Turning a blind eye

Josh has a great post at More Than Men about bystanders.

There’s a special place in my imaginary hell for tepid bystanders who turn a blind eye to the suffering and targeting of someone more vulnerable. I hate them, and I hate them more than I hate the tormentors. Because they fly a false flag. They present themselves as friends but turn out to be collaborators at the most dire moments. Because they know better and they choose to do nothing. To do nothing in a way that magnifies the stage, and scope, and power of bullies.

I came out publicly at 12 years old. This was very unusual in the mid-80s. There were no such things as Gay/Straight Alliances. We queer kids gathered in a sympathetic guidance counselor’s office (bless you, Mrs. H. I still remember giving you makeup tips and how delighted you were when you saw the results.) on a time-rotating basis so no one would figure out we were all in the same place at the same time. We knew we’d be harassed and beaten even worse if our ad hoc meetings were found out. We knew the administration would turn a blind eye, that it might make life professionally difficult for Mrs. H.

There was a 10th grade English teacher, a lesbian, who should have helped him but didn’t. Read it.



  1. says

    This is why I found the main character in Kite Runner so unappealing. That lack of action at a crucial moment in someone else’s life is as close to unforgivable as I can imagine.

  2. MrFancyPants says

    To be honest, it took me too long to figure this out. But, Ophelia, it was voices like yours that made me think. I did not know that I was a bystander for so long.

  3. jmb says

    Oh wow. “The standard you walk by” (or jog by…)

    Yeah, I don’t want anything to do with the “friends” and other “nice” people who stood by and looked the other way for all the rape threats in high school, either. How dare we hold grudges?

  4. Donnie says

    It is reading personal stories like this that make me wish I could go back to High School and not be the bystander that I was….I was just happy that the bullies took time away from me to target others. In the mid-80s, no one in my high school would have come out publicly. The culture was that being called “gay” was the bat signal for everyone to jump in on and bully. I am not proud of my younger self, but I will never be the bystander again…..I agree with MrFrancyPants….but now I know and will be there.

  5. says

    I was just happy that the bullies took time away from me to target others…

    See, about that:

    I dunno where Josh would be on that. I notice most of what he’s writing is about authority figures, people who had power, or some, at least, who you’d really think should be on the hook to make a difference, if anyone is…

    So again, I dunno about him. But me, reading what I’m thinking you’re telling me here:

    See, I was bullied a bit. Nothing like Josh describes, no baseball bats, thankfully, but some proper pushing around and lesser physical humiliations…

    The dynamics of that, what it does to people, those are complicated. But see, it pains me to read stuff like this–and yours, too–because I’ve done the bystander thing, too. And for just the reason, I think, you just described. As in it’s: thanks, but I’m scared, and I’ve had enough medicine for today; I feel incredibly shitty watching this, I feel incredibly shitty doing this, but if I get involved, I figure it’s gonna do you no good, and I’m just gonna be next…

    Shitty feeling, seriously. And I guess it should be. And seriously, it’s not good for anyone; do that, you’re probably only adding to the self-hatred the bullies already impose upon you. But then, I’ve also been in the situation watching exactly that same emotions play on the faces of others. As in: you’re watching them watching you suffer, and you know they’d like to say something, and you know they feel terrible, but they’re cowed, they’re scared, they’re failing to rise to this, and just how much they’ve been beaten down themselves to get there, in that particular place of passive misery, you don’t even know. I remember one particular scene, a little vaguely, as anything that far back will tend to be, but it’s funny how emotion will sear these things in. I’m pretty sure it’s some gym class thing (seriously, reference Calvin and Hobbes on the joys of gym class for the bullied), and he’s a little guy, smaller even than me (I was more the tall slender type), and the torment I can see in him, at least, is still vivid. Seriously, I don’t even remember what they were doing to me, here; I just remember noticing him. And I’m entirely sure he wanted to say something, to do something. He just figured, nuh uh, what the hell can I even do?

    And sure, that’s part of how people get divided and conquered, so it’s not like it’s a good thing. But it’s very understandable. So I actually don’t feel hatred for people like that. It’s true what’s needed is solidarity; it’s true people have to get shoulder to shoulder, if anything’s going to improve. But that reaction, that duck and cover, that look out for yourself, I think that gets pretty ground in. For that, actually, yeah; dysfunctional and unhelpful as it is, I can help but express, actually, somewhat conflicted sympathy…

    Really, even, me, I think I’d more flip it around this way: I don’t necessarily feel contempt for you if you don’t manage to rise above that…

    I feel, rather, deep and abiding admiration for anyone–and I think here especially of someone like Josh, here–who does.

