|Photo by Alan Cleaver|
Noun. Mid-16th century.
A person who is standing by;
a passive witness; a spectator.
In July 2008, Cristina and Violetta Djeordsevic, two Roma girls who were 12 and 11 respectively, drowned in front of onlookers on a beach near Naples, Italy. The girls had been begging and selling trinkets with two other girls before all of them went in to swim. The girls quickly got into trouble in the rough sea, and their screams attracted the attention of some on the beach who were able to help two of them get out - Cristina and Violetta, however, died in the water; their bodies were pulled onto the beach and covered with towels. The photo that shocked Italy, of the two dead girls on the beach with seemingly unconcerned holiday makers sunbathing in the background, provoking fierce debate in the country about both racism toward Roma and the glaring apathy toward loss of life. The girls' bodies lay on the beach for an hour before being collected, while those around them went back to sunbathing and playing football.
Everyone is a bystander at some point, but researchers have often sought to explain why anyone would show such wanton indifference with regard to rendering aid to those in distress. A number of theories exist, including the Bystander Effect, which says that the probability of a bystander helping someone is inversely related to the number of bystanders there are - thus, a person is more likely to give aid if he is the only bystander (or one of a few) than if he is one of many bystanders. A number of other factors come into play, including ambiguity of the situation (not being sure if the person really does need help) and the so-called diffusion of responsibility which is the voice in every bystander's head telling them "There are so many people here, someone else must be doing something."
This aspect of human psychology is deeply disturbing. We all need help at times, and there will be times when those that we love need the help of strangers. Yes, it does take courage to be the one to speak out, to step forward or to offer aid; no one wants the responsibility of someone else's life on their hands; perhaps rather trivially, no one wants to look stupid, or be seen to do the wrong thing: "No, thank you very much - we don't need your help. Could you mind your own business please?" But from a purely selfish point of view, what's a moment of embarrassment or inconvenience when compared to living with the knowledge that someone died or suffered because of your inaction, because you selfishly skirted around little Yue Yue, crying and bleeding on the rain-soaked market street. In those instances, all of us can be a hero - all of us can do something to not be that bystander.
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