What Those Anti-Bullying Ads Fail to Understand About Human Nature

It takes a village to stop a bully. This seems to be the implication of a couple of recent PSAs—one by Burger King and one by Monica Lewinsky—which show how people react when someone nearby them starts to say mean things about someone else.

In the Burger King video, a high school freshman is harassed by a few other kids—all actors. They call him names and dump his drink on top of his food. Only twelve percent of bystanders tried to do something about this, the producers report, compared to ninety-five percent of customers who complained when their burger had been “bullied,” that is, punched and mangled in various ways. In the Lewinsky video, actors read aloud real social media taunts at other actors. And then we get to watch as some real bystanders come to their rescue, telling the tormenters to get lost. As Lewinsky notes, “It was heartening to see real New Yorkers stand up for people.”

I’m not sure the upshot of the two videos is any different. It wasn’t that everyone in a restaurant stood up when a woman started calling another woman fat in the Lewinsky video. Or that every passerby stopped when someone started calling an Arab-looking woman a terrorist. But a few did. And maybe that’s all we need.

But if you want to know why more people aren’t intervening on behalf of these victims, we have to look at where the culture has gone in the past few decades. For the most part, people have absorbed the lesson that we live in a MYOB (mind your own business) society. Everyone has different values. People behave differently. Don’t judge.

We are not allowed to criticize how people dress—even if they look like they are manning the door at a bordello. We can’t scold teenagers for using foul language, even around small children. Groping romantic partners in public is perfectly acceptable. All of the once-agreed-upon ideas for how decent people act are largely irrelevant these days. And even if we can agree that people’s behavior is bad, then we are supposed to consider “the context,” the fact that the poorly behaved people may have had a difficult day or a rough childhood. It can always be explained away.

Which is not to say we don’t tell our own children how to behave. Or that we don’t loudly whisper about the behavior of others when our children are in earshot.

But we also teach them not to pay attention to what strangers around them are doing. We teach them not to stare at people who are behaving badly. We don’t eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. We don’t offer unsolicited advice to strangers. Eyes on your own paper, people. In a society as atomized as ours, this is not necessarily bad advice. You never know when someone is going to react badly.

A few years ago a friend of mine was hailing a cab in midtown Manhattan when another guy tried to get in. When my friend suggested that it was not his to take, the guy cold-cocked him and broke his eye socket. This is not an everyday occurrence, of course, but the truth is we have no idea where strangers draw the line for decent behavior anymore.

I’m not saying that it’s not heartwarming to watch videos of strangers standing up for the little guy and doing the right thing, but the idea that we are suddenly going to see more than twelve percent of the population doing it seems like a stretch.

Image: YouTube/BurgerKing

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