The Efficacy of Bystander Intervention Training: Can We Move Beyond the "Party Foul?"

The decision to institute bystander training as part of first-year orientation is, I think, a good one. Amherst has, after all, acknowledged that the problem of sexual respect does indeed exist, and it has found a method of ameliorating the issue: inform students that they have the power to act as individuals to help their friends and to ensure that they respect others. The message the trainers offered was not that each of us ought to act as neurotic vigilantes, but rather that we simply should know that we all have a duty to look out for our friends. The aim was to get the idea of “bystander” circulating in our psyches.

Of course, the initiative has a significant shortcoming, in that trying to teach someone how to pick up cues and provide help to a friend is extremely difficult, and is, for me, analogous to training police officers how to respond in tense gunpoint situations — I don’t think it can really be done. Cues are subtle, and each relationship and social interaction is full of such infinite nuance that it is extremely difficult to concoct “scenarios” or create sheets of “things to look out for” that are actually convertible to what you might experience at 3 a.m. on any given night.

Yet I think there is merit in bystander training — or at least in the idea behind it. I think it helps create a culture in which individuals act not out of fear of punishment or anxiety that they might suffer consequences by not intervening, but rather out of the simple notion that all of us have a certain vested interest in each other’s wellbeing.

However, bystander training was only a part of the training surrounding sexual respect. We were also provided with information on the various legal paths that could be taken in cases of sexual assault, and we were reminded that the laws surrounding sexual assault reach into Amherst’s campus. The school may feel like a bubble at times, but the laws of sexual respect still apply as they do in the larger world. This makes sense, for students ought to be endowed with the same rights they have as citizens. The creation of legal paths for victims is also vital, facilitating an easy bridge between students and the justice to which they are entitled. Indeed, such paths give tangible power to victims.

I think an unintended downside of this reminder of punishment and legal action breeds a culture where people often act out of fear and anxiety of possible consequences. Of course, this has its merits — the potential consequences of any given action could act as a deterrent. But I think that if Amherst truly intends to create a safe community, then the impetus for helping and respecting your friends — and anyone on the campus — ought to grow out of a sense that there exists between all of us a sort of natural law that ensures we do what’s right when no one is watching.

Here’s what I mean: sources of authority aren’t present when you party. You and your friends make the de facto rules for the evening. You become the legislators, deciding what’s OK and what’s not. The obnoxious “party foul” call that someone always seems to yell out is revealing, for it suggests that we have certain rules by which we “play.” There’s a silent code that we create and then enforce. And just as we make rules for partying, so we make rules for what’s “OK” amongst one another every second of the evening, and when we see someone violate one of those “rules” — or sense that they might — then we ought to do something about it, not out of fear but because we made that rule and because we are the only ones who could possibly enforce it.

Thus, I think that a campus where each individual sees him or herself as a certain legislator of what’s OK and what’s not, a campus where we all keep our moral values with us and are confident that we can act on those values in any situation, is one that will ultimately feel safer and more comfortable than one where we act because the law of the authorities tells us to. So, then, maybe we see sexual respect at Amherst as a harkening back to Hobbes’ sense of natural law, where each citizen must actively heed the natural laws, that says we ought to “seek peace” and that we ought not infringe on anyone else’s right. To revert back to a “state of war” — that is, not to respect someone else, to infringe upon his right — is, for lack of a better term, a “party foul.” It’s not cool, and, as Hobbes asserts, the other members of the community will readily ostracize you for it. Indeed, never mind whether or not the school can “protect” each student or whether the law can intervene — the more powerful and pragmatic force is the willingness on the part of the student body to uphold those universal natural laws, to become the legislators and implementers of respect.