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The Silence Of Our Friends: Why Anti-Gay Bullying Survives

by Ian Rivers on May 4, 2012

in Analysis,Bigotry Watch,Ian Rivers,News

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“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whenever I need a quotation to encapsulate all that is right, wrong, or indifferent about the human condition, I turn to Dr. King. He implicitly understood and conveyed so eloquently the shame of humanity, the wealth to which humanity aspires, the possibilities for the future, and the failures for which we must atone. For nearly twenty years I have studied bullying behaviour in children and young people, and the scars that continue on into adulthood. Although I recorded the suffering of many people, young and old, who had been the victims of discrimination, and particularly homophobic discrimination, for a long time I did not consider the role played by those who stood at the side. I did not consider why “our friends” remained silent, why they did not intervene, and why they left their peers to the mercy of those “enemies” who taunted them relentlessly.

On April 17 I gave my inaugural lecture to an assembled crowd of over 150 friends, fellow academics, former colleagues and interested citizens to mark my appointment as Professor of Human Development. The title of my lecture was “A land of mythical monsters and wee timorous beasties: Reflections on two decades of research on bullying.”

While the purpose of my lecture was to reflect upon my career as a developmental psychologist, as I prepared my hour-long presentation I began to consider why it is that we, all of us, have allowed bullying to continue. Since joining Brunel University in 2008, I have wanted to understand that “silence” of which Dr. King so incisively spoke. I was also drawn to another quotation, attributed to the British politician, Edmund Burke, which continues to haunt my thoughts:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

But what does this mean? Does it mean that those who do something are bad men, or that those who shout the loudest are our enemies? I would hope the answer for many readers is a clear “no,” but for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBTs) I think the answer is a resounding “yes.” Often our allies have neither the resources nor the skills to combat the organised political and religious machinery that constantly seeks to deny even the most fundamental principles of equality before the law for those who walk a parallel path.

I call it a parallel path simply because, if we ignore just for a second the issues of sexual orientation or gender identity, what separates us? Do we not live together in the same streets, work together in the same firms, pay our taxes together, raise children together, and, if we are lucky enough, worship together? Do the children of LGBTs look any different from those of heterosexuals? Do LGBTs shop in different stores, eat different foods, or travel on different forms of public transport. No they do not. LGBTs are our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, neighbors, community leaders, political leaders, and religious leaders. They may not be “out” but they are there. They may find it difficult to support those who are “out,” but they are there. And of course we have our heterosexual friends. They too may deplore the violence and destruction that follow many LGBTs throughout their lives but what does it take to mobilize them? What is it that holds them back, like their closeted LGBT brothers and sisters?

I have spent the last three years questioning why those “friends” sometimes do not step up and challenge those who seek to discriminate. Social psychology tells us that bystanders may not feel responsible for the actions of others, particularly if they are one of many. Alternatively, the silence of others introduces an element of ambiguity about that which they have seen or heard which prompts hesitation or, at the very worst, inaction and complicity. But is that it?

If I am one of twenty people watching a beating, am I likely to stand by because I am only responsible for 1/20 of that which I observe? If no one else steps forward to intervene, do I presume that I cannot trust my eyes, and all that I see before me is a mirage? I think and sincerely hope this is not the path I would or have taken.

So why do we allow the persecution of others to continue? Is it because we believe in the justness of the punishment meted out on a particular individual or group? Perhaps! Is it because we are afraid of becoming victims ourselves? I think that is a distinct possibility. Is it perhaps because we do not know how to intervene or feel powerless to intervene? I believe this is where much of the answer lies, and it starts in school.

Suicide Risk in Boys Who Are Bystanders (N=554)

Suicide Risk in Girls Who Are Bystanders (N = 520)

Based upon the research I have conducted, I believe powerlessness combined with an emotional response to the victimization of others is at the heart of our silent friends’ inaction. They are themselves traumatized by what they see. They are, to all intents and purposes, co-victims. In my study conducted with 1,074 young people in secondary schools in the United Kingdom (average age 13.5 years), a colleague and I considered those factors that predicted suicide risk among young people who had witnessed bullying.

Our data showed that powerlessness (red) played a significant role in predicting suicide risk (28% for boys and 31% for girls) with fear (green) accounting for about 7% for both boys and girls.

For boys, being a bully also played a part (blue), much more so than for girls (8% and 1% respectively). The remainder (purple) has yet to be understood.

If results similar to ours are found in other studies, they suggest that some of our silent friends may not be our friends at all. Sometimes they become our tormentors in order to save themselves from the wrath of the bully. However, others (perhaps the silent majority) may be ill-equipped socially or emotionally to intervene when any form of persecution happens.

History tell us that all too often we have accepted the leadership of bullies and their doctrines with little more than a whimper because we are, at heart, social animals that conform to the herd. Yet to challenge the herd often means that one is branded an outsider, a trouble-maker, or an activist. Alas, activism itself is not always founded upon a principle; it is often born of an experience, a tragedy, or an injustice that shakes the very foundations of a life, a family, a community, or a nation. Activists start from a position of vulnerability and need the support of those “silent friends,” and we need to find ways of empowering those friends so they act on principle rather than in response to a tragedy.


Ian Rivers is Professor of Human Development at Brunel University, London. He is the author of ‘Homophobic Bullying: Research and Theoretical Perspectives’ (Oxford, 2011), and has researched issues of discrimination in LGBT communities, particularly among children and young people, for nearly two decades.

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