    Seriously, if you’ve been through that crap and now will not stand by, if you’re shaking off your fear and standing up anyway, you’re one of the few real heroes in this world. You really, really are.

  6. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Andrew’s right—I was talking about authority figures. Or, more properly, those with cultural/social power relative to the victim. That includes the sort of people I mentioned—every day folks who could intervene or speak up or unfollow but don’t. They’re not harassees themselves, and that fact puts them in a better position to help others.

    So, not just authority figures, really.

    I have much more understanding for the other kids who were afraid to pipe up lest they end up in the same boat. On the other hand, there’s a limit to that, and I don’t extend nearly so my sympathy to grown-ass adults these days.

  7. says

    …On the other hand, there’s a limit to that, and I don’t extend nearly so my sympathy to grown-ass adults these days.

    Yeah, that too, actually, come to think of it.

    As in: in a kid, I can even put that one under ‘I feel you’. And if that was you at fourteen, and you’re not fourteen now, I think it might even do you some good to try to forgive yourself for that. Asking a lot, otherwise.

    And whatever you’ve been through, it’s okay, got it. You got the stick, too, and who knows how that twisted you up? Understood, and I’m sure not gonna give you any grief if you’ve still got some funny twitches around this stuff…

    But get past, I dunno, let’s say eighteen, and all that aside, it’s still, listen: do something anyway, twitching or no. This is part of being the grownup. We call these responsibilities.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    I was a bullied kid too. Teachers showed me back routes by which I could sneak away from junior hig campus to avoid waiting gangs. No acknowledgment that there was in any way wrong for thugs to lie in wait to assault 14 year olds.

    So yes, I feel some bitterness and outrage at the society that normalizes such things. I also happen to be heterosexual–though not in any way that met the standards of bullies. And, a lot of the violence I experienced was racially motivated.

    So, is it ‘entitlement’ or ‘priviledge’ for me to have actually experienced what I experienced as a White Heterosexual Male? Wrong is wrong, everywhere and any time. The political always includes the personal.

    As a species, we seem to fail accross the board, at connecting our personal suffering with that of others. The whinging ‘nice guy’ who fails to strike out against the misogynist trolls, IS acting on legitimate suffering, just as the cartoonish ‘feminazi’ is offending the status quo by mentioning the outrages that pass for normal.

    Can people be decent to each other? Can we resist evil reflexively, on the basis of our individul moral integrity rather than by generating sweeping generalities?

  9. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    So, is it ‘entitlement’ or ‘priviledge’ for me to have actually experienced what I experienced as a White Heterosexual Male? Wrong is wrong, everywhere and any time. The political always includes the personal.

    Why ever would you ask that? Whom do you believe would claim your abuse wasn’t real or important? Of course it is.

  10. says

    I struggled with that as well throughout school here in Canada. Teachers wilfully turning a blind eye to bullying. I lived in a town where being hetero didn’t stop me from being labelled as a “fag” and then bullied on a regular schedule.
    I can remember seeing teachers stand and watch as 7 or 8 guys would surround me and then shove me back and forth until I fell down, and then it’d be elbow smashes, kicks, “fag”-pile, etc. I can remember asking how they could just stand there and watch me be beaten up and being told if I would just learn to stand up for myself it wouldn’t happen so much. WTF kind of adult gives an answer like that to a kid who had just been assaulted.
    I left that town 2 days after I received my HS diploma and thankfully my family moved not long after as I’ve never returned. Shook the dust off my shoes and never looked back.
    I totally understand your views on bystanders and share them. They’re the same people who “just followed orders”, (not trying to invoke Godwin, but still). You’re what you stand for not what you stay silent on, it’s the silence that lingers all these years, more than the bullying. They could have helped, and chose not to.

  11. says

    I think bullying is something of a universal phenomenon. You either have been bullied, or you bullied.

    I was on the receiving end of bullying in junior high school, because I was poor (witnessed by the fact that my dad cut our hair — and he wasn’t much good at it), wore glasses, and was smart. But it wouldn’t have mattered if any one of those things weren’t true. Thing is, bullies don’t need a reason to target you for bullying. Your mere presence is enough. Anything that you perceive as a weakness (or even don’t) will be used as the excuse to bully you. If you’re different from them — you get bullied. If you’re too much like them — you get bullied. There’s no “not going to bully that kid” safe zone other than being a bully yourself.

    I was really lucky. I got into a fight with one of my bulliers (he started it by jumping me from behind with no warning and no provocation) and I basically beat the crap out of him. Adrenaline will do that. The guidance counselor told the other kid “that’s what you get” and suspended him. Me he let off without even detention.

