the ethics of the bystander

As someone who works in retail, I come to interact with people on a daily basis, not only to help them with their weekly shop but also to be a listening ear for many people who otherwise would have no social outlet. It is inevitable, then, that I come to meet people who hold views vastly different to my own, a positive thing though not without its difficulties. In the past, I have met a middle-aged woman who, when praising the Austrian burqa ban, remarked that “you never know if they’ve got a bomb under there”. Another woman, when telling me how offended she was to have been followed around the shop by an Asian member of staff who suspected her of stealing, told me of how she mocked them, asking her “you no speaki inglese?”, related to me in a whisper as a black customer was walking down the aisle we were standing in. Examples such as these are no doubt symptomatic of ignorance and circumstance, yet here what I want to explore is my own complicity in the situation when I remain silent. In both instances, I didn’t challenge the women, didn’t even raise an eyebrow, I am ashamed to say, as I feared being told off later by my boss.

Reflecting now, I would say that this cowardice is inexcusable as it facilitates the perpetuation of this toxic problem. These people feel comfortable saying these things to me because I appear to be ‘like them’ i.e. I am a white British female, hence they feel I am familiar, an ally. In remaining silent, I only reinforce this view, maintaining the idea that those of the same tribe, so to speak, are allied to each other, easily remedied by challenging them to shatter this illusion.

In remaining silent, I am essentially shirking the responsibility for solving the issue, leaving it up to those who are the victims of ignorance and intolerance. Can one really be said to be not racist, not sexist, not homophobic if they passively allow these problems to worsen, even if they do not actively contribute to their intensification? Is it really enough to be ‘nice’ to others when this has no real effect in combating the root problem? If one were to watch someone being mugged, for example, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the responsibility for resolving the situation lies with the victim instead of the silent bystander; in the same way, it is ridiculous to suggest that the buck stops with the receiver of the abuse alone.

Clearly, then, remaining silent is an ethically inexcusable act, the implication being that I did wrong when I didn’t challenge these customers. In the same way, society does wrong when it doesn’t confront these issues head on but claims to be liberal and unprejudiced. Next time, I will definitely be tackling this bigotry rather than feeling a vague sense of guilt in remaining silent as it seems obvious that this is the only moral reaction to an immoral situation.

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