The Fearful Bystander [Qmunicate]

 

We can all relate to the discomfort. A busy train at rush hour, filled with damp coats and shopping bags, people bunched up awkwardly arching their necks over smart phones or attempting to read newspapers and magazines with the limited arm space available to them. And someone is refusing to pay for a ticket.

You pause your iPod so you can listen in, you see people peaking curiously from the seats behind, bodies shrinking down in their chairs or people turning their faces out the window as they cringe. Everyone is silent, except for an oblivious man with dub-step blaring from his headphones – you shoot him a death-stare in the hope that he will turn the volume down; he doesn’t.

A teenager, maybe sixteen, has used her Young Scot Card to buy a discounted ticket at the station but now she can’t find it. She shows the inspector the ticket she has bought but he impatiently tells her with unnecessary scorn that it isn’t good enough without the Young Scot Card to accompany it. You know this is unfair: she paid money for a ticket, just let her use it. You want to intervene. Not because the inspector is wrong (per se) but because you feel compelled to help this young girl who is now bright red and stumbling with her words as she searches her bag for the card that we all know she doesn’t have.

You’ve been in her position before. Why can’t he cut her some slack? You know that not all train staff are like this, and it’s not really his fault, and God knows what cuts have been made to his pension. But, in that moment, you hate him. You can tell from his levelled voice as he demands her name and address that he is enjoying this power; this unnecessary reinforcement of the Scotrail small-print. The girl looks close to tears; mortified by this man’s lack of empathy, and now we all know her name and where she lives. But still, you say nothing.

I often replay incidents like this in my head only, in my imagination, I have the nerve to intervene. When we have the power to dictate the situation in our minds it is easy to manifest a scenario in which our courageous interjection is applauded, approved of and backed by surrounding strangers; in which the target of our complaint listens, apologises and acknowledges the error of their ways. In reality however, we are more likely to find ourselves paralysed by the scene’s uncertainties: ‘what if no one agrees with me?’; ‘what if I become the object of attack?’ These concerns often turn to self doubt (‘who am I to say anything?’) which is ultimately what prevents us from speaking up. We press play on our iPods once more, shift in our seats and look out the window.

Perhaps there is an ambiguity to the situation above (a man doing his job – albeit ruthlessly – and someone unable to comply with the rules) but now apply this same situation to an incident of racism or homophobia: would you intervene? I take pride in the assumption that I would. And perhaps this is true. I would have no shortage of words were I to voice my disgust here or on social media or to my family and friends, so why should a public transport setting be any different? I think – and I hope – that faced with a display of real discrimination I would be unable to remain quiet.

This is what I believed as I watched the sickening footage of Chelsea Football fans chanting ‘we’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it’ while pushing a black man from the door of a train in Paris last month. While it’s heartening to know that someone felt compelled to film the incident and that the internet subsequently came together in disgust (resulting in Chelsea Football Club releasing a statement of condemnation and a promise to ban the fans involved) I couldn’t help but wonder what the others aboard the platform were thinking as they stood relatively still throughout the video. Yes, it must have been confusing and it’s possible that they didn’t understand the English chant, but I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated as the footage played out across news channels and I watched repeatedly as people stood curiously looking over at this evident abuse and doing nothing. If I were there, I thought, I’d have got involved.

However, when we step onto public transport the rules of anonymity become paramount. These rules are unspoken but we all comply and breaking the boundaries of these strict social behaviours can be terrifying. I remembered sitting, watching passively as the train inspector bullied (and, in hindsight, he really did bully) this young girl who was alone and clearly upset and I didn’t stick up for her. Would I really have had the bravery to challenge drunken football fans in Paris?

I still hold on to the hope that I would, but then, I didn’t even have the nerve to politely ask the man blasting dubstep to turn his volume down.

The act of speaking up is only terrifying if we do it alone. Whether it’s racist discrimination, the humiliation of a fellow passenger and someone who just won’t turn their music down, your anger won’t be exclusive.

We’re all just sitting there silently, desperate to say something.

 

This article was originally published in Qmunicate magazine

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