The “ignore and it will go away” myth

Indigo Jo takes a look at that myth via the report on sexual harassment in London.

The second [striking thing in a discussion on BBC London] was the suggestion (which I recall Simister saying the police had given to her after her assault) that women should “just ignore it”, which prompted me to write an email to the show (which Feltz read out), because the police have said the same thing to people suffering from the anti-social behaviour of local yobs and to people with disabilities who are being harassed by yobs or haters. It’s a fallacy particularly beloved of teachers as well, who will say the same to a child who complains of being teased in the playground (even if the “teasing” is not just verbal or if it is stopping them going about their business): “ignore it and it will go away”. The problem is that it just is not true: if you ignore a harasser who is trying to get a reaction, they will escalate their behaviour to physical intrusions and assaults, as has been noted to happen in the playground and the classroom and in cases of sexual harassment, until they get what they want. The only way of dealing with them is for them to be fought off, or for someone in authority to come between the persecutor and the victim.

It’s one of those platitudes like “the best antidote to bad ideas is better ideas.” That sounds good, but it’s not always true, and it’s obviously not always true. If that were true, bad ideas would never prevail, because better ideas would just always automatically trump them. Life isn’t like that. Same with the dreamily mistaken idea that if you ignore something nasty, it will [invariably] go away. Try that on a predator, for example.

The “ignore it and it goes away” myth is an example of the “just world” fallacy, in which people defend their belief in a “just world” by pretending that someone who is continually suffering must deserve it somehow. It also enables people to get out of taking responsibility for wrong they see happening. In this case, there is an “obvious answer” to the problem which the victim can easily make work for him- or herself by just ignoring the harassment for long enough, or to put it another way, just putting up with it. It gives the teacher or police officer an easy way of responding to a situation rather than tackle the difficult job of making the harassment stop, as is their duty, and blame the victim (and brand them a nuisance) if the behaviour continues.

The “just world” fallacy – I hadn’t heard that before, and it’s spot-on.

 Of course, the response may be appropriate when the complaint is just about a little bit of teasing, but there is a line between that and persistent harassment or physical assault of any kind…

Precisely. A little bit of teasing is not persistent harassment. Persistent harassment is not a little bit of teasing. It’s good to get these things clear.


  1. Josh Slocum says

    This is a hair’s breadth away from my least-favorite (read: rage-making) ethical fallacy, “I don’t care who started it and you’re both behaving badly.”

    1. One should care who started it. The victim of an assault who punches back is not morally equivalent to the passerby who slugged him without provocation.

    2. Defending one’s self is not behaving badly. If you’re paying attention to number 1 the victim shouldn’t need to get to number 2.

    I despise how frequently this formulation is tossed around by otherwise respectable people, usually coupled with, “You’re acting like kindergarteners.” “You’re both wrong,” was fallacious and hideously unjust moral reasoning when our grammar school teachers used it to “adjudicate” disputes and it’s hideously unjust for adults. Why this isn’t blindingly obvious is beyond me—we wouldn’t have a legal system if that formulation hold sway. Can you imagine a judge saying this?

  2. says

    Yeh – that’s something parents get to say, because they hear “she started it!” 9 million times a day and they have to maintain. But non-parents? No.

    Another in that category is “I’m not going to argue with you” coming from someone doing a bad thing. Yes you fucking are!

  3. Robert B. says

    I didn’t know the name “just world fallacy” but I was very familiar with the fallacy itself. It’s one of the major tenets of Ayn Rand’s ethics, and the one that got deepest under my skin when I read her books as a teenager. I spotted pretty quick that the person suffering does not have to be the person who did something wrong – people can screw each other over, in other words. But it took me a long time to realize that very bad results can come from very slight moral errors (a missed privilege-check, for example) or from no moral error at all (e.g. cancer). It took some work to realize that a major job of ethics is to deal with things that are nobody’s fault. That’s what flipped my position on public healthcare, for example.

  4. Josh Slocum says

    Stop with the use of “bitch” as an epithet. Or fuck off out of here.

    Sorry Ophelia. I get territorial about preserving Quality Spaces around the tubez.

  5. mizzmazz says

    I went through hell as an adolescent in Jr high and High school being bullied, and that “just ignore them” shit was all I was offered. There were physical assaults as well as the verbal, but my parents didn’t even care to be involved. Now this was 30 years ago, and things have changed, but I still carry that fucking baggage from my childhood. I think the worst part is that the people who I am supposed to trust and protect me didn’t, and now I don’t trust anyone. I won’t go to school reunions, because I don’t want to see these assholes – as far as I am concerned, they are still assholes.

