As we’ve seen, however, people often don’t speak up when they have first-hand knowledge that someone is endangering or hurting others. There are many reasons why adults and children turn a blind eye when an insecure person tells outrageous lies or torments others.
They may include:
1. Apathy. The offender’s lies are so ridiculous and over-the-top that any reasonable person knows he is lying, and it’s not worth the fight to challenge it. The default response becomes to tune it out or roll one’s eyes.
2. Rationalization. Some onlookers are unable — or unwilling — to see the stakes to a bully’s bad behavior. This is the camp that says, “Fibbing is annoying.” They minimize the damage of anti-social behavior. They focus on how they might benefit and ignore the reprehensible means.
3. Callousness. Others simply don’t worry about lies or harassment or threatening behavior that doesn’t impact them personally. As long as someone else is the victim or potential victim, they are unbothered.
4. Fear. Sometimes a bystander does feel empathy and concern but is simply too afraid of becoming a target of the bully.
5. Greed. Others are more complicit. They want something from the bully, so they are willing to aid and abet unethical or cruel actions. They stand to gain personally from enabling the bully despite the damage it causes to others.
6. Protection. Some people, especially weaker ones, are easily seduced by power. They feel protected by their association with the bully. It’s easier for them to be part of a protected in-group, no matter how compromised.
7. Consequences. There are those who fear losing social standing or facing backlash from others beyond the bully. In these situations the culture of the institution, whether it’s a school or workplace, often enables and empowers the bully.
8. Cowardice. Many people lack of courage to speak up or stand up against wrongdoing, even anonymously. They are too cowardly to take a risk to do the right thing. It’s easier to leave or avoid the situation. This is especially true if the system responds with reversal, in which the bully is seen as victim, and the whistleblower is seen as the problem.
9. Desensitized. Those who spend the most time around a bully become accustomed to cruelty and anti-social behavior. They see everyone around them tolerating it, as well.
10. Meanness. And there are some who share the same moral defects as the bully. They are just as ruthless, self-centered, greedy, spiteful or nasty. They don’t act out as much as the alpha bully because they are lower in the pecking order and don’t wield as much power. But they take pleasure in the hatefulness committed in their proximity.
Once we understand and identify what prevents bystanders from intervening, we can look for ways to better engage them. And we can learn from the mysterious behavior of whales.
Humans should appeal to bystanders’ own interests in banding together. We can reform systems to be friendlier to whistleblowers and make it easier to be anonymous. We need to continue to glorify the courageous, cultivate empathy and shame the complicit.
It’s their silence that speaks the loudest.