When acts of escalated hatred and violence are made visible—when a noose is hung on a tree—people react.
Unfortunately, this act is an anomaly in the visibility it has achieved.
Other similar acts, just as overtly full of hatred and violence, occur invisibly despite being right under our noses. The appallingly, but not unexpectedly, low number of people who will speak up in the moment of hearing the whispering of a racial slur, the derisive laughter accompanying cat-calling or the slap following a couple’s shouting match is telling of what constitutes normal, expected behavior. This is further reflected in the desire not to engage in other people’s “relationship problems,” “family problems” or “personal problems”—or, in other words, we dismiss the serious, life-threatening situations of sexual, domestic, racial and gender violence. The mentality of “that’s their problem, not mine” permeates all our interactions and decisions and is how we define ourselves. We define ourselves as being not the other, and, unconsciously and consciously, we aim to keep these boundaries clean and devoid of contamination.
To say, “Look at what those people do” requires absolutely no effort. It’s an innate defense mechanism. It takes the blame for crime and violence off of our own shoulders. It’s how we maneuver the world so that we ourselves may continue to feel alive, human and morally intact.
The field of psychology gives our unconscious need to separate ourselves from others a name: the bystander effect. This is the phenomenon in which the more people that witness a life-threatening situation unfold, the more likely they are to do absolutely nothing. At its best, the bystander effect is a diffusion of responsibility, in which we put the responsibility to act on the shoulders of others and attempt to relieve ourselves from guilt. In its worst manifestation, we end up cloaking even the most visibly violent, morally offensive situations with invisibility.
The pervasive reality is this: we are complicit in these acts of hate and violence when we render them invisible. It is easy to not engage with what we may tell ourselves are simply the problems of others, but are these really problems of others if we ourselves become complicit through inaction? Events like today’s, where many people of a community gather together—out of not wanting to be left out or out of solidarity—in the face of a racist act, are welcome because they raise the public consciousness. But what will they have actually accomplished if we continue to be silent on an individual scale?
We are hypocrites. Particular acts of hate and violence are brought into the limelight, becoming the instigators of a great public outcry. But the majority of these acts are noticed, ignored and left invisible. Too often, awareness does not precede action but, instead, deliberate inaction.
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