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  • Writer's pictureLesley Gold

#MeToo and the Perils of the Bystander Effect

The speed at which #Metoo spread across my Facebook page and Twitter stream came as no surprise to me. I found myself wishing Facebook had an “of course” button because we all knew. Even if a particular post a friend was sharing was new to me, it seemed all too familiar. We knew.

As millions of women come forward with their personal accounts of sexual harassment as part of the #Metoo social media campaign, they are also bringing attention to an equally insidious threat: the Bystander Effect. It’s not just those who did the harassment that are at fault, but as the recent Harvey Weinstein allegations have shown, it’s our culture of enablers as well. A friend posted on Facebook that what had haunted her so much about her experiences with sexual harassment were the times that she had screamed for help, and was either denied or ignored. “In light of #Metoo, I’ve been thinking about #Bystanders,” She wrote.

In high school I took a class called Facing History in Ourselves. There was a section of the course that looked at the Bystander Effect, how seemingly good people can be complicit in someone else’s suffering, and we focused on Kitty Genovese’s murder as an example of the psychological phenomenon. 38 witnesses saw or heard the 28-year old’s fatal stabbing outside of her apartment and did not intervene. These were Genovese’s neighbors — people who knew and greeted her everyday, not strangers. The horror of that moment stayed with me because we all think we know what we would do in emergency situations, but when we’re put to the test, most of us just watch, and don’t act.

The screenplay writer Scott Rosenberg wrote his own take on the Bystander Effect, the #Metoo movement, and the allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

“And to me, if Harvey’s behavior is the most reprehensible thing one can imagine, a not-so-distant second is the current flood of sanctimonious denial and condemnation that now crashes upon these shores of rectitude in gloppy tides of bullshit righteousness. Because everybody-fucking-knew.”

Rosenberg details how abusers buy the silence of those around them, and how many in Hollywood, including himself, were “bought.” For me, his writing brought up many questions. Why are we willing to be bystanders for so long? Why do we only speak up as bystanders when it’s convenient?

It isn’t easy to speak out, especially against people in positions of power. However, sexual harassment is rarely ever a secret in a workplace; it’s in plain sight. During the Ellen Pao trial here in Silicon Valley, which was a pivotal moment in consciousness raising in SV, a reporter said to me, “I just can’t believe it.” And I said to him, “You walked into those VC firms where there were offices filled by male partners around the perimeter and in the middle of the office, there were perfectly manicured, attractive, young women who were the men’s assistants. It was right there the whole time.” When people act surprised by the prevalence of sexual harassment in all industries, including financial, entertainment, or tech, I wonder: How could you not know?

We can’t be a “see what you want to see” society. I’m glad that we’re finally having the #Metoo conversation. And as we do, men in power and perpetrators of sexual harassment are being knocked off their pedestals while women victims are reclaiming their voice. But we can’t let bystanders off the hook, because when we look at this “culture of male toxicity,” it’s bigger than that. It’s bystander toxicity. So let’s look at ourselves, and all the people who see the problem right in front of us, and choose to look the other way in order to solve this.


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