Why we sometimes do nothing

Excuse me for not having wrote much here lately.  I’ve been having my most busy time of year and have hardly been at home and had time to write articles.  I am however back in Poland and have various articles planned.

My first one is about a topic that interests me greatly, one that is highly relevant for anyone who is involved in the civic society, any activist of any kind: Group psychology, or to be more precise, why groups don’t do things to intervene when harm is done.

The past month has brought two stories from GB that should cause us to stop and think.

The most recent one is that of allegations against the now deceased DJ and TV star Jimmy Saville.  To those who don’t know, many allegations have been made that he sexually abused teenage girls, and there have been a few rape claims in addition (see here for more info).  The claims have not yet been proven (I don’t know how many of those claims can actually be proven, due to lack of evidence), but in any case, time and time again things like the following have been said: “People knew what he was doing”, “there was gossip” and “we didn’t say anything as nobody would believe us”.  Others are angry about these people, in that they knew about something very dodgy may have been happening but doing nothing about it.

We are into classic Zimbardo territory here.  He wrote of the diffusion of responsibility, whereby people are less likely to act to help someone when there are other people present.  It is expected that others will act, and therefore responsibility gets diffused from the individual to the group.  People try to do what others do, and don’t want to seem different.  A lack of Good Samaritans leads to tragic consequences:

This type of thing on a completetly different level is often a feature of my work where I work with groups.  In nearly every seminar I do there are moments where a question is left open: Shall we do a musical evening?  Who will go and speak with such-and-such a person?  People sit and expect someone else to do it.  I do the same, especially when I assume others would be better to do something, such as because they speak Polish better, or know the area better, or something like that.  I myself have walked past someone lying on the floor (he appeared drunk) when other people have been present.  I saw others look at him and walk past, and I, typical human that I am, copied them.

The second story is the publication of documents related to the Hillsborough disaster.  It was shown once and for all that not only were the police to blame for the disaster that led to the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans, but also that the police, together with elements of the media and Conservative government of the time conspired to blame fans; consequently nobody has had to face a criminal trial, and other football fans, to this day sing about the trial, saying that Liverpool fans “killed (their) own fans”.

The s*n “apologies”, 23 years too late

What was especially revealing about the reaction to the release of documents was that person after person came forward to offer apologies: Members of the media such as Kelvin Mackenzie who had many scandalous accusations against Liverpool fans, and also the FA, who had decided that the game should take place in a stadium without a safety certificate where they had recently been problems.  This shows for me something similar to the first story.  There was a culture of blaming Liverpool fans, and not taking on responsibility for mistakes made that cost lives.  Only when the mood changed (through hard work of the families of those who died) did the “culture” demand that people fit in and acknowledge what had actually happened in Hillsborough.

Humans are social animals and want to fit in with groups.  Therefore group cultures come into being, This and this shall be done and believed.  The principle of social activism is that group cultures need to be fluid, not static.  They need to be open to being challenged, to different interpretations, to criticism.

This blog came into being to try to support those in Poland and the rest of Europe who try to go against group cultures.  Of course, group cultures exist among our groups, leading to various orthodoxies that are not to be challenged, except here 🙂  What I would like is for us to be more open to taking action, to react to unexpected events (such as seeing someone being threatened on a train; I saw this once and did nothing), to be critical about what we believe and do.

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One comment on “Why we sometimes do nothing

  1. […] would happen today.  I was determined however to show solidarity, so I went.  However, as I have written, I have not always reacted when I have seen violent or discriminatory incidents on the streets.  I […]

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