Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Bystander Apathy

This phrase, “bystander apathy”, has really caught my attention. It cropped up in a newspaper article in one of the Sunday heavies.

The article was based on a book called “The Lucifer Effect” and asks the question as to whether we are all capable of evil. That kind of goes without saying! I suppose it is more about the level of evil we are all capable of doing.

The author of the book had been looking at the articles of the horrific treatment of prisoners in war time situations and it brought back to mind an experiment he had done some forty or fifty years ago. He had taken a bunch of volunteers. Some were assigned to be prison guards and some were assigned to be the prisoners and then he watched how they behaved.

It didn’t take long for people to become immersed in their roles, with the guards clamping down quite formidably on any prisoners they did not think were towing the line. It didn’t take long either for the prisoners to either rebel and be on the receiving end of ever increasingly harsh measures, or passively accept it as their lot.

Bystander apathy was demonstrated by those who were not directly involved. They might have been another “guard” watching what was happening, or a fellow “prisoner” who witnessed the harsh measure inflicted on others. What was evident is that they did nothing to stop what was happening. The pressure to “go along with it” is apparently powerful enough for people not to act. It is all too easy to think “if that was me, I wouldn’t keep silent”, but according to the author, in the same situation we would do the same thing!

The volunteers were, under normal circumstances, nice boys from nice homes – but the situation they faced brought out the bad in them. The volunteers weren’t bad people, but the environment they found themselves in almost encouraged them to be bad.

In some of the early chapters of the book of Job, he voices his desire to have his life end not because it is a bad life right at that moment, which it was, but because he doesn’t want to let God down. Paul said something similar in one of his epistles. He was stuck in jail and voiced his concerns that he might find the whole thing too much and end up betraying god through unrighteous words or behaviour.

There is no doubt that a difficult situation doesn’t help! We can make the difficult situation an excuse for harsh words, a snappish attitude or a lack of grace.

The hope for the prisoners and the guards came in the form of the “heroes”! The Hope of humankind! They are “ordinary people who do extraordinary things when other people are doing bad or doing nothing.” In this experiment there were individuals that “blew the whistle” and told people they had gone too far. They brought a swift end to the experiment by speaking out. They were not on the receiving end of nay abuse, but saw that others were, and didn’t like it. They had the ability to empathise.

Is that not what intercession and prayer is all about? We may not be on the receiving end of a difficult time, but we notice that other people are. Sometimes we are in a position to act practically. All the time we are in a position to pray.

It seems to me that we have a choice. We can sit in bystander apathy, seeing things and not rousing ourselves thinking perhaps that we can make no difference to the situation, or we can be a hero.

I would like to think that I have it in me to be a hero!

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