  6. Lyanna says

    SO MUCH WORD to all of this in the post, and also to Josh Slocum’s comments.

    “Ignore it and go away” basically means “I’m too lazy and inept an authority figure to deal with this, or too shitty a friend to help you cope with it.”

    I’m not sure which is more infuriating, “ignore it and go away” or the “toughen up” response that people give to dismiss this harassment as something only a weakling would worry about.

  7. Lyanna says

    Mizzmazz: sorry you went through that. It often seems to be the case that the failure of authority figures to respond correctly is even more damaging than the actual bullying. Because then it’s like the community, through its representatives, is telling you that you’re worthless to it.

  8. 'Tis Himself says

    I won’t go to school reunions, because I don’t want to see these assholes – as far as I am concerned, they are still assholes.

    Me too. My 50th high school reunion is in a few years. I won’t be going to it just like I’ve skipped all the other ones. I have no desire to see any of those people again and I sure don’t want to see the teachers and the assistant principal who told me “ignore them and they’ll ignore you.” What the teachers and ass principal meant was “it’s too much of a hassle to fix bullying, so suffer.”

    I did run into the ass principal shortly before he retired. We had a short conversation and when we parted he knew exactly what kind of incompetent, uncaring asshole I thought he was. I hope I ruined his day.

  9. F says

    Lyanna mentioning “toughen up” reminds me of the response to seekers of social justices, great or small, to “get a helmet”. Of course, the people who say this don’t realize that we don’t need no stinkin’ helmets. They need to pull their heads out of their fifth point of contact, out of their self-centerdness and laziness, or out of their conformity to bad social norms (for certain values of social norm, anyway). These are what they imagine to be a “helmet”.

  10. says

    Good comments.

    It was Dan Savage’s husband Terry, wasn’t it, who told the story of his high school telling his mother that if he would just stop walking that way and talking that way and acting that way, the bullying would stop?

    (Josh, that Sparkle thing is a drive by – I can tell because I can see the stats – and is just trolling. No doubt a visitor from the s.p.)

  11. says

    Another in that category is “I’m not going to argue with you” coming from someone doing a bad thing. Yes you fucking are!

    Having been in a relationship where gaslighting was a major feature, I can also tell you that abusers frequently use this tactic. “Just ignore it” is a fabulous tool in the abuser’s collection of get-out-of-consequences-free concepts.

  12. mnb0 says

    Shall we apply the same principle to burglary and murder? The stupidity of this never ceases to amaze me, but perhaps that’s because I was bullied myself – it typically only stopped when I fought back, something I immensely disliked.
    The best approach is a cost-benefit analysis. Is the bullying bad enough to make fighting back worth the effort? Sexual harrassment obviously very often is.

  13. says

    Another piece of bad advice from my dad I had to unlearn. Unlearned it pretty quickly though.

    They WANT you to ignore them. That’s why they DO it. That’s the FUN part for them.

  14. karmakin says

    Yup. Bullies will amplify their efforts, as it’s the response they’re looking for.

  15. Melody says

    I learned the term “just world fallacy” in a psychology course in college. It’s very helpful in understanding certain people’s worldview.

  16. says

    it typically only stopped when I fought back, something I immensely disliked.

    Exactly mnbo, so often a bullied kid is encouraged to fight back by people who are completely unaware of how that action may affect the poor kid himself. Beyond the very real risk that one might be incapable of physically overcoming ones bullies there is the additional risk of turning in to one, or escalating the violence beyond ones ability to control.

  17. says

    *sigh* Because ignoring my abuser TOTALLY made him stop.

    All it ever got me was hit, kicked, punched, bruised, bloodied, and raped.

    Not that speaking up for myself got me much different, but I sure as hell felt better about myself for doing it.

    No, the police weren’t a help AT ALL. They just did the “If you quit being hysterical and provoking him, he’ll stop *pat pat*” thing, when all I had to do to “provoke” Jackass was fucking BREATHE.

    Worse yet, the only time they took him into custody was after he assaulted three ABLE BODIED people — the cripple can just fend for herself!

  18. Francis Boyle says

    How long will it be before the “you’re as bad as each other” excuse for inaction is replaced with “you’ve got to learn to respect other people’s moral values”? Rhetorical question – I see it happening already. I’ve had people lecture me on the them. Yet another reason to oppose creeping religious privilege.

  19. A nym too says

    mizzmazz – hugs. I just posted .a very similar comment on the “Life on the streets” post. Probably would have fit better here, whoops.

    Using a nym to protect myself, makes me feel like a coward.

  20. says

    I was viciously bullied throughout school. Luckikly, I had great parents who fought for me every step of the way. Unfortunately, they couldn’t fight an administration so devoted to their own flawed philosophies of child behavior.

    In fourth grade, a much larger, older girl backed me up against a wall and began to insult me, threatening to hurt me. I pushed her hard enough to get her to back up a step (so, not that hard) and ran away to a teacher. BAM suspension for “fighting”. My dad was so angry…but he let me know I could always defend myself, and spent the detention alternately letting me watch movies and teaching me how to throw a good punch.

    The solution to an effort by the girls in my class to humiliate me (all the girls in my class came up, individually–except for one girl who I counted as a friend–and told me that they hated me and I should leave, that no one wanted me around) was a class discussion. Not a class discussion about how bullying was bad, but a discussion where every student got to talk about what they disliked about me and I had to sit and listen. I wasn’t allowed to respond, just listen. This was “mediation.” It ended with me going home hysterical, in tears.

    The last straw was when the principal said to my mom, “Well, she’s obviously doing something; they wouldn’t pick on her for no reason.” My mom didn’t want me in a school where the prinicapl had such a silly, damaging concept of child psychology, and homeschooled me. I wasn’t learning anything at that school by that point anyway. I was homeschooled off and on for the remainder of my education.

    I was very, very lucky. A dear friend of mine was tortured in high school–physically attacked, sexually assaulted, harassed in front of teachers–because he was gay. He didn’t have the option of hiding: he’s one of those people for whom being gay is as obvious as some people are black, and just as impossible to pass. (I can pass, usually. Still, I learned the hard way that sometimes kids just know. Teenagers can be evil.) But he didn’t have parents who could fight for him; he was an immigrant, and his parents only spoke Spanish. He tried to fight his own battles, for years, going round and round with a guidence counselor and prinicpal who said (much like with Terry): If you weren’t so different, they wouldn’t pick on you. Work on that. So he just took matters into his own hands and skipped school for two years, until they were forced to move him into independent study.

    I’m not that old, but I’m thrilled to see from my brother’s schools that at least some places have seriously improved. My brother has always gone places with a zero-tolerance policy, and while the administration can’t control everything, there is support and help available.

    People who think “ignore it and it will go away” or “it takes two to fight” are real solutions are complete idiots. Victim blaming is easier than finding a solution. I’m horrified that this trancends schools to our justice system and adult victims of domestic violence are now being fed this shit pie. I am boiling with rage.

  21. says

    mizzmazz: I’m so sorry you went through that. I carry scars from my own and experience (and HELL NO I will not be going to any reunion; shit I have full-on flashbacks just from seeing the past abusers names pop up on facebook wanting to friend me), bu I cannot imagine going through it all without supportive parents. That’s terrible. I hope that you have found (or will find) some peace in adult life.

  22. says

    I’ve just started reading about the just world fallacy, too. I’ve been looking at in the context of rape: much of rape apology and victim blaming (if not all) seem to rest on that fallacy.

    And it invades all aspects of life. I have a dear friend with a brain tumor, and she is convinced that it is because a) God hates her or b)she did something wrong and this is her punishment. No assurances that “shit happens” get though to her. It’s like she’s cognitively incapable of understanding that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason or purpose.

  23. Boomer says

    The article linked consistently refuses to assign any identity whatsoever to the perps.

    Every harasser is simply refered to as “some guy”.

    Knowing more about their identity would be an eye opener.

    The article hides as much as it reveals and becomes, thus, just several paragraphs of non-onfo.

  24. says

    On a related note, Boomer, I’ve been in two writing classes in college where my professor banned use of the passive voice in able to ensure that we know how and when to use it, and to make sure that we understood that it is almost never necessary.

    Journalists should have to go through the same thing, because man, unidentifiable ghosts are raping and killing women all over the place (as far as most of the media seems to think).

  25. Rob Myers says

    nym too – Posting under my real name rather than a pseudonym to say that I think you’re brave to speak up, under whatever name.

  26. John the Drunkard says

    “Just world fallacy.” Wonderful name for this.

    I too was savagely bullied through grade school in the 60s. The response from those entrusted with my care and education was usually some form of; ‘why did you offend them?’

    I think a kind of denial of evil is at the heart of this; and a pathological need to seek empathy with evil-doers.

    As humans, we try to comprehend the actions of others in terms of our own behaviour and motives. Thus when we hear about creepy come-ons in elevators at 4:00 AM, we jump too our own experience trying to approach women we like. This is a major category error. My attraction to women, my desire to ‘have coffee’ with an interesting new acquaintance, is NOT the same thing as the sleazy trolling of a predator.

    Agressive street-harrasment has nothing in common with the normal attraction that normal men and women feel. Don’t try to understand pathological behavior in the terms of normal or acceptable behaviour.

    If anyone hasn’t read it, Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear, gives terrific examples of the way sociopaths aoivd detection by ‘normalizing’ their behaviour to potential witnesses. Police arrive at the domestic violence call to find the victim hysterical and the perpetrator calm and agreeable. Sociopaths almost always fool authorities and ‘experts.’

  27. NateHevens says

    Since I’m a text-book bully victim, I decided to blog about this myself.

    It bothers me, to be honest. I was force-fed the “ignore it” lie all throughout grade school. I hated it so much because it never helped… it just made things worse… a lot worse.

    How long before people recognize that ignoring these thing doesn’t work? How long before they let this stupid lie go?

  28. Grendels Dad says

    It’s not just escalation, ignore it and it will go away too often means ignore it and it will be directed at the next target. As people have pointed out, bullies are looking for a reaction.

    Passing them off to the next victim may be a pragmatic, short term approach, but how ethical is it? Or even how pragmatic in the long run? Most bullies have a limited supply of potential victims, and if none respond to the current level of taunting then escalation is inevitable.

  29. says

    Part of the trouble I think is the turn-the-other-cheek-blessed-are-the-meek fallacy of Christianity, which arose in the context of the savage Roman bullying of the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine.

    It had its logic, because it was saying in effect to the bullied people ‘only engage in combat when you have a good chance of winning’. (‘Turn the other cheek’ somehow never caught on in Christian civilisation: a maxim honoured far more in the breach than in the observance.)

    But none the less, the best advice I know is ‘learn to defend yourself’. Then one engages in the rest of it from a base of self-confidence.

    ‘Only engage with opponents you can beat; otherwise run away’ is also a good principle. Self-defence training simply increases the probability of winning and decreases the need to run away.

    The experiences referred to in many of the comments by victims so far in this thread have given rise to very understandable bitterness. There is nobody so bitter as someone who has been powerless in the face of injustice.

    EEb @ #23 gives a good example of why some people should never be made school principals. The sad fact is that bullies attract one or two toadies who seek safety in their company, and then the nucleus of a teenage gang has formed.

  30. OurSally says

    Being abused as a child made me tough (though that doesn’t work for everyone). My parents never helped, nor did any teachers. Ignoring never helps.

    So I got an attitude. I discovered that if a building site full of primates whistles and whoops at me, I can turn and face them, put my hands on my hips and whoop back, and they stop! and next time they don’t do it.

    A guy was stalking me, and my mates said, why don’t you just take him back, he’s OK. So I said to them all, this guy is a creep, he broke into my flat again. Then I enrolled at Karate, and told everyone this was the reason why. Creep never showed again.

    A guy was telling lies about me, so I rang him up and said, x says you said this, why did you do that when it’s not true. He said y had said to him, so I called y and he’d understood something wrong.

    Bullies are all cowards. But they always pick on people who they don’t think will fight back. I’m little and female, and now I’m foreign, so it’s me. Because I’m tough I can defend myself, and I watch all the weak ones and make sure nobody’s picking on them. If they are I say, stop picking on him, why do you do this, how would you like it? And if they are children I offer to talk to their parents.

  31. Amy Clare says

    Good post. Another oft used phrase is ‘don’t let it get to you’, or variations on that theme. ‘Let’ it. As though your reaction to being bullied or harrassed is completely down to you and has nothing to do with the bully. As though when someone is up in your face calling you a b**ch, it is your responsibility to go ‘tra la la water off a duck’s back’ thus absolving the harrasser. See also: being ‘too soft’, being ‘too sensitive’.

    When somebody says to you ‘just ignore it’ what they mean is, ‘I want to ignore it,’ either because they want to pretend it isn’t happening (if it can’t happen to you, it can’t happen to them), or they’re lazy, or they’re a bully themselves, with a screwed up notion of ‘tough love’ which essentially amounts to an irrational hatred of perceived ‘weakness’ in others (and themselves).

    I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been victim-blamed for bullying, harrassment, abuse even. People who say ‘ignore it’ are enablers. This should be called out loudly and often.


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