    That was the end of the physical violence, at least. But I don’t recommend that as a strategy unless you’re really lucky or really good at fighting.

    The point is that there was nothing in my makeup that necessarily made me a target. There were other poor kids, other smart kids, other kids that wore glasses. All of that is irrelevant. You can’t escape bullying by “blending in” — because there’s nothing to blend into.

    TL:dr — Being bullyied is NOT YOUR FAULT.

  12. says

    Re #8, and entitlement and privilege:

    I’m starting to feel like I’m talking too much here, but anyway:

    No, it’s not entitlement or privilege. Or at least I don’t think so…

    And like Josh, I think, I’m not even sure quite where that question comes from.

    But, umm… Let’s see now, though, how it ever even could be…

    I guess if you were to imagine from your experience it’s somehow yours to proclaim from authority how people of still greater vulnerability still and less power still should respond because of your experience, okay, then it would be. But if you can get that what you got and what they got, it’s not necessarily quite the same thing, and they may just know things about this you don’t, well, I’m back to I don’t quite see how, anyway, for what that’s worth.

    I might once have said this was a fine line, but actually, now, I’m not so sure it is. I don’t think it’s a hard one. Just needs a bit of thought.

    I’d put it this way: you can imagine you might have some idea what they’re going through, because you probably do, from what you’ve been through, and of course there are commonalities. And building from that to empathy, I think that’s a healthy thing. I think the world could use more of that kind of thing… That’s where solidarity comes from. Empathize. Try to. Absolutely.

    But again, you need to get: what you went through, it’s not necessarily the same thing. You don’t really know. And you don’t get to tell them squat, if some lil’ authoritarian devil on your shoulder is whispering to you that’s somehow your place. Grasp that, and I think you can keep yourself clear of issues of privilege. That way, anyway…

    Mind, this, too, is coming from a straight, like you. So get this clear, too:

    I don’t really know either.

    And seriously, though you probably already know this, if it makes you feel any better: you’re far from alone. The general category of bullied straight guy who didn’t fit in for whatever other reason–and quite possibly other people’s attitudes about just what is ‘normal’ for a straight–is pretty well-populated, from what I’ve seen. I figure that’s generally my category, too, but y’know, I think you could make yourself pretty crazy trying to work out the fine details of just what the hell it was really set them off. I think it’s true, that’s looking the wrong direction, anyway, trying to work out what it was about you. As noted elsewhere in this thread, they can always find a reason. Ultimately, it’s probably mostly just about power, and a very nasty relationship and set of learned behaviours that build on themselves, however they start. And I think that’s what the research says, really, too…

    But also, maybe most importantly, and like Josh said: yes, what you felt matters.

    So here’s a nod, anyway, guy.

    Oh. Also. About that you were bullied or you were a bully thing in #11, well…

    Maybe true, depending on how fine you set the sensors, y’know? But given that the research does seem to say these are learned behaviours, and there’s policies institutions and authorities especially can enforce to prevent it, there’s every reason to think it doesn’t have to be that way, at least.

    And what’s not so good, I think, is if you go from that to assuming it’s got to be one or the other. Not at all meaning to point fingers, but I wonder if that isn’t one of the things that gets stuck in your brain when you’re in that kind of situation, and especially too young, when the pathways are getting laid down. It’s this notion this is it, there’s no way out of this, no way for it to be any different; it’s get on top or get pushed down.

    And that’s bad news. That’s the kind of assumption might even make some bullies, ultimately. So it’s not an assumption I think I’m comfortable letting them have without challenge.

    Oh, but the not your fault thing, without qualification: yes. Damned right.

  13. says

    Thank you, Ophelia.

    (And now, suddenly, it seems somehow like it’s going to be taken as some kind of bad joke if I leave it at that. But really, for the moment, that’s all I got. So seriously, just thanks. And taken as feedback.)

  14. johnthedrunkard says


    I may be reaching a bit. I’m thinking of the howlers perpetrated by Dawkins (you aren’t being shot for learning to read so stop fussing about harassment in elevators) and the invocation of ‘privilege’ to exclude comment from men who have suffered damage from sexism/Patriarchy/’Matriarchy’ etc.

    It IS absolutely true that ‘nice guy’ resentment is a major well-spring for the broad river of malevolent trolling. However, as individual people, our scale of pain is just as real as any other. In an actual life, being propositioned in an elevator can be an iconic example of social evil—without firearms or felonies involved. Sexual dissapointment, scorn and invisibility are not Good Things. Even if they are used to rationalize the inexcusable.

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