“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
– John F. Kennedy
Once again, it’s been a hard, heart-wrenching, stomach-churning kind of year.
It’s been a year of hotheads and blowhards and killing sprees and bloodshed and takedowns.
It’s been a year in which tyranny took a few more steps forward and freedom got knocked down a few more notches.
It’s been a year with an abundance of bad news and a shortage of good news.
It’s been a year of too much hate and too little kindness.
It’s been a year in which politics and profit margins took precedence over decency, compassion and human-kindness.
And now we find ourselves at this present moment, understandably overwhelmed by all that is wrong in the world and struggling to reflect and give thanks for what is good.
It’s not easy, and it’s getting harder by the day.
After all, how do you give thanks for freedoms that are constantly being eroded? How do you express gratitude for one’s safety when the perils posed by the American police state grow more treacherous by the day? How do you come together as a nation in thanksgiving when the powers-that-be continue to polarize and divide us into warring factions?
With every passing day, the U.S. government more closely resembles an evil empire, governed by laws that are rash, unjust and unconstitutional; policed by government agents who are corrupt, hypocritical and abusive; a menace to its own people; and the antithesis of everything the founders hoped the government would be—a blessing to all the people.
We’re not just dealing with misguided government officials run amok.
This is evil disguised as bureaucracy.
This is what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil.
Evil has a broad spectrum, but still… evil is evil.
Evil is what happens when government bureaucrats unquestioningly carry out orders that are immoral and inhumane; obey immoral instructions unthinkingly; march in lockstep with tyrants; mindlessly perpetuate acts of terror and inhumanity; and justify it all as just “doing one’s job.”
To that list, let me add one more: a populace that remains silent in the face of wrongdoing.
This is how evil prevails: when good men and women do nothing.
By doing nothing, by remaining silent, by being bystanders to injustice, hate and wrongdoing, good people become as guilty as the perpetrator.
There’s a term for this phenomenon where people stand by, watch and do nothing—even when there is no risk to their safety—while some horrific act takes place (someone is mugged or raped or bullied or left to die): it’s called the bystander effect.
It works the same whether you’re talking about kids watching bullies torment a fellow student on a playground, bystanders watching someone dying on a sidewalk, or citizens remaining silent in the face of government atrocities.
We need to stop being silent bystanders.
So what can you do about this bystander effect?
Be a hero, suggests psychologist Philip Zimbardo.
“Each of us has an inner hero we can draw upon in an emergency,” Zimbardo concluded. “If you think there is even a possibility that someone needs help, act on it. You may save a life. You are the modern version of the Good Samaritan that makes the world a better place for all of us.”
Zimbardo is the psychologist who carried out the Stanford Prison Experiment which studied the impact of perceived power and authority on middleclass students who were assigned to act as prisoners and prison guards. The experiment revealed that power does indeed corrupt (the appointed guards became increasingly abusive), and those who were relegated to being prisoners acted increasingly “submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest.”
What is the antidote to group think and the bystander effect?
Be an individual. Listen to your inner voice. Take responsibility.
“If you find yourself in an ambiguous situation, resist the urge to look to others and go with your gut instinct,” advises Melissa Burkley in Psychology Today. “If you think there is even a possibility that someone is in need, act on it. At worst, you will embarrass yourself for a few minutes, but at best, you will save a life.”
“Even if people recognize that they are witnessing a crime, they may still fail to intervene if they do not take personal responsibility for helping the victim,” writes Burkley. “The problem is that the more bystanders there are, the less responsible each individual feels.”
In other words, recognize injustice.
Don’t turn away from suffering.
Refuse to remain silent. Take a stand. Speak up. Speak out.
This is what Zimbardo refers to as “the power of one.”
All it takes is one person breaking away from the fold to change the dynamics of a situation.
“Once any one helps, then in seconds others will join in because a new social norm emerges,” notes Zimbardo. “Do Something Helpful.”
The Good Samaritans of this world don’t always get recognized, but they’re doing their part to push back against the darkness.
For instance, a few years ago in Florida, a family of six—four adults and two young boys—were swept out to sea by a powerful rip current in Panama City Beach. There was no lifeguard on duty. The police were standing by, waiting for a rescue boat. And the few people who had tried to help ended up stranded, as well.