Don’t be a bystander. Be more.
This was the message BC Lions members Rolly Lumbala and Matt McGarva were sharing with Shuswap high school students last week in a presentation called Be More Than A Bystander: Break the Silence On Violence Against Women.
“It’s not enough to be aware of a situation – nothing is going to get done until you say something,” said Lumbala, stressing how the right words can at times be enough to curtail a bad situation – be it a physical altercation, sexist comments or cyber-bullying – from becoming worse.
Intervention doesn’t mean being a superhero, said Lumbala, encouraging students to work together to create an environment where women can feel safe.
“Girls and boys need to work together on these issues because they affect us all.”
Lumbala and McGarva offered several sobering statistics such as: one in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime; each year 800,000 children witness violence against women and half of Canadian women have experienced physical or sexual violence by 16.
I can’t deny there’s a bit of irony to messages denouncing sexual objectification and violence against women coming from members of a football franchise that’s accompanied on the field by the scantily-clad Felions cheerleading squad.
But cheerleading is a football institution you say? Maybe, but it also illustrates how a one-off public service announcement – though a positive, even inspiring step – is not nearly enough to address the systemic sexism the BC Lions are trying to address.
The idea of not being a bystander is also positive, but, unfortunately, also systemic and complex. The word “bystander” itself is culturally linked to a famous historic case of sexual violence that resulted in the death of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese. According to the New York Times archive from March 27, 1964, Genovese was stalked and stabbed in three separate attacks over a half-hour period in a Queen’s neighbourhood. About 38 “respectable, law-abiding citizens” reportedly looked on from the comfort of their apartments, some even hearing as Genovese screamed “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me!”
Only one witness contacted the police, and not until after the third and fatal knife wound, when Genovese was lying dead on the street.
From this and similar incidents we have the term, “bystander effect,” referring to the phenomenon where individuals fail to offer any means of assistance to a victim when others are present.
When I was a young boy, living in Vancouver, there was a woman who lived for a brief time across the street from my family. I didn’t know her, but my parents spoke with her from time to time. What I remember most about her was that some guy used to visit her and they would yell and fight. During one of these altercations, a more serious one I guess, my dad and another neighbour chose not to be a bystander. They went to the house and told the guy to leave. She told them he wouldn’t leave her alone, that she’d told the police repeatedly and they couldn’t and/or wouldn’t do anything for her. Soon after she moved to another address and, not long after that, she was killed by the man who had been stalking her.
While I’m proud of my dad and our neighbour for doing what they did, the response from the police was a frustrating and ultimately tragic example of institutionalized sexism.
I suppose some might argue we’ve come a long way since then. I’d suggest that in some ways, particularly with technology and the Internet, it has become worse. It’s not difficult to see if you look: we have RCMP whistleblowers speaking out against sexual harassment on the force, hundreds of missing and/or murdered aboriginal women, reports of sexual harassment involving university students, men making lewd remarks to women journalists and more.
Lumbala and McGarva encouraged students to respect one another, to be more and recognize how everybody is a somebody. It isn’t a complicated message, but I have to give the BC Lions credit – it’s one we aren’t exposed to nearly enough.