starts with recognizing that someone needs help and moves to a decision of what you can do.  While attempts to help may derail, helping behavior can be learned, modeled and often become self-reinforcing.
  • Your actions as a bystander may involve calling 911, urging a friend to lay off his/her verbal attack of someone, openly inviting an isolated staff member to lunch or helping a victim find a professional helper.
  • While we can’t eliminate the forces that propel violence, as bystanders we can overtly bear witness and seek to help even in small ways.
  • Our silence is never neutral–We cannot let it condone violence. 

A year ago, a friend of mine was in an airport ladies’ room when she overheard a college age girl crying on the phone to another friend that she was afraid to leave the bathroom as a man was following her and waiting outside. My friend took it upon herself to ask the girl if she needed help to which the girl agreed. When my friend walked out with the young lady, the man was standing there. She turned to him and said, “ She is with me and my husband,” and then she walked over to her husband who had observed this and said quietly, “ We are keeping her with us until her parents arrive”…. To my friend, this young woman was everyone’s daughter.

A valuable first step toward embracing the power of the bystander in reducing violence is to consider the following areas in which it has been applied:

Gender Violence

  • In his TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk on Violence Against Women, Jackson Katz suggests that gender violence is thought of as a “ women’s issue” but it is actually  “a men’s issue”. It is the male who is primarily the perpetrator against men and women.
  • Katz suggests that the violence paradigm is not binary in terms of a perpetrator and victim-there is always a bystander.
  • The bystander plays an important role because the higher in authority or leadership he is, the more dangerous his silence and inaction become.
  • Be it in the face of domestic violence, harassment in the workplace, child abuse, sports hazing, or military sexual abuse, the silence of a leader is viewed as consent and complicity. It perpetuates violence.
  • Powerful, moral and influential male leaders need to become visible, verbal and viable bystanders against violence.

Social Rejection

  • Research tells us that social rejection hurts physically and psychologically and can lead to aggression even against innocent people.
  • Based on social impact theory, research also finds that aggression that unfolds from being rejected and ostracized can be decreased as a function of the number of people who will accept or include a socially rejected person.
  • The high school student who asks a loner to be a lab partner or the staff member who publically recognizes a quiet, detached person’s good work and invites inclusion by the team, step out of their role as bystander and reach across imposed stigma to a real person. Their words and actions may well reduce the potential of pain and violence 

Bullying – A Cycle of Violence

  • Bullying is relational aggression. It is intended to make the victim feel frightened, humiliated, helpless and too often – hopeless. It has resulted in violence to the victim and by the victim.
  • Cyberbullying is particularly harmful given its virulent and exposing reach. Tragically it has often resulted in the victim’s suicide.
  • According to Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander, it is not only important to examine why and how a child becomes a bully or target of a bully but the role of the bystanders in perpetuating the cycle of violence.
  • According to Coloroso, bystanders can unwittingly aid and abet the bully through acts of omission and commission. They can look away, forward an embarrassing private picture or become a bully. The consequences are dangerous for all.
  • It becomes important for the parents and teachers of children, adolescents and even young adults to step out of the role of bystander to both model and help others interrupt the cycle. Sometimes it only takes one person to stand up and speak out.
  • When child and adolescent bystanders are encouraged and helped to stop complying, step up, talk out, hit delete, and feel the power of interrupting violence, they move from bystanders to protectors.

Domestic Violence and Bearing Witness

  • While dealing with domestic violence is complicated, the most dangerous aspect of it is having the bystanders walk away or stop caring.
  • Regardless of fear and ambivalence, having someone bear witness reduces the isolation and desperation of the victim.
  • One study reported that although 92% of women victims of physical abuse did not discuss these incidents with their physicians, they reported wanting their physicians to ask.
  • They reported that they could seek help from providers who showed interest, compassion, awareness, and respect for their need to make the final decisions about their situation.  Essentially, they wanted the provider to step out of the role of bystander and enter into a supportive relationship.
  • Validating the importance of this, one study found that in addition to receiving information about resources, having someone to confide in and having told someone about the abuse were factors associated with diminished abuse at 3 months.

It is daunting to think that stepping up as a bystander could reduce violence somehow, someway. It is enlivening to consider how a few words and the effort to help could matter…. 

“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies,

but the silence of our friends.” ( Martin Luther King Jr.)


Tune into Psych Up Live 5/18/17 Live at 2 PM EST or after 6Pm as a Podcast to hear .”“Recognizing The Impact of Non-Physical Violence in our Daily Lives.”


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