No More Passive Bystanders, Please

It is always a little frustrating when the great swarm of movies released at the end of the year take precedence over earlier releases, tipping the awards and leaving some worthy candidates overlooked. It is the same with the “Word of the Year” awards. I know, I know. The books have barely closed on 2017 (youthquake, fake news, feminism, complicit). But I want to register an early entry for 2018: bystander.

We have three sources of power with which to propel bystander interventions forward: We have the power of voice, of course. We have a convening power. And, we have the power to set standards of intellectual rigor and professional conduct.
I have Jennifer Wies (Ball State University) to thank for elevating bystander’s prominence in my lexicon. Three years ago, when the Committee on Gender Equity in Anthropology (CoGEA) was pushing the AAA to collect more detailed primary data on on-campus sexual harassment and hostile workplace climate, Wies and her CoGEA colleagues advocated for data informed by a campus-based violence prevention training approach known as the bystander intervention model. The model advocates for training passive bystanders to actively intervene, and made a good deal of intuitive sense at the time. Since then, at least one systematic evidence review based on more than 20 studies shows that interventions using the bystander model have resulted in, among other outcomes, decreases in the perpetration of sexual violence, increased knowledge about consent, increased bystander confidence to intervene and incidence of interventions.

At CoGEA’s recommendation and the Executive Board’s request, our Members’ Programmatic Advisory and Advocacy Committee is currently working on a AAA sexual harassment policy statement, to be finalized and implemented in the next couple of months. It will almost certainly acknowledge as a standard of professional conduct that we each have a responsibility to take appropriate action when we witness objectionable behaviors involving colleagues, students, and collaborators.

As anthropologists, I believe we have a special insight on the notion of “bystander,” thanks to our familiarity with the practice of participant-observation. After all, the whole point of the bystander intervention model is to move persons who are present at an event or incident from merely being observers to participant-observers.

Even this early in 2018, it is clear that a large infusion of year-round bystander intervention is absolutely necessary. I am not just talking about reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and violence. I am talking much more broadly about the need for interventions precipitated by alarming threats to policies affecting immigration, global environmental change, health disparities, racial- and gender-based injustice, and cultural heritage resource protections.

From my perspective, as an association, we have three sources of power with which to propel bystander interventions forward: We have the power of voice, of course. We have a convening power. And, we have the power to set standards of intellectual rigor and professional conduct. With our convening power, the Association will bring people together to share ideas on collective action that: (a) people can organize through their institutions and communities; (b) the Association can undertake with the repertory of tools it has available; and (c) the Association can take by joining our voices with those of other sister societies equally concerned about the administration’s stated goals of undoing government policies and practices that move us towards a more just and sustainable society. Among the many collaborative partnerships in which AAA participates, we are a governing member within the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), which advocates for research support provided by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. COSSA is also working hard to increase public awareness about the importance of fully funding the Federal Statistical Agencies, on which we depend for high quality data about US society and the world. We are also active participants in the National Humanities Alliance, which campaigns for public support of the humanities.

If you haven’t read it in a while, I encourage you to go back to Paul Bohannan’s 1980 Presidential Address, “You Can’t Do Nothing,” in which he sounded a note of warning about a dystopian future, projecting that ethnocentric urges will worsen inter-ethnic and international conflicts and that the planet’s ecological balance will suffer untold damage. Anthropologists, he argued must not pretend that we are outside the struggle. I completely agree. And I agree when he goes on to say that we anthropologists “are held together by an immense force,” that we share a “passionate concern for…the enduring values anthropology stands for: the rights and interests of the human species—all of it.” The message, then as now, is that we are compelled to act out of this concern for peoples’ rights and interests.

“Bystander” is my candidate for word of the year. And I hope that by the end of 2018 we will see it used to describe people who got up off the sidelines and poured their knowledge and insights into the collective actions needed now more than ever.

Cite as: Liebow, Ed. 2018. “No More Passive Bystanders, Please.” Anthropology News website, April 13, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.833

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