Peace Scholar Post: The Perils of Being a Bystander

This is part of a series of blog posts written by the 2014 Peace Scholars as they experience their summer program in Norway. This post was written by Bradley St. Aubin from Augsburg College. 

For around two years, I have been one of those people that has included a quote in the signature space of every email. A lot of people probably find it annoying or unprofessional, but if I had my way, I would compose the world’s largest chain message to get these words across: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  Elie Wiesel, the 1986 Peace Prize Laureate, spoke these words in a lecture and I have based much of my Peacemaking ideology on this statement. We live in a world where it is easy to be a bystander, and Wiesel’s words act as a constant reminder to me (and anyone I send an email to) that it is important to never be silent about injustice.

In psychology, the Bystander Effect is a phenomenon that helps to explain the diffusion of responsibility people feel when part of a large group of people. I found a lot of similarities between the Bystander Effect and current problems I see with Global Peacemaking. To put it shortly, it is really quite easy to be a bystander on the global stage. With seven billion people and counting on planet earth, responsibility can be diffused pretty far. That is why speaking up whenever possible is a necessary part of being an advocate for peace.

One of the defences countries give for being global bystanders is a claim of neutrality. A country doesn’t want to get involved in conflict because it doesn’t want to choose sides and potentially end up looking bad. This is ridiculous. There is really no such thing as neutrality when it comes to human rights offenses. The world was “neutral” during the Rwandan Genocide and in so being, condemned over 800,000 Tutsis to death. As Desmond Tutu said, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have taken the side of the oppressor.” I couldn’t agree more. It is incredibly difficult to shed our status as global bystanders when we, as individuals, feel so powerless to change the atrocities being committed. However, the results of what can happen when we are guilty of inaction can be so much worse.

bradpicIf it is hard to imagine making individual difference in the sea of humanity, it can help to look to those people who prove that the role of the individual is invaluable. Let us take Liu Xiaobo as an example of this. In 2010, Xiaobo was awarded the Peace Prize for his long and nonviolent struggle for improved human rights in China. This struggle has included enormous self-sacrifice, including currently serving eleven years in prison for publishing dissenting remarks to China’s one-party system of government. Though he has gained considerable support, much of Xiaobo’s work was individually created and he faced individual punishment for his non-violent dissidence.

As Xiaobo serves his sentence, he also serves as testament to the power of the individual. It makes me think about what I’m doing to advocate for peace. Would I be willing to serve eleven years in prison for a cause I believe in? Can one person really bring peace to the world? I have been reflecting on these questions, and find them incredibly difficult to answer. One thing is for certain, though; I will not allow myself to be a global bystander. I want to honor Wiesel’s words, and I can only hope that occasionally, someone will read an email from me and feel the same way.

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