One step forward

Earlier this month I received a letter from a boy. In the letter, the writer asked me why we spend so much time talking about bullying yet always talk about bullying from the bully’s or the victim’s perspective. We give advice on how to react to bullying and encourage people not to be bullies themselves. What we don’t do though, is spend enough time talking about witnesses to bullying and that is what the writer was wanting help with. Simply put – if we are ourselves witnesses or bystanders to bullying or behaviour that hurts someone else, what do we do? Or put another way, when is “fun” and “teasing” not so much fun anymore and what do we do?

All of us have been in a situation where we have seen someone who is treating another person badly. It may have started out as fun but doesn’t end that way. The safest thing to do is to laugh along with the crowd because that way we don’t get noticed and we don’t suffer the same fate as the person being bullied. We can hide in the relative anonymity of a crowd. And that is what most people do. The second thing to do is to join in the process by actively bullying or teasing the victim as well – becoming a direct accomplice not just one by association. The third thing to do is to call out the bully and try to stop the process. We all know what we should do but do we have the courage to actually do it?

Joining in with a bully is seen often but not nearly as often as the passive bystander role we see almost all the time. The problem is that by standing on the sidelines watching, you are not passive – you may just as well be hurting the person too. Your silence condones the behaviour. Your laughing, perhaps nervously and out of relief that it is not you being hurt, is a form of acceptance and encouragement to the bully. By doing nothing, you are choosing sides. So what do we do?

Simple – take one step forward.

By taking one physical step forward, we are initiating action in our brains. Instead of being what we think is a passive observer, we realise the need for action and the physical step starts that. One step forward makes us realise too that we are closer to the experience than before – we are actually part of the process. One step forward takes courage, because in changing from passive to active, we are making a choice to act. One step forward places us closer to the victim and gets in his space. It tells him that we are with him.

This will not be easy – that I guarantee. Bullies rely on human nature. They rely on the crowd to jeer them along. Without a crowd they are nothing. But bullies fold too because there is one thing common amongst all bullies – they are cowards at heart. It will take courage from your side to take that one step forward and to step alongside the victim. It will take courage to speak up if the step you have to take is not only a physical one but a metaphorical step by saying something. It will take great courage. But isn’t that what superheroes are made of and isn’t that what we all want to be? Or do we want to be the person who leaves a situation with two feelings: one a feeling of relief that it wasn’t us who was the victim, and a second of terrible shame that we did nothing.

There are many times when we will fail in this journey to step forward. There will be many times when we may wish we had acted. That is human nature. But there will be times when we take that step forward – when we do what is right and good. The person to whom you step will never ever forget you and you will have changed a life.

You are not alone in this. Many of you feel this way – you want to act, you know you should but you feel you cannot. Here’s the thing though – if one person takes the step forward, then another, then another, now you have a movement. You have a popular process that everyone sees and of which everyone is a part. You have changed the culture. You have changed the world – not necessarily for everyone but most certainly for the victim. You have made a difference.

So – two things. Have the courage to take one step forward. Then, have the courage to join someone who has. One is good, but two are better than one. Three even better and a whole school is the best. And isn’t that what we are trying